View of Brussels: road safety lessons at EU headquarters
The Belgian capital imposed a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour (19 mph) on most roads last January, and a year later the first results of this change are starting to show. This could give EU officials who call Brussels home some brilliant ideas for the rest of the bloc.
The “Zone 30” plan was met with stiff opposition when it was launched on January 1, 2021. Critics said it would further aggravate traffic congestion in the capital and hurt the economy of the whole country.
For Brussels regional government ministers, getting the new speed limit enacted was a Herculean feat, especially given the byzantine nature of the Belgian system of communes and municipalities, which requires many people to all agree on the same thing.
Indeed, Brussels Transport Minister Elke Van den Brandt jokes that one municipality to the east of the city was opposed to the speed limit plan until she realized that all the other areas had adhered to it. Its inhabitants quickly changed their minds.
Brussels-Mobilitythe city’s public works department, just released a study that looks at hard data and shows that Area 30 advocates were right about many of the benefits they predicted.
Road deaths were halved in 2021 compared to 2020 and the number of serious injuries also fell by around 20%. It will be music to the ears of EU officials, whose “Vision Zero” plan wants to eliminate road deaths completely by 2050.
The study also blows a hole in the main argument of critics of the plan, concluding that journey times have not been significantly affected by the new speed limit.
For those in Brussels who have fond memories of the first pandemic lockdown when traffic came to a standstill and the hum of cars was banished, there is also good news.
The Zone 30 policy has also reduced noise pollution; in places it has been halved. Even on major roads that are not yet subject to the new speed limit, a reduction has been recorded.
“Road traffic is the first source of noise in the capital and noise pollution is also the second cause of environmental morbidity after air quality”, explains Marie Poupé, noise expert at Brussels Environment.
“Excessive noise exposure can lead to hearing problems, insomnia, learning and concentration difficulties, and can increase cardiovascular risks. It is therefore a question of public health, ”she adds.
Brussels still has a major pollution problem because even the new speed limit is not a silver bullet. The city regularly breaches EU air quality limits and faces legal action and possible fines.
There is even legislation in place which means that public transport is free for all users if dangerous pollution levels remain around the safe limit for a continuous period.
This is why the city government continues its efforts to build bicycle path infrastructure, redesign the roads to eliminate through traffic and improve the capital’s public transport offer. Progress is slow but ultimately steady.
The institutions of the European Union are located in the European quarter, to the east of the city centre. It is connected to the heart of the capital by a wide four-lane artery which is most often congested with traffic and regularly tops the ranking of the most polluted roads in Belgium.
It is a fitting reminder for the thousands of EU officials who work on some of the key policy issues facing member states of the bloc that will need to be addressed if climate and other targets are to be met.
Emissions from transport account for around 25% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas output and, unlike other sectors of the economy such as energy, continue to rise thanks to a combination of adoption of SUVs and the number of people who choose to drive.
Speed limits are an option in the green weapons cache, although the EU has little or no power to impose them. He can, however, lobby on their behalf, either openly or behind doors when negotiating sensitive pieces of legislation.
The Netherlands recently lowered its motorway speed limit from 130 km/h to 100 at certain peak times, after a court ruling ruled the government’s emission reduction targets were insufficient and experts warned that an air pollution crisis was spiraling out of control.
The new speed limit is expected to cut a large chunk of emissions from the Dutch balance sheet, as motorists will rev their engines less and also reduce levels of dangerous nitrogen oxide.
According to the European Transport Safety Council, Dutch drivers even drive slower at night when the new speed limit does not apply.
In Germany, which is renowned for having stretches of motorway with no speed limit, the status quo is unlikely to change anytime soon, as the new government has been reluctant to open Pandora’s box.
German motorists and their powerful lobby groups are fervently opposed to any speed limit plan, despite the government’s environment agency recommending a 120 km/h limit in 2019 and the some cost savings. emissions it would bring.
The Department for Transport was forced to sentence a Czech billionaire this month who was filmed driving his Bugatti supercar at over 400 km/h (240 mph), despite the reckless act complying with German laws.
So while the EU may not be able to influence the national traffic rules of its member states, it might have a better chance of convincing cities to follow Brussels’ example and set limits lower speeds in key areas. It seems to be a very popular policy.
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