Brussels relinquishes "worst traffic" title; see how it’s doing it


A booming economy is normally a good thing, but it’s part of the reason traffic headaches are getting worse across Europe. In nearly every major city, traffic delays are getting worse -- some by several hours each year. But the European city that used to have the worst traffic of them all is a rare case of improvement.

London now has Europe’s worst traffic headache, according to new data from Inrix, a traffic analysis company. The typical commuters in the city’s main commuter zone wasted 96 hours stuck in traffic last year. That’s 17% worse -- an additional 14 hours of traffic -- over the course of just one year.

Brussels is happy to hand over its “worst traffic” crown, a title it held two years in a row. Make no mistake, its traffic is still awful. Its commuters waste 74 hours in traffic each year -- the second-worst traffic in Europe. But that’s nine fewer hours than the year before.

What Brussels is doing
In Brussels, like many cities, the problem seems obvious: there are too many cars. One of the problems is that its tax code actually encourages people to have them. In Belgium, companies that give their employees cars as part of their salary package actually receive tax breaks from the federal government.

Its traffic declined even though its efforts last year mainly involved looking for answers. It experimented with a plan to charge commuters for every kilometer they drove. A thousand drivers volunteered to take part in the study, although an online petition opposing the concept attracted 170,000 signatures.

Brussels is taking more ambitious steps this year. It’s studying ways to reduce traffic accidents and simplify its traffic laws. The idea is that fewer accidents should lead to fewer delays.

It has also turned part of its city center into a no-car zone. The zone is a kilometer long, Europe’s largest pedestrian zone. Some store owners like it since it makes it easier for tourists to shop.

Commuters are less fond of it. Bicyclists and pedestrians say it’s still exceedingly dangerous for them to travel to the no-car zone. And while alternative forms of commuting are fine during the pleasant summer months, what about fall and winter?

Good economy means bad traffic
France is also managing to buck the overall trend toward worsening traffic. All 13 French cites studied by Inrix showed traffic jams are easing. The typical Parisian spent 45 hours in traffic last year, 10 fewer than the year before. But Inrix says that improvement is because the French economy is getting worse. With higher unemployment, fewer people need to commute.

In contrast, congestion in the United Kingdom and Germany is getting worse as their economies continue to recover. Inrix found that in both countries, congestion in more than three-quarters of the cities has worsened.

London: Still a medieval city
For London, the problem is that there’s no room for its transportation systems to grow with its population. Its population has grown by nearly 25% over the past 25 years and is forecast to grow another 16% by 2030.

The chief operating officer for Transport for London, the agency that runs the London Underground, describes London as a “medieval city” in many ways.  Garrett Emmerson told the Financial Times that while Paris has grand boulevards, London’s roads are too small for the traffic they carry and there’s no room to grow. And transit systems are nearing capacity, if they aren’t already there.

Looking to smart solutions
London may find inspiration from other European cities that have cut congestion despite limited infrastructure. Milan, for example, provides free public transportation and its congestion has largely held steady, a success when traffic everywhere else is getting much worse.

Smart parking may also hold promise. Inrix says nearly a third of London’s congestion is caused by drivers who are looking for a place to park. Barcelona managed to cut traffic delays by 60% over the past five years, partly because of an app that tracks available parking space.

Other improvements are in the works. In addition to the biggest road enhancement project in a generation, it has also installed sensors at 6,000 traffic signals. It’s fine tuning its dynamic traffic management system.

It may take years for those projects to pay off, but it’s hoping to see improvement in next year’s traffic rankings.

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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