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Brussels: Narrow Lanes & Neon Vests 27

Grand Place - Brussels, Belgium

Grand Place – Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

The distinct two-tone siren from a Belgium ambulance echoes fourteen floors below the perch where we have set up camp on day one of our two-week trip to Europe.

It is 6:30AM and we have just arrived after a 19-hour journey from China – which included a 10-hour flight from Beijing to Brussels which only felt like a few hours due to my normally elusive deep sleep during flight.

The first four cyclists I spot out of my downtown Brussels hotel room window are wearing bright neon reflective vests and helmets – not a sign of an established and accepted bicycle culture.

Cyclists in Brussels, Belgium

Reflective vests and helmets on Brussels cyclists – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

As the day wears on, I notice some basic bicycle infrastructure on some streets, and I spot several people in regular clothes riding bikes.

But I didn’t see groups of cyclists bunching up at traffic signals waiting for a green light – cyclists were mostly one-off occurrences. My home town of Toronto, it seems, even has scores more cyclists than Brussels seems to have.

The bicycle infrastructure that I observed here seems inadequate. The bike lanes were very narrow – even by North American standards. Cars, public transit and pedestrians seem to be the most-catered-to modes of transportation here.

The inadequate infrastructure seems to explain why so many Brussels cyclists feel compelled to wear neon vests and helmets.

Bike lanes in Brussels, Belgium

Narrow painted bike lanes in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Besides the narrow bike lanes, there seemed to be some positive provisions that catered to bicycles. I spotted several signs exempting bicycles from being subject to one-way streets.

Brussels also has a bike-sharing program called “Villo!”, with 2,500 bikes at 180 stations around the city.

Bike sign in Brussels, Belgium

One-way street for cars, two way for bicycles – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Bike sign in Brussels, Belgium

Do not enter, except bicycles – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Villo! Bike sharing in Brussels, Belgium

Brussels Villo! bike share system – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Although Brussels might be lagging in bicycle culture, walking around the city proved enjoyable, and there are an abundance of beautiful public spaces with amazing scenery to enjoy here in the city.

No more than one hour after arriving in Brussels, a waiter who served us breakfast on a patio in the scenic Grand Place started to reminisce on the 22 years he lived in Toronto. “I really miss living in TO”, he said with a sad frown on his face – with Brussels City Hall circa 1455 in the background enamouring me as he spoke.

Perspective is everything.

As I watch the road warriors pedal past me throughout the day, I think to myself that I will indeed need to wait until tomorrow when I arrive in Amsterdam to get a true taste of an established bicycle culture that the Dutch are famous for.

I am now loading my pack and in two hours I will be on a train headed for Amsterdam.

James D. Schwartz is a Transportation Pragmatist and the Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

Here are a few additional photos from our day in Brussels:

Bike in Brussels, Belgium

Bike statue in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Electric Car in Brussels, Belgium

Plug-in electric vehicle in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Manneken Pis in Brussels, Belgium

The Manneken Pis in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Atomium Brussels, Belgium

The Atomium in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Bike in Brussels, Belgium

Bicyclist in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Bicycle in Brussels, Belgium

Bicyclist in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Bicycle in Brussels, Belgium

Bicyclist in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

Bicycle in Brussels, Belgium

Bicyclist in Brussels, Belgium – Photo by James Schwartz / The Urban Country

i share the road

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  • Julianferguson

    As a

  • Julianferguson

    As a

  • Julianferguson

    As a resident in Brussels, I must admit that infrastructure for bicycles is pretty woeful. Patchy, disconnected, and often half finished. However funnily enough they have a 5% modal share. Cities in the US like Portland, which have 5-8% of people cycling are put up as model cities. Makes you chuckle.

  • Julianferguson

    As a resident in Brussels, I must admit that infrastructure for bicycles is pretty woeful. Patchy, disconnected, and often half finished. However funnily enough they have a 5% modal share. Cities in the US like Portland, which have 5-8% of people cycling are put up as model cities. Makes you chuckle.

  • http://bicyclestc.blogspot.com/ Ryan

    I always viewed Bruges as Belgium’s ‘cycling city’. Brussels has always seemed like a better city to walk in though.

    • http://www.thamno.com Bart B. Van Bockstaele

      Possibly. But you’d have to be in love with cobblestone biking to think that ^_^

  • http://bicyclesofniagara.tumblr.com/ Ryan

    I always view Bruges as Belgium’s ‘cycling city’. Brussels has always seemed like a better city to walk in though.

  • Easy

    Did he say what he missed about Toronto relative to Brussels?

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      He alluded to missing the night life in Toronto and the upscale restaurant industry in Toronto – which he was intimately involved with.

  • Easy

    Did he say what he missed about Toronto relative to Brussels?

