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Transforming the streets of Brussels for Car-Free Sunday: What does it take to organise a city-wide car-free day?

29 April 2024

Every year Brussels residents and day-trippers celebrate Car-Free Sunday, with its lively agenda of events and activities, plus a commercial boom for local retailers. Children, pedestrians and cyclists safely reclaim the streets and the entire capital becomes a city-wide street party. While over 3,000 towns and cities participate in EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK every year, Brussels Capital Region’s city-wide car-free day is the largest annual car-free celebration in Europe! 

Opening the streets to pedestrians and cyclists requires time, funding, dedicated management and political support. To help other municipalities organise or expand their own car-free day, Stefan Vandenhende, (Brussels Capital Region, Cabinet of the Minister of Mobility, Road Safety and Public Works), shares invaluable insights into the workings, challenges and successes of this extremely popular Brussels tradition.

How to expand your car-free day

Even though Brussels’ Car-Free Sunday looks and feels like an extended street party, there are some rules – and exceptions – to ensure a smooth flow on the day: Public transport continues to circulate (and is free for all), while emergency services, people with disabilities and taxis are among the exceptions allowed to use cars; individuals can also request exceptions (e.g. people who need to move house), and any non-authorised use of motorised vehicles is prohibited. Enforcing this, and enabling the transformation of public space across the 162 km² region, means not only organising road closures and managing exception requests, but also clearly communicating these rules and transformations to the public.

“You start by defining an area, a bigger but coherent area can sometimes be easier. Communicate well in advance on the date, rules and exceptions. And then, most of all, make sure you facilitate both bottom-up as well as top-down events of all sizes and shapes, a car-free day should be about having fun,” shares Vandenhende.

Of course, regular car users need to plan alternative means of moving around, cafe owners need to be ready for big business, and pedestrians, cyclists and roller-bladers need to plan their social events and ensure they make the most of the shared public space. 

Reaping the rewards

A car-free day of this magnitude also requires financial investment and political backing. The Brussels Capital Region spends a significant amount on promoting and managing the event. However, its continued popularity, impact reducing air and noise pollution, and ability to show an alternative daily reality, make the investment worth it, as Vandenhende points out:

“For many of us in Brussels, it’s our favourite day of the year. It’s a day without worries, to meet your friends and neighbours in the street, to suddenly see kids cycle and play everywhere. A whole new city appears and it’s the most lively and pleasant chaos you cannot experience any other day of the year.”

Despite challenges originally raised by car lobbyists and those concerned about potential negative economic consequences arising from the Car-Free Sunday, Vandenhende and the organising team highlight that local businesses thrive on the day. In addition, drastically improved rates of air quality are achieved. The relaxed atmosphere and joy experienced by those present, and the ever-increasing number of participants from all around the country, clearly show that Car-Free Sunday is here to stay. In the latest opinion survey, carried out in 2018, more than 90% of inhabitants showed support for Car-Free Sunday. In a citizens' panel carried out by Brussels Mobility in 2018, the top three requests for improved mobility in Brussels included more and better-quality cycle paths, a larger cycling network connecting the suburbs with the city, and a Car-Free Sunday once per month!

Starting small is better than not at all

While a city-wide car-free day is the ultimate goal, it is clear that not all cities can afford to organise one on a similar scale. Vandenhende emphasises that Brussels also started small; car-free neighbourhoods were tested already in the year 2000 and quickly developed into the city-wide Car-Free Sunday people know and love today. While a coherent, larger area can also bring many economies of scale and may be easier to communicate, it is better to start small rather than not at all.

Check out the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK 10 essential steps to organising any car-free day, especially one that extends across an entire town or city. 

Humanising shared public space in Cyprus

18 April 2024

Last month, we sat down with Dr. Vana Gkania, the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK National Coordinator for Cyprus, to hear her insights from the 2023 campaign, her thoughts on the 2024 theme ‘Shared Public Space’, and the potential for greater awareness around sustainable mobility in Cyprus.

