Louise Schmidt, RLS Brussels

Event report: For a real transport turnaround

Manuela Kropp

Cycling, walking and public transport during the pandemic and in times of rising cost of living

Public panel discussion on October 1, 2022 at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels

Here is the link to the full program: https://www.rosalux.eu/en/topic/23.events.html?id=1290



Ludwig Lindner of the Initiative Berlin Autofrei, Berlin (Germany).

Zoran Bukvic from the initiative Streets for cyclists, Belgrade (Serbia)

Leila Lahssaini, Member of Parliament of the Belgian Left Party PTB in Brussels (Belgium)

– Cristina Tilling, European Transport Workers’ Federation ETF (unfortunately had to cancel at short notice)

During the Corona pandemic, it became clear which workers really keep our society running – for example, public transport workers. The pandemic also showed how quickly infrastructure for cyclists* can be expanded at the local level if the political will is there – through the so-called pop-up bike lanes. The worsening climate crisis, the war in Ukraine and the crisis of rising living costs show: We need affordable and ecological mobility for all, in our cities and in the countryside: with much more cycling, walking and public transport – to enable social participation for all people and to achieve climate justice in the transport sector. The city of Brussels shows how priority can be given to cycling and walking, and how individual neighborhoods are gradually becoming more livable. However, the example of Brussels also shows how important it is to involve all people in the plans and not decide over their heads. There have been protests in some parts of Brussels against the traffic-calming measures, because the mobility needs of the people there have not been sufficiently taken into account. This is because many employees are also simply dependent on their cars, due to a lack of alternatives, shift work, or the fact that the workplace is located in an area where there is no public transport. The social dimension is also evident in Belgrade, where public transport lines are currently being rebuilt to favor rich parts of the city and literally cut off other parts. Here, the social question also arises, which must be at the heart of a solidarity-based mobility revolution.

Ludwig Lindner (Berlin Autofrei) explained in his speech how the initiative “Berlin Autofrei” had brought in lawyers in 2018 to write a law for a Berlin city center with less car traffic. By 2021, this draft law was ready and over 200 activists set about collecting signatures – a full 50,000 in number. At the moment, the case is before the state constitutional court, which is to clarify whether the initiative’s petition for a referendum is admissible – if so, the second phase of collecting signatures for a referendum can begin. The transport turnaround activists hope that a referendum can then be held in 2024. The goal of their initiative is to create the largest traffic-calmed zone in the world in Berlin – delivery traffic and traffic to ensure public services would still be allowed, but all other cars would then need a permit to drive into the city center. In surveys, 40 percent of respondents say they would like to see a traffic-calmed inner city in Berlin. Ludwig Lindner also emphasized the social dimension of their initiative: if the number of cars were to drop by 60 percent to 80 percent, a lot of public space could be reallocated, which would then be available to everyone in the city for walking, playgrounds and lingering. The initiative aims to show that the traffic turnaround can also work without large infrastructure projects – by people rediscovering the city for themselves. At the end of the day, it’s about fairness in terms of land use, namely the equitable distribution of public space. The following three things would have to happen at the same time for a successful transport turnaround: Investing in public transport, making public transport affordable for all, and reducing the number of cars in the city.

Zoran Bukvic (Streets for Cyclists, Belgrade) described how the number of cars has doubled in Belgrade in recent years. He said that Belgrade is the city with the most air pollution in the world and therefore urgently needs to change course towards well-developed public transport. Half of the people living in Belgrade depend on public transport because they simply cannot afford a car. And the effect can be observed: as soon as people’s income increases, the tendency to buy a private car also increases. In recent years, the city government has sold the land in the city center to investors who invest in expensive condominiums and office buildings. It is clear that future residents of the city center will then tend to rely more on cars and less on public transport. As recently as 2011, there were plans to build a subway that would not have run through the city center, but would have connected the outer districts. But now, in light of the planned expensive investments in the city center, the plans for the route have changed and the subway will directly connect the city center. The demand planning figures for this subway were greatly exaggerated: supposedly 200,000 passengers would use this subway, but this is doubted by transport turnaround activists*. Another criticism is that a train station was moved three kilometers out of the city center. This was done to justify the construction of the expensive and CO2-intensive subway. There will be additional costs of 2.6 million euros, because the construction of a subway is much more expensive than the construction of an above-ground commuter train. In addition, the “freed-up space” could then be used for other costly construction projects. Before the investors’ plans came into play, there had been a well-integrated suburban rail system that also connected the suburban districts. But now the inner-city rail lines are no longer integrated with the lines from the suburban districts. In addition, the construction of the subway would threaten the city’s water reservoirs. Finally, Zoran Bukvic also criticized the lack of democratic participation: the city’s citizens had not been included in the changed traffic planning.

In her contribution, Leila Lahssaini, local deputy of the Belgian Left Party PTB, emphasized that the Brussels region is one of the richest regions in Europe, but on the other hand, many working-class people with low incomes also live here. The city is therefore very socially mixed, she said, even though gentrification has progressed strongly in the last 20 years. In the urban society, an increasing pressure is noticeable – more and more people feel less welcome in the inner city. For example, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for the younger generation to buy housing. In addition, Brussels is a commuter city, because more and more people have to move to the outskirts of the city or to the countryside due to rising rents. Every day, 350,000 people commute into the city, and this naturally leads to heavy air pollution. In the 1970s and 1980s, little investment was made in public transportation, and the consequences are still being felt today, he said. Over the years, the population had increased, but public transport had not “grown with it”. A high-speed rail link to connect rural areas should have been built ten years ago. It was absolutely clear that a solidarity-based mobility turnaround could only be achieved with a strong expansion of public transport and zero fares for public transport. The example from Germany, the 9-euro ticket (which was introduced for three months in the summer of 2022), shows that it is possible to get people to switch from their cars to public transport. But for this, of course, the infrastructural conditions would have to be created, as well as good working conditions for public transport and rail employees. At the moment, a so-called “class struggle” is taking place in Brussels about the mobility turnaround: on the one hand, bicycle paths are being expanded, which is also to be welcomed. On the other hand, socially unjust measures are being taken: old cars are increasingly denied access to the city center. However, many people simply lack the money to buy a new car. The current inflation is exacerbating the pressure on people’s wallets. In recent weeks, there have been protests in some working-class districts of Brussels against the city government’s transportation plan. This is because people felt increasingly trapped in their districts. Yet it is so important to pursue an environmental policy that involves the people. The PTB is specifically approaching people in the districts and asking about their needs so that the solidarity-based mobility transition can succeed.

Manuela Kropp is project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Brussels