Bridget Fox has been visiting Ghent, Belgium: a medieval city that has embraced the mobility challenges of the 21st Century in a way that sets an inspiring example for communities beyond its borders.
Ghent was a medieval powerhouse, at one time the second largest city in northern Europe after Paris. Its exclusive rights to move grain and wool within Flanders made Ghent rich, a legacy still seen in the fine guild churches and medieval storehouses that line its streets and canals.
So much for the history lesson. Why are we talking about Ghent today? Like many towns, Ghent found its growing population and narrow streets were leading to toxic traffic jams. Historic squares had become car parks, and tour buses undermined the very charms they had come to see. Residents and businesses were facing growing air pollution and declining quality of life.
The city council decided to take action, and two years ago, Ghent unveiled its ambitious mobility plan.
The inner part of the city has been divided into residential zones which exclude through car traffic: motor vehicles need a permit to enter. Each of these neighbourhoods has a single in-and-out road link to ring roads, while being fully permeable for walking and cycling. The city centre is car-free.
This mobility plan is supported by a parking plan, which has moved long-stay and commuter parking out of the centre, with free park and ride buses into town. For residents, there are financial incentives to switch to car sharing and car clubs.
Public transport and active travel play a central role. Ghent has a modern tram network connecting to the train station: you can even pay your fare by text message. As well as the park and ride buses, there is a free electric mobility bus in the centre and free public transport for children. Public spaces have been reclaimed from the car, with new greenery, outdoor eating, and plentiful walking and cycling routes.
The mobility plan was highly controversial during its implementation, with angry opponents saying it would kill Ghent. The councillor in charge, Filip Watteeuw, even had to have a police guard at one point. But now the plan has been adopted, it's a great success. Since 2012, the share of journeys by car in Ghent is down from 55 per cent to 39 per cent with cycling up from 22 per cent to 35 per cent, and walking at 14 per cent.
Ghent was already a popular tourist destination, but being car-free adds a new dimension – on my recent visit I enjoyed exploring a city that is clean, safe, and easy to navigate, and full of people even on a rainy day. The wonderful medieval buildings and squares can now be seen free of parking clutter, while local businesses are clearly thriving. The next step on Ghent’s journey is a low emission zone for the inner area, starting in January 2020.
Ghent’s architecture and canals may look very different to some UK cities, but its challenges are ones we share. With a population size similar to Derby, Newcastle or Southampton, Ghent is a fine example for us to follow.
Photo by Bas Bogaerts, © Stad Gent – Dienst Toerisme