What activities are you most proud of from the Cyprus EUROPEAN MOBILITY WEEK 2023?

Gkania: I am very proud of the achievements of our capital, Nicosia. The municipality organised many activities during EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK, in particular to promote their latest permanent mobility measures. Many of these measures focussed on achieving a better modal share and promoting bike networks. One focus, for example, is on better connecting the Universities of Nicosia with the city centre with new cycle lanes. 

There was also a special race with people dressed to impress while riding bicycles, scooters or roller blades. The focus was on dressing fancy, with the winners chosen because of the fanciest costumes. The prize was an impressive e-scooter! It all ended with a big party. This event took place at the beginning of the week and served as a launch - or kick-start - for the rest of the week. Nicosia was a Golden Participant (meaning it registered activities during the main event week, installed at least one permanent measure, and organised a Car-Free Day) and later applied for the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK Award. I am very proud because it is not easy to become a Golden Participant. 

How has participation developed in recent years? 

Gkania: It has increased. In 2023, not only was the participation greater in quantity, but also the quality. In previous years, the activities tended to repeat themselves but now, local coordinators and organisers are being more creative and doing more interesting things to stand out.

What impressed you the most?

Gkania: In Aglantzia (a suburb of Nicosia), the local coordinator organised an art installation outside the Athalassa park that represents the space occupied by a car, relative to bikes. Essentially it is a bike parking space in the shape of a car. It was the motivated new local EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK coordinator for Aglantzia, who made the difference here. 

Let’s talk about Shared Public Space – the 2024 theme. What does this theme mean to you? 

Gkania: I believe that Shared Public Space is about the humanisation of public space. It is about freeing up space that is normally used by car traffic to non-motorised mobility. Space is where you feel safe to move without having to follow specific signs or routes, regardless of how you choose to move. All should feel equal on the streets.

What Shared Public Space challenges have you faced in Cyprus?

Gkania: Cyprus doesn’t have big plazas like those in other European countries. Public space is therefore mostly about our streets. In Cyprus you cannot see many pedestrians; car drivers are not used to them. Car drivers still feel dominant; over 90% of all trips are made by car in Cyprus. We need to raise the visibility of pedestrians and balance out the streets. It is hard to imagine removing the traffic lanes or on-street parking. Political pressure is huge to not change; shopkeepers and traders are reluctant to embrace change. It is not easy to stimulate interest. The Ministry of Transport, Communication and Works and the municipalities try to promote sustainable travel, but the car is the dominant mode of transport in Cyprus and many people still use it, even for short distances. Our streets have been oriented for years around the needs of cars. They weren’t built like this in one night; so, we can’t fix them in one night either.

What Shared Public Space successes have you achieved?

Gkania: Over the last years Cyprus has introduced lower speed limits for shared streets. In the historic core areas, the limit is 30 km/h. But a new law is about to be implemented regarding Special Measures for the Reduction of Atmospheric Pollutants and Greenhouse Emissions from Road Transport that refers to low emissions zones, through which the movement of polluting vehicles will be prohibited, allowing exceptions only for residents. In recent years, SUMPs (Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans) have helped a lot. So, things are moving forward, despite resistance.

What potential is there for spreading more awareness around sustainable mobility?

Gkania: We continue to push for change; we have given free promotional materials to municipalities - for example stickers of the EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK mascots and colouring blocks for children. This helps. The front cover of the colouring block translates as ‘Imagine your city in whatever colours you want!’.  We also have local awards to encourage active participation. The public has increasingly participated in EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK, so it is making a difference.

The potential lies with younger people; they want to see change. Older people aren’t willing to change as much or give up old habits. With the youth, change is progressing. The more people see mobility initiatives and new permanent measures, the more they support them and open up. 

 

Dr. Vana Gkania has been the National Coordinator for Cyprus for EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK since 2018. She is an Executive Engineer in Sustainable Mobility at the Public Works Department, Ministry of Transport, Communications and Works, Cyprus.

Learn more about EUROPEANMOBILITYWEEK in Cyprus via the facebook page and the website.