In part 5 of our Most 'Liveable Place blog', Alex Nurse takes a look at Ghent, which we visited just before lockdown at the end of February 2020.
Imagine that you opened your local newspaper, and you read that the Mayor of your town or city had taken to wearing a bulletproof vest. What would you think they have done? Angered the local mob, perhaps?
What about if we said they’d brought in a cycling infrastructure scheme for the city?
That sounds pretty scary, right? But in 2017 that’s where Daniel Termont, the deputy mayor of Ghent, Belgium, found himself even if, as we’ll see, that might have been through an over-abundance of caution.
Although Belgium has a long and proud history with professional cycling, its track-record with every-day bicycle travel is not as illuminous as its neighbour, the Netherlands, who are frequently singled out for praise. That’s not to say they haven’t done anything at all – for example, Ghent brought forward its first Cycle Plan in 1993, before creating another ‘circulation plan’ in 1998 – but those plans did not lead to a smooth-flowing city. This is encapsulated by the video below - scenes we might recognise in our own city.
The busy Rozemarijnbrug intersection in Ghent 2015
A marathon, not a sprint. Rome wasn’t built in a day. More-often-than-not these are the platitudes that you’ll hear when city leaders and cycling tsars are pressed on the extent, pace and rate of their ambitions. We can’t do it overnight, you might hear them say. Except, they did in Ghent.
Rewind to Easter weekend 2017, and Termont along with a team of his transport officers are gathered in a ‘war room’, monitoring how their plans to shut off major routes through the city to cars will go. Anticipating some level of chaos, and with live-feeds from camera positions across the city and helicopters circling above, they’re watching with baited breath to see how it will go.
Ghent's circular ring road
The plan is relatively simple. From now forward the city will be divided into ‘quarters’ between which it will be impossible to travel between by car without returning to Gent’s circular ring road. Gent’s picturesque canals will provide some of the natural barriers, with strategically placed bollards closing off ‘rat runs’ between the quarters, whilst allowing bikes and pedestrians through. Simultaneously, the city introduced a number of cycling streets. Here the bikes get priority, and whilst cars can go down the streets, they are prohibited from overtaking under any circumstances. Finally, much of Ghent’s city centre was pedestrianised. Cars were banned outright, on pain of a 50 euro fine, whilst ‘purple streets’ in the historic core would be for foot-traffic only between 11:00-18:00.
The run-up to the instigation of the plan was not without its controversy. Termont received death threats and even a bullet in the mail, leading him to wear a bulletproof vest during public appearances for a while. However, a long and deep period of consultation with the residents of the city paid dividends. Communities were consulted about which roads they wanted to see open and closed to traffic, whilst volunteers stood in rush hour traffic handing out maps in the days and weeks running up to that fateful Easter. Such was the interest that the thousands of maps the city had printed ran out in days and they had to order more.
The Ghent Circulatieplan "War Room"
The ‘War Room’ turned out to be unnecessary, and when the helicopter feeds showed a city that adapted to the plans and was already free-flowing. Gent’s local authority had anticipated running it for two weeks. They shut it down and went home after two days.
Termont had similarly need not be so worried. On a walkabout over the Easter weekend, he feared being assaulted by angry residents in the city. Instead, he was embraced and thanked by residents delighted with their newly quiet neighbourhood streets. As the truest vindication, the following year he was re-elected with a greater majority.
Of course, even the best-laid plans can have their hiccups. Whilst most city-centre shops saw a temporary dip as cars were removed – followed by a swift and even greater uptick in business – other areas such as Brugse Poort in the suburbs saw a decline as motorist traffic from a major through route was diverted to the ring road. Elsewhere the city came under significant political pressure to enforce the purple streets, as cyclists roved freely. This would take some getting used to.
Inexpensive planters and paint transform Ghent's streets (c) Jerroen Willems
But now, Ghent today is a different kind of cycling utopia. It’s not Delft. It’s slightly gritty, and it doesn’t have enclosed infrastructure along every street. But it works. And moreover, it’s a model for every city who finds themselves in a similar position.
Family cycles through the city (c) Jerroen Willems
It’s a political choice, we were told. You’ve got to want to do it.
But if anyone tells you that you can’t do it overnight: don’t believe them.
Dr Alex Nurse is a lecturer in planning at the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Liverpool.Follow: