Home Society Safer, cleaner and more lucrative: The Good Move plan transforms Brussels’ city center — but remains politically divisive
Safer, cleaner and more lucrative: The Good Move plan transforms Brussels’ city center — but remains politically divisive

Safer, cleaner and more lucrative: The Good Move plan transforms Brussels’ city center — but remains politically divisive

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Safer, cleaner and more lucrative: The Good Move plan transforms Brussels’ city center — but remains politically divisive

This article is part of POLITICO’s Global Policy Lab: Living Cities, a collaborative journalism project exploring the future of cities. Sign up here.

BRUSSELS — The heart of the Belgian capital is enjoying a heyday: Roads are safer, the air is cleaner, and business is booming — thanks to a controversial mobility plan that Brusseliers love to hate.

In August 2022, Brussels’ inner core — commonly known as the Pentagon — became one of the few Belgian districts to fully implement the measures outlined in the Good Move initiative, an ambitious regional plan to reduce automotive traffic by 24 percent by 2030.

Within the confines of the city center, the goals were to slash through-traffic — which experts had long said was at the root of the area’s car-related safety and pollution issues — and generally improve quality of life for residents.

New municipal data, seen by POLITICO, appears to confirm Good Move’s success. The reorganization of the Pentagon’s streets into one-way thoroughfares, and the decision to limit road access in certain zones to public transport and priority vehicles only, have led to a dramatic 21 percent drop in road accidents in the area in just one year. Related fatalities were slashed by 69 percent in 2023 compared with the 2020-2022 average.

“These numbers show that Good Move is good for people of all backgrounds,” said City of Brussels Mobility and Public Works Alderman Bart Dhondt.

The Green party politician rebuffed critics who have long depicted the program as catering to environmentally minded, bourgeois residents. “There’s now less of a risk of having your car damaged or of ending up in hospital,” he said. “That’s good for people who are less well-off, for whom an accident can have a much bigger impact.”

Data analyzed by the Univeristy of Leuven suggests that in addition to being safer, the Pentagon’s roads are now also healthier places to frequent. Levels of toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is closely linked to diesel vehicle exhaust, have dropped by up to 35 percent at some previously busy intersections. That’s a big deal in a region where an estimated 900 residents die prematurely every year in connection with air pollution exposure.

Follow the money

The rollout of the Good Move plan within the Pentagon was marred by protests led by merchants who said the limits on through-traffic would hurt their businesses. But development-tracking figures after its implementation suggest that if anything, the scheme to boost public transport and pedestrian and cycle mobility has been good for the bottom lines of shops.

Analysis of data that details purchases made with Belgian bank cards in the city center reveals that despite the inflation crisis, economic activity within the Pentagon has grown by nearly 10 percent since the mobility modifications took effect in August 2022.

“We purposely focused on transactions paid with Belgian cards to rule out that the business was being driven by tourists and to make sure we were tracking consumption made by locals,” Dhondt said. “These numbers reflect the fact that Good Move has made our streets and public spaces more attractive, welcoming places that people actually want to visit.”

Despite the scheme’s success within the Pentagon, Good Move’s fate at the regional level remains uncertain. The initiative has been vehemently contested in Brussels districts like Schaerbeek, where pushback amid local protests halted its implementation.

Good Move is now seen as a liability for figures like regional Mobility Minister Elke Van den Brandt and her Green party, which came up with the plan. Voters who previously supported the group are frustrated by its failure to implement the progressive scheme, a controversial issue seen as galvanizing the party’s opponents. The center-right Reformist Movement — projected to earn the most votes in the upcoming regional parliament elections — is campaigning against the mobility measures and has vowed to scrap them altogether if it comes to power.

Dhondt, the rare Green alderman who has seen the Good Move plan come to fruition, said its success in the Pentagon was down to three factors: a comprehensive communications strategy to bring locals on board; support from the district’s governing Socialists; and flexibility.

“To make something successful you have to dialog with residents, with political partners, and also understand that some policies need to be adjusted street by street in order to work,” he said.

However, Dhondt added, determination was also fundamental.

“Mobility is a super-emotional topic: It shapes people’s day-to-day life,” he said. “You’ve had pushback in Amsterdam and every other place that has tried to take on this challenge, but when that happens it’s important to learn from the pushback and keep moving forward.”

Ultimately, he said, the latest data confirmed that improvements had also reflected fresh local attitudes toward the program.

“You still have a small resistance, but there’s no large group of people that are opposed to it, no mayor petitions to get rid of it,” he said. “Things have settled because it really is nicer to live here now.”

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