  • http://twitter.com/alexwarrior alexwarrior

    I had similar thoughts on brussels. I had intended to try the bike share there, but after a few hours of walking around, I decided against it. I survived plenty of riding in hectic london, but brussels was a bit too far outside my comfort zone. There sure seemed like a lot of nice cycling cities in Flanders, riding the train north to amsterdam though!

  • http://twitter.com/alexwarrior alexwarrior

    I had similar thoughts on brussels. I had intended to try the bike share there, but after a few hours of walking around, I decided against it. I survived plenty of riding in hectic london, but brussels was a bit too far outside my comfort zone. There sure seemed like a lot of nice cycling cities in Flanders, riding the train north to amsterdam though!

    • Christopher Appleton

      As a frequent bike rider in both cities, I think you made an odd choice. Brussels is far from perfect, but way less hectic than most of central London. Even with London’s recent improvements it is still not a place for an amateur cyclist.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu Green_Idea_Factory

    Construction will start on Wednesday of some modifications to central boulevards in Brussels which are meant to improve things for cyclists and others (more about that in a moment).

    As the (more or less) capital of the European Union, it would be great if Brussels was a best practice example of as many things as possible. But is not a poor region so – as I understand it – it cannot really get EU funds which are doled out from the institutions housed in the city, and of course, serving their employees (not to mention fellow EU citizens).

    The way the place is governed also makes things difficult to implement things quickly: There is the government for the Brussels Capital Region (BCR – in Belgium there are three regions, the others being Flanders and Wallonia) and within the BCR there are 19 municipalities which have a fair amount of local control.

    So, in response to the construction the two main cycling orgs in town are asking their members and fellow citizens to thank the politicians for the changes and so on:

    http://www.fietsersbond.be/brussel
    http://www.gracq.be/AGIR/001Reagissez-BoulevardsBruxelles

    About this, earlier today I had a discussion over Facebook with a non-elected but well-placed transportation official for the BCR:

    Todd Edelman – What will this actually look like? Like the photo (in the above links)?

    Official – more or less – but a bit farther away from the car doors I hope. An overall renovation of the boulevards has been under discussion for the last 10 years, so until something happens, give me a paint job anytime !

    Todd Edelman – Um, “… a bit farther away…”? You don’t know because that is the responsibility of the Municipality of Brussels? They didn’t let you know? What is the change in the general configuration? Will the authorities be less likely to do other changes later, or will this hopefully show that there are lots of people who want to ride? What IF the lane IS in the door zone? That can make things worse, depending on how wide the lane is. Are cyclists currently allowed to ride side-by-side in normal lanes and will the lane be wide enough to do that? Will this actually make confident cyclists – those who already rode here – ride closer to the park cars?

    Official – I didn’t see the plans… (but I almost physically forced them to do this change, as did hundreds of cyclists joining several actions during the last five years…). Normally, 4 times 3 meters should make for decent bikelanes if you only keep 2 times 3m for cars – so you can easily leave 80cm for doors and 1m30 for the bike lane, which is just OK to ride side by side. But I’m not sure, because I didn’t see the plans ;-). The ultimate goal is to close off traffic in the centre of town, creating a square in front of the stock exchange, with a loop system for cars. That’s been voted by the city council, so planning can start for the final layout. But as these things go, it won’t be for 5 years before we see anything substantial. And yes, we already did counts last year, we easily got +- 200 cyclists an hour without infrastructure in horrible traffic conditions, so I feel this might be a HUGE change in cycling in Brussels.

    Todd Edelman – But I also wonder about intersection treatments.

    Official – Well, intersections are mostly with traffic lights and bike boxes, there’s one special intersection in the middle a T-with the blvd, where we tried to put in something new, but again, I don’t know what they finally decided to do.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu/ Green_Idea_Factory

    Construction will start on Wednesday of some modifications to central boulevards in Brussels which are meant to improve things for cyclists and others (more about that in a moment).

    As the (more or less) capital of the European Union, it would be great if Brussels was a best practice example of as many things as possible. But is not a poor region so – as I understand it – it cannot really get EU funds which are doled out from the institutions housed in the city, and of course, serving their employees (not to mention fellow EU citizens).

    The way the place is governed also makes things difficult to implement things quickly: There is the government for the Brussels Capital Region (BCR – in Belgium there are three regions, the others being Flanders and Wallonia) and within the BCR there are 19 municipalities which have a fair amount of local control.

    So, in response to the construction the two main cycling orgs in town are asking their members and fellow citizens to thank the politicians for the changes and so on:

    http://www.fietsersbond.be/brussel
    http://www.gracq.be/AGIR/001Reagissez-BoulevardsBruxelles

    About this, earlier today I had a discussion over Facebook with a non-elected but well-placed transportation official for the BCR:

    Todd Edelman – What will this actually look like? Like the photo (in the above links)?

