zondag 18 maart 2012

A butterfly for Brussels

The city centre is attracting too much traffic. It's every urban planner's nemesis. One way to get rid of the problem, and quite a daring one too, has been proposed for the Brussels metropolis: If you want to get rid of traffic movements in the centre, get rid of the Central Station.

It's one of the options presented in a recent exhibition at Brussels's Bozar Museum entitled BRUssels 2040. Three urban planning bureaus were invited to come up with suggestions for keeping the Brussels conurbation liveable.

The Brussels Capital Region has acknowledged that the private car does not provide a lasting solution to the increasing mobility gridlock facing the city which is the capital of Belgium and the crossroads of Europe. In fact, the regional authority is envisioning a wholly or partly carless city by 2040, and the three agencies followed suit. Recent findings suggest,  moreover, that the level of microparticle dust in the Brussels air is threatening public health, which provides another argument to take a critical look at car use in the city. Urban architect Paola Vigano of Studio 012 said; "The concept of a car-free city is a way to develop a sustainable city; but also a tool to visualise the city in a totally different way, to redraw it."

In the studies mass public transit is embraced as the only way forward, combined with improvements in the rail infrastructure around the urban sprawl which is housing some 2 million people. The proposed projects do not only aim at accommodating these transport systems but are embedded in wider-ranging views on how to turn concentric Brussels, a "monopole metropole", into a multi-centred mesh. Waterways, valleys and other landscape elements are used to structure and strengthen the urban enviroment, rather than seeing them as obstacles.

Brussels is seen as part of a huge metropolitan zone stretching from Lille in France to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Finding solutions involves thinking "both on the scale of the Eurodelta and on the scale of Brussels proper," according to landscape architect Bas Smets of the 51N4E team.  And if that raises your eyebrows, rest assured that the exhibition at Bozar does a good job of visualising the sometimes arcane philosophies of the urban visionaries.

Keep the connection
Closing the Central Station on Brussels' underground cross-city link between North and Midi (South) stations does not involve closing down the link itself, far from it. After all, it took the Bruxellois about a century to design and build the thing; it only opened in 1958. And it is indispesnable for national and international rail travel. The train tunnel under the city will stay, serving trains whose itineraries take them from somewhere outside the Belgian capital to somewhere else outside the Belgian capital. Passengers who are not travelling through but have Brussels as their destination, though, will have to get off the train at either Brussels Schaarbeek in the north, or Brussels Midi in the south, according to a proposal drawn up by bureau 51N4E.

Two loops
So those passengers are left stranded in the outskirts, having to make their way to the centre and other areas of Brussels by taxi, bus, tram or metro? How is that an improvement? No, they aren't. The good people at 51etcetera propose upgrading the hardly used old, pre-tunnel rail infrastructure around the city, plus parts of the well-maintained STIB local rail network, creating two Regional Express Railway loops, with the underground North-South connection forming the overlapping bit of both loops.

The perceived need to build a RER to complement the existing train, tram and metro system was in fact what prompted the capital's authority to commission these Brussels 2040 studies. Travellers, be they tourists, business people or commuters, having transferred to an RER train, would reach their destinations by alighting at existing but currently unused or underused stations, possibly with a final leg by tram or metro taking them radially out beyond the periphery or... into the city centre. That's a much more scattered transport load than one emanating from one Central Station and radiating in all directions.

Butterfly for Brussels
© 51N4E l'AUC BBS 
A map of such a Regional Express Rail (RER) network would resemble an outline drawing of a butterfly. As a symbol of carefree metropolitan mobility in the 21st century, it would be a respectable addition to the other icons of the Belgian capital, 17th-century civil war mascotte Little Man Pee and 1950s futuristic Atomium. Go butterfly, go!

It is tempting to speculate, but beyond the scope of this piece, about the infrastructure and rolling stock needed for this approach. When train passengers change from national high-platform services to the RER, would that be running high-platform stock too? The high/low modal transition would then take place only if the RER traveller changed to a tram or bus, or to the metro, assuming  all have adopted low-floor stock by 2040. The options are many, considering that much of the rolling stock of Brussels' tram and metro is due to be renewed in the decade leading up to 2040.

© Studio 012
Two comforting thoughts
For those advocating the tram solution, it is a a comforting thought that the Studio 012 bureau, for one, explicitly retains street-level rail transport as an integral part of their solutions for Brussels 2040.

And for those familiar with the complexities of Belgium's multi-level system of government, it is a comforting thought that we have another 28 years to go before it is 2040.

The three teams who wrote the studies:
51N4E l’AUC Bureau Bas Smets
Studio 012 Bernardo Secchi/Paola ViganĂ²
KCAP Architects&Planners