In Belgium, cars are cherished possessions and driving is a staple of everyday life. But two of its major cities are making forcible efforts to cut down the traffic on their streets – with wildly different results, The Guardian analyzes.
One morning in 1997, Frank Beke, the mayor of Ghent, woke up to find he’d been sent a bullet in the post. For the next few weeks Beke wore a bulletproof jacket, while police stood guard outside his house and accompanied him everywhere he went. “I was very anxious for my family,” he says. “I was protected by police but my wife and my children weren’t.”
The culprit was eventually found and arrested – a man who owned a shoe shop in the Belgian city’s medieval centre. His motive? Beke’s plans to pedestrianise the area around his shop.
“It was a rather radical plan to ban all cars from an area of about 35 hectares,” recalls Beke. “With every decision you take, there can be some opposition – but I never expected a bullet, of course.”
There were protests outside Ghent’s city hall: businesses were afraid they’d lose their customers, elderly residents were concerned about being cut off from their children. But Beke stood his ground, and although a few businesses that relied on car access had to move, today the city centre is thriving.
His successor, Daniël Termont, says that if he were now to reintroduce cars into the city centre, he’d be the one wearing a bulletproof jacket. In all, 72% of Ghentians are in favour of Termont’s new plans to expand the pedestrian zone by 15 hectares (a further 17% are neutral).
That’s not to say the project – due to commence in April 2017 – is progressing without a hitch. As well as the car-free area, Ghent’s new mobility plan includes dividing the city into six sections, each of which can only be entered via a ring road, to reduce through-traffic. In 2015, 40% of journeys in Ghent were made by car, down from 48% in 2012. By 2030, Termont wants to see that drop to 27%.
“Before you do such things you have to work months and months and even years to explain it, to prepare people,” he says.
Termont’s deputy mayor and mobility minister, Filip Watteeuw, has taken communication very seriously. His wife was nicknamed the green widow: Watteeuw is from Belgium’s Green party, and for two years he was almost never at home, spending long evenings at public consultations. The city government is now recruiting for a citizen’s cabinet: 150 local residents to advise the mobility minister on a more permanent basis. “So many people have an opinion about every element of the mobility plan,” says Watteeuw. “And their concerns are all understandable.”
For many Belgians, he says, cars are a symbol of status and independence. They resent being told where not to drive. And there are just so many cars: the country is heavily suburbanised, and in response to its high tax system, employers often choose to hand out company cars instead of bonuses and pay rises. In 2008, the federal government gave €4.1bn (£3.5bn) in tax benefits to company cars.
In an attempt to derail the mobility plan, the political opposition in Ghent is trying to force a referendum on it. They need signatures from 10% of the city’s population, and Termont is not sure how a vote would play out. Ghentians are notoriously stubborn.
But Watteeuw is confident the city is moving in the right direction. “What happened in 1997 is very important for now,” he says. “For the first time in Ghent, people saw what could happen if you make a change for people and not for cars.”