By Tom Fairless © The Wall Street Journal
A national advertising campaign is in motion here to make a novel addition to the World Heritage List, a collection of humanity’s greatest cultural treasures that includes the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis.
Unlike those buildings, it moves. Though barely.
The candidate: the Belgian traffic jam.
“An untamable beast…so magnificent, so overwhelming,” declares a commercial shown on national television, part of a campaign that includes billboards and an online petition.
“This great merger of rubber and metal, give it the chance it deserves!”
Belgium’s traffic holdups are truly monumental. The nation’s biggest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, were the most traffic-choked in Europe and North America in 2012, ahead of Los Angeles, according to U.S.-based traffic information firm INRIX.
The jams are a “serious and growing” problem that put the brakes on economic growth, costing the nation around 1% of gross domestic product annually, according to the European Union.
The campaign is tongue-in-cheek—and funded by Belgium’s national rail service, the SNCB, which wants to lure the roughly two-thirds of Belgians who drive to work. But for many in this fractious country of 11 million divided by language and culture, the issue is no laughing matter.
Among the targets of road rage is the transport minister for the Brussels regional government, one of three tiers of government jointly responsible for transport in the country smaller than Maryland.
“I’m not against cars but we want a new equilibrium,” said Pascal Smet, transport minister for the Brussels regional government. “You know how people interact with each other in cars? With their middle fingers.”
Brussels’ Deputy Mayor Els Ampe blames a “very powerful anti-car lobby,” composed of pro-bike and environmental groups, that she says wants to cram the city’s medieval roads with tramways and bus lanes. “Everything is conceived to block cars,” Ms. Ampe fumes.
“I think it’s a joke,” counters Roel De Cleen, a spokesman for Belgian cyclists’ association Fietsersbond. The jams, Mr. De Cleen says, are the result of a decadeslong government policy of promoting car use by making auto ownership cheap, while bicycle infrastructure has lagged behind.
Nonsense, says Danny Smagghe, a spokesman for Belgian auto industry group Touring, who complains of “huge underinvestment” in the roads as well as in alternative forms of transport. “There’s a lack of capacity, so people stay in their cars and increase congestion,” he says.
Not everybody sees the rail system as the answer. Strikes paralyze the network so often that people “have no confidence they will arrive on time,” said Gianni Tabbone, who commutes by train to Brussels from his home near Liège, 60 miles away.
It has even fueled a countercampaign to add train delays to Belgium’s World Heritage list. “Our train delays have a priceless historical value…and many carriages are nothing less than museums on wheels,” declares a website created by Sven Pichal, a Flemish radio presenter known as “The Inspector,” who presents a popular consumer-rights show.
His campaign video shows travelers staring up at departure boards flecked with red delay times, set to Samuel Barber’s mournful “Adagio for Strings.”
Belgium was an early-mover in the railway game, building continental Europe’s first line in 1835. But that means the rail network is now “very old” and expensive to maintain, says a spokesman for Belgium’s transport ministry.
By contrast, the nation’s urban planners have embraced growing car use since the 1950s, says Imre Keseru, a researcher at the Free University of Brussels. Large sections of Brussels were rebuilt as a temple to modernism, with new road tunnels offering access to the city’s medieval core.
Cultural factors also played a part. “The DNA of Belgians isn’t to live in the cities where they work,” Mr. Smet said. “Living in the countryside is seen as desirable, what someone successful should achieve.”
Company cars are granted lavish tax-breaks in one of the world’s most highly-taxed countries. Each one was subsidized to an average €2,763 in 2012, the highest among 27 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to an OECD study.
The federal government oversees company-car subsidies and the rail network, but major roads are managed by one or more of the three powerful regions of Brussels, Flanders and Wallonia. Smaller roads are run by local municipalities, of which there are 19 in Brussels alone.
“The regional government isn’t the boss of the street, they need to negotiate with the municipalities,” which frequently oppose plans that might ease congestion, said Bruno De Lille, who was transport minister for the Brussels region until 2014.
Ms. Ampe, the deputy mayor, claims the former administration under Mr. De Lille purposefully desynchronized traffic lights on routes into Brussels to discourage car use. “Every big access road always had a red light!” she said.
“We didn’t do that,” said Mr. De Lille, though he concedes he did desynchronize traffic lights on at least one major entry road. “Different types of road-users came into conflict and we decided to help pedestrians,” he said. “Having 20% less cars is doable; that doesn’t make me anti-car.”
Alternatives, though, take a long time to materialize. A planned suburban rail service, known as the Regional Express Network or RER, has been repeatedly delayed. “I call it the Réseau Eternellement Retardé [Eternally Delayed Network],” says Mr. Smet.
The main metro station which serves Brussels’ European Union institutions district remains a building site after almost eight years of construction. The reason? “Incompetence,” said Ms. Ampe. “We don’t have enough engineers, or politicians don’t listen to them.”
Still, some efforts are starting to bear fruit. Public transport use in Brussels rose by 70% in the decade to 2013, according to Mr. Keseru. The long-delayed suburban rail network had a limited launch in December, with expansions planned, according to Belgium’s transport ministry.
Mr. Pichal, meanwhile, complains he spends five minutes of his hourlong morning radio show reading out the list of traffic-snarled roads. He is rethinking his anti-train rhetoric. “If you really ask me, the traffic jams are worse,” he said.
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