    Official – more or less – but a bit farther away from the car doors I hope. An overall renovation of the boulevards has been under discussion for the last 10 years, so until something happens, give me a paint job anytime !

    Todd Edelman – Um, “… a bit farther away…”? You don’t know because that is the responsibility of the Municipality of Brussels? They didn’t let you know? What is the change in the general configuration? Will the authorities be less likely to do other changes later, or will this hopefully show that there are lots of people who want to ride? What IF the lane IS in the door zone? That can make things worse, depending on how wide the lane is. Are cyclists currently allowed to ride side-by-side in normal lanes and will the lane be wide enough to do that? Will this actually make confident cyclists – those who already rode here – ride closer to the park cars?

    Official – I didn’t see the plans… (but I almost physically forced them to do this change, as did hundreds of cyclists joining several actions during the last five years…). Normally, 4 times 3 meters should make for decent bikelanes if you only keep 2 times 3m for cars – so you can easily leave 80cm for doors and 1m30 for the bike lane, which is just OK to ride side by side. But I’m not sure, because I didn’t see the plans ;-). The ultimate goal is to close off traffic in the centre of town, creating a square in front of the stock exchange, with a loop system for cars. That’s been voted by the city council, so planning can start for the final layout. But as these things go, it won’t be for 5 years before we see anything substantial. And yes, we already did counts last year, we easily got +- 200 cyclists an hour without infrastructure in horrible traffic conditions, so I feel this might be a HUGE change in cycling in Brussels.

    Todd Edelman – But I also wonder about intersection treatments.

    Official – Well, intersections are mostly with traffic lights and bike boxes, there’s one special intersection in the middle a T-with the blvd, where we tried to put in something new, but again, I don’t know what they finally decided to do.

  • Agimjo

    If you want to see Amsterdam, you indeed have to go to Amsterdam ;-) This is a nice, multi-facetted impressionist view of the cycling situation here in Brussels and some other things that go with it. Note that cyclists are allowed two ways in virtually all one-way-streets. I would also say that in many or most cases, the problem with infrastructure these days is not design, but implementation. Anyway, I’m glad it didn’t rain during your stay and hope you did have the chance to get some really good beer before you moved on to Amsterdam.

  • Agimjo

    If you want to see Amsterdam, you indeed have to go to Amsterdam ;-) This is a nice, multi-facetted impressionist view of the cycling situation here in Brussels and some other things that go with it. Note that cyclists are allowed two ways in virtually all one-way-streets. I would also say that in many or most cases, the problem with infrastructure these days is not design, but implementation. Anyway, I’m glad it didn’t rain during your stay and hope you did have the chance to get some really good beer before you moved on to Amsterdam.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    He alluded to missing the night life in Toronto and the upscale restaurant industry in Toronto – which he was intimately involved with.

  • http://www.lemab.ca/ lagatta à montréal

    Bruges is so small that you don’t even have to cycle – I’ve heard great things about Ghent for cycling – though there are some cobblestone streets.

    Shame on Brussels. Not only is it pathetic next to Amsterdam, but even Paris has made such improvements in terms of cycling infrastructure that Brussels is really left in the lurch.

    • http://www.thamno.com Bart B. Van Bockstaele

      I was born in Bruges… over 50 years ago. I was so glad when I was able to leave that hellhole. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great city for tourists, but I will never forget the Royal Ontario Museum’s slogan of 15 years ago: “Don’t live in the past, visit it!”

  • http://www.lemab.ca/ lagatta à montréal

    Bruges is so small that you don’t even have to cycle – I’ve heard great things about Ghent for cycling – though there are some cobblestone streets.

    Shame on Brussels. Not only is it pathetic next to Amsterdam, but even Paris has made such improvements in terms of cycling infrastructure that Brussels is really left in the lurch.

  • Kris

    Dear, in Belgium all “one way streets” are by law “two ways” for bicycles !

  • Kris

    Dear, in Belgium all “one way streets” are by law “two ways” for bicycles !

  • http://www.thamno.com/ Bart B. Van Bockstaele

    I was born in Bruges… over 50 years ago. I was so glad when I was able to leave that hellhole. Don’t get me wrong, it is a great city for tourists, but I will never forget the Royal Ontario Museum’s slogan of 15 years ago: “Don’t live in the past, visit it!”

  • http://www.thamno.com/ Bart B. Van Bockstaele

    Possibly. But you’d have to be in love with cobblestone biking to think that ^_^

  • Pingback: Rural Bike Infrastructure in the Netherlands ← The Urban Country

  • Christopher Appleton

    Brussels is indeed woefully inadequate when it comes to bicycle infrastructure. Surprising considering how good many of its neighbours are. There are signs of improvement, but it is still decidedly second rate by northern European standards.