Trams are part of Brussels’ identity. They have been around since 1869 and still today they are a vital part of the city’s infrastructure. Still, planned expansions of the network are often met with hysterical opposition.
The debate about the proposed tram 71 through the lively district of Elsene is another sad example of how infrastructure proposals always turn into a battle between interest groups and political factions, each defending their holy cow. But their arguments are often completely besides the point. In this case people have gathered thousands of signatures pro or contra a tram. But it’s not really about chosing between a bus or a tram, it’s about chosing between priority for public transportation or priority for cars.
What’s the situation? The Brussels Region and transit agency MIVB want to replace the overcrowded bus 71, the busiest line on the network, with a high-capacity tram line. The local majority in Elsene, however, has been opposing the scheme for many years.
The debate centers on the Elsensesteenweg, the most well-known and infamously congested part of the line, between Naamsepoort and Flagey.
The Elsensesteenweg is the second busiest shopping strip in Brussels, with both mass chain outlets and independent shopkeepers. At the same time it is a narrow but busy thoroughfare for motorized traffic. Result: continuous traffic jams, both on the sidewalks and on the road. We don’t even mention the cyclists who have no space left.
Opponents claim that a tram has no business in this mess and that it will be hopelessly slowed down by delivery trucks and pedestrians crisscrossing the road anywhere anytime. Tram lovers argue that trams and shopping streets are a match made in heaven, showing successful examples in Ghent and several French cities.
There is something to say for every argument but the real question is: what should we do with car traffic (assuming that we don’t consider banning pedestrians, as one blogger suggested)?
As one of the most congested cities in Europe, Brussels is on the brink of total gridlock every workday. Adding a tram to an important road without diverting traffic would be insane. But where should cars go? And how can we diminish car use in Elsene and elsewhere in the region? Those are questions that desperately need an answer.
Only with a good mobility plan we can improve Elsensesteenweg as a transit corridor. And why not start with a high quality bus service? A BRT-line (bus rapid transit) would already greatly improve capacity and punctuality, without the investment (and construction hassle) of a tram. After all the local shopkeepers are right to fear for their business given the history of bad planning with public works in Brussels.