Where there’s a will, there’s a way (that can be taken away)

Belgium continues to invest billions in expanding the road network, even though it’s far too congested as it is. We must learn to use our existing roads differently and more efficiently. Tim Vekemans and Kris Peeters share their proposals.


Where there’s a will, there’s a way (that can be taken away)

According to the Gemeentemonitor, a municipal monitor survey, traffic is a top concern for most Flemish people. According to an editorial published in De Standaard on 20 March 2018, there is only one policy option left: ‘discouraging vehicular traffic and encouraging cycling and pedestrian traffic.’

In order to develop an effective policy, policymakers must first realise that spatial planning and mobility are inseparable. They’re Siamese twins: the fate of one is linked to that of the other. More road capacity encourages us to live further from work and travel longer distances. Conversely, remote subdivisions require more road capacity. Unchecked mobility and urban development lead to stagnation, uninhabitability, and unaffordability. Although this is common knowledge, we're turning a blind eye. That’s why we debate mobility one day and spatial planning the next.

However, both debates focus on the same issue: finding ways to do more with less. We must learn to live within our scarcity of space.

Dead wolf

When it comes to the spatial debate, we've come a long way. The question has shifted from whether we can organise our space differently to how. Nevertheless, spatial densification is too often seen as a problem of built space and therefore a purely urban and architectural issue.

Our road infrastructure is the elephant in the room. This, too, could benefit from densification, and not only in the traditional sense. With 72,000 km of roads on 13,533 km2, we have the densest road network in the world. In our growth-focused society, we see the expansion of our road infrastructure as a symbol of progress. So we continue to invest in this expansion, despite being unable to properly maintain what we already have. As a result, we're wasting space and mobility.

Given that untouched nature accounts for a fragmented three per cent of our country, it’s no coincidence that the first male wolf to appear in our country was immediately hit by a car and killed. It's rather symbolic, actually. Infrastructural densification in the sense of ‘more mobility and less infrastructure’ is the necessary counterpart to the densification of our built space. Our road network is systematically outsized. In practice this means there are too many paved roads, and these currently require and will continue to require money for maintenance, road safety, water management, increased global warming (due to more heat reflection), and the mortgaged quality of public space. Addressing excess paving is beneficial on many fronts.

Higher speeds require more space. Lowering the speed limit on regional roads from 90 to 70 km per hour and expanding the 30 km-per-hour zone in urban areas has presented us with the unique opportunity to unpave.

Reclaim the streets

We can also reformulate the issue: how can we solve our mobility problem within our existing road infrastructure by using it differently and more efficiently? Preliminary studies in both cities and rural areas, done in collaboration with architecture students in Limburg, have yielded promising results. Smarter use of what we already have leads to less paving and frees up more room for other uses. Infrastructural densification can create ‘breathing room’ and increase societal support for urban densification. Living closer is only possible with high-quality public space and open space.

This is not merely wishful thinking, as it's already happening in practice. Take the international Reclaim the Streets movement, for example. In cities there is growing support for using our streets for more than transport alone. New practices are emerging, with streets designed for play, school, cycling, living, gardening, and the future. In each case, hard infrastructural space (be it temporary or permanent) is being redesigned for softer functions: playing, meeting, strolling, walking, cycling, sports, or nature.

Taxi parents

The stirrings of this movement can also be felt outside the cities. Kasterlee in the Campine region is taking it a step further. In close consultation with local residents, the Goorseweg, which is situated in a valuable forested area, will be reduced to a two-way road in the coming weeks. The road will remain accessible to both cyclists and motorists, but with half the amount of concrete. This concept can be applied both within and outside the city and can help in the transition to road-neutral mobility development. In some cases, it can even generate a road removal effect. Some roads can be partially or entirely returned to nature without sacrificing mobility and with the added bonus of increasing spatial quality. Just as densification is about improving quality of life, road removal is about improving mobility.

Look around and I’m sure you’ll see examples of outsized or improperly utilised road infrastructure. We could make our rural roads safer and prevent cut-through driving by exploring the possibilities of unpaving. Although seemingly counter-intuitive, this will result in more, not less, mobility.

Recent experiments – such as the one in Bonheiden, where rural roads were repurposed into a network of cycling lanes – have resulted in a significant increase in functional and recreational bicycle traffic. Destinations that were previously inaccessible to children because of unsafe roads are now easy to access. The result: greater mobility for children and their parents, who no longer have to serve as taxi drivers. This infrastructural ‘tidying up’ has ecological, economic, and social benefits.

Imagine breaking ground together, this time as a harbinger of less, not more, concrete. How disruptive, innovative, smart, and consistent would our current spatial rhetoric become?