Right now, there can be an almost eerie calm to some sections of central Brussels. Take an evening stroll down Boulevard Anspach, the broad avenue that forms the Belgian capital’s spine, and you may find the roadway empty, its limestone and wrought-iron facades echoing the footsteps of a rare passer-by on the sidewalk. This uncanny silence in the heart of a blaring metro area of 2.2 million residents—known as one of Europe’s most notoriously congested capitals—is no accident.
Right now the Brussels Capital Region is slowly drawing towards completing one of the most ambitious pro-pedestrian makeovers yet seen this century. Carried out on a scale only Madrid can really compete with, Brussels is systematically banishing anything but emergency and delivery vehicles from a large network of streets and squares that are not just central, but axial. Generally referred to by its French name Le Piétonnier (the pedestrian zone), this area’s adaptation has been underway since 2015, and is due to be 70 percent complete by the end of 2019.
Just a few years ago the streets of Piétonnier, which are not unlike those of Paris, were routinely clogged with cars. Now these broad, heroic boulevards are void of cars, making street side cafes desirable once more while clearing up the air and noise pollution that comes with heavy traffic. Still, the banishment of cars from the city center isn’t the ultimate solution as it only leads to more air pollution in the areas that surround the pedestrian zone. To solve this issue, Brussels is pushing for a further citywide modal shift, with a new mobility plan aiming for a 24 percent reduction in car use and a fourfold increase in cycling by 2030, all while increasing the availability of metro and tram systems in the city.