Brussels: a turf war between cars and bicycles

As the number of cyclists on the streets of Brussels increases, so do the tensions between drivers and cyclists. It’s visible on the streets and also on social media: “The first cyclist I see messing around will be getting in close touch with my windscreen.”

On Friday evening, the Brussels police issued official reports of assault and battery on two female cyclists in the Dansaert quarter. Julie De Clercq, 40, had been for a drink with colleagues and was cycling home. “As we crossed a street, a car came up, far too fast for that narrow street. He signalled to us that we were in his way and I gave him a hand signal telling him to simmer down. He got out of the car and hit me really hard in the face. I was appalled and terrified, but something like that happened to another inhabitant of Brussels to whom I told the story.”
Clara Vanmuysen, 36, who lives in Sint-Joost-ten-Node, has a similar story to tell. “I was called a filthy whore because my husband, who was cycling in front of me, made a sign to a driver asking him to slow down. On our own narrow street, one motorist began to sound his horn and yell at me and my young children because he couldn’t overtake us. It happens often: when cars have to stay behind us, it triggers a physical battle for space. And when they do overtake us, they do it extra roughly, as if they wanted to put us in our place once and for all. You can feel their frustration.”
For decades, Brussels was motorist territory, but this is changing fast. Current Minister for Mobility ¬Elke Van den Brandt’s (Green party) policy is centred on bicycles. Earlier this year, she announced the construction of a new 40-km cycle track which, among others, will be replacing a car lane on Wetstraat/rue de la Loi (DS, 29 April). According to Brussels Mobility, the existing infrastructure – together with the shunning of public transport due to coronavirus – appears to be playing its part: during the first week of school, the number of cyclists had increased by 75% compared with the previous year. Motor traffic, on the other hand, dropped by 4 to 8 per cent.

“Green dictatorship”

A huge increase in the number of cyclists and a not so huge decrease in the number of cars are generating congestion and fuelling conflict and tension, believes Thomas Schoenmakers of Brussels knowledge centre Pro Velo.
“Since the end of lockdown, I’ve seen more road users behaving in an entitled manner, at any rate in densely populated areas. Motorists are having to put up with congestion and are taking out their frustration on cyclists.”
It is unclear how many road-rage incidents are actually happening. The police believe the “dark number” is high, certainly in the case of verbal attacks, which many people do not report to the police.
One thing is for sure, though: the anger is not limited to the streets and is also to be found online. Groups have formed on social networks with the ostensible purpose of defending motorists.
The largest of these is L’automobiliste en a marre! – “Motorists have had enough!” –, which was set up at the initiative of nonprofit organisation Mauto Défense. Since its creation in October 2018, the latter has attracted over 16,000 members. Its chairman Lucien Beckers told us that he has had “a real passion for cars since childhood.” He has organised and taken part in rallies. “For me, and for many other people, cars are one of the great pleasures of life,” says Beckers. “Brussels is now trying to take that away from us by limiting our freedom. They want to do away with cars. That’s frustrating to some people.”
Beckers says that he has “nothing against riders or cyclists”, but opposes “the policy of the Region, which, scandalously, is using the health crisis to start an all-out war against motorists.” “They’re not listening to us. All the new cycle tracks are being built without any consultation whatsoever, or impact studies. And all under the cover of Covid,” he says. In his view, this is “green dictatorship”. He is currently taking legal action “against the unlawful building of cycle tracks and the congestion this is creating.”
The plans to limit car traffic to certain lanes in the Bois de la Cambre is another subject of discontent within the group (DS, 31 August). Beckers also does not believe that motor traffic needs to be cut in order to keep the city liveable and combat climate change. “That’s an environmentalist fantasy.”
The frustrations he describes have led to outright hate on L’automobiliste en a marre!, something Beckers strongly denies. One post reads: “A good cyclist is a dead cyclist.” Or: “Zebra crossings are for pedestrians. I’ll do my best to run over cyclists who use them.” Or: “The first cyclist I see messing around will be getting in close touch with my windscreen.” When a woman posted a report of a motorist trying to run down a carrier cycle with children in it, someone responded: “Keep the good news coming.”

Online hate, road rage

Such online posts “also encourage road rage”, fears Pieter Fannes of Heroes for Zero, a citizens’ initiative that aims to bring down the number of traffic fatalities to zero in the Brussels Region. “I’m worried that they create an atmosphere that legitimises violence against cyclists.” Minister Van den Brandt is equally concerned. “We’re seeing online hate translate into road rage.” She says. “But our message will remain the same: more cyclists mean smoother traffic, even for motorists, as each extra cyclist means one car less on the road.”
However, responses such as those on L’automobiliste en a marre show that not all inhabitants of Brussels agree with her.