Car-free in Brussels

For the nine months that I lived in Brussels, I didn’t have a car, and I didn’t drive. But I didn’t miss it, and even if I had been given the opportunity, I rarely would I have chosen to take a car.

The problem with driving

The problems with driving in Brussels are similar to those in most major cities. Excessive traffic, rude drivers, maddening intersections and the often difficult task of finding parking. Not to mention, if I went out at night, more often than not driving home would have been irresponsible. Then there’s the cost (of the car, the maintenance, the gas), the insurance, and the issue of getting an international license.

The alternative

Instead of driving, I walked, biked, and took public transportation (often a combination of the three). Brussels has ample public transportation. There are buses, trams, and the metro. They run from before the sun rises until late at night, and on the weekends, there are night buses until the early hours of the morning. Public transportation is not always clean or punctual, and it’s overcrowded during rush hour. But the network is extensive and it’s convenient and easy. Unlike driving, public transportation doesn’t demand your full attention: you can read a book, open up Instapaper (or Read It Later), watch the city go by or strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Public transportation is useful and I’m glad it exists, but it’s not wonderful. Walking and biking, on the other hand, are wonderful. They allow you not only to see the city, but to experience it.1 You see, smell, hear, feel and notice things you would otherwise have missed. You can explore, and diverge from the beaten path. You can change course anytime. And on top of all that, it’s healthier. And in Brussels, biking is usually faster than taking the bus.

No form of transportation is completely frustration-free. With biking, you still have to deal with some traffic and rude drivers. No matter what you take, you have to wait at some intersections and wonder if the lights could be timed any worse. But biking and walking are simply more rewarding. It’s your effort carrying you, not a noisy, expensive metal box.

Villo

Biking in Brussels is especially convenient thanks to Villo, a subscription-based bicycle sharing system.2 It’s essentially very-short-term rental: you pay a subscription fee (€1.5 for the day, €7 for the week, €30 for the year), and that gives you access to all the Villo bikes at various stations around the city (approximately every 450 meters, according to the website). You take a bike from one station, and leave it at another. If you have it for 30 minutes or less, it’s free (excluding the subscription fee). Every 30 minutes past that is €.50. The great thing is, you can get most places in less than 30 minutes. So for €30 a year, you get a bike that you can use anytime and access from anywhere in the city.

In some ways, it’s even better than having your own bike (excepting the quality, of course). You don’t have to find somewhere to leave it. You don’t have to worry about it getting stolen. You can ride somewhere and walk or take public transportation back, or vice versa. You don’t have to think about how you’ll get the bike back home.

There are some issues. You do have to know where the stations are (but that’s easier than finding parking). Sometimes there are no bikes at a station, while at the same time, popular stations can be full, and you have to wait for a free spot. Nonetheless, in my experience, the benefits outweigh the costs, and it’s certainly the cheapest way to start biking in Brussels.

Discovery

On his transition to walking instead of driving, Leo Babauta says, “It’s the best way to discover the joys of a new place — cars isolate you and speed you by the best bits.” He’s absolutely right (although for me it was by bike). It’s amazing the difference simply slowing down can make. There are so many unique places in Brussels, each area like a little urban village of its own, waiting to be discovered, and I found many interesting streets and squares by biking around aimlessly. Opting for a bike or one’s feet instead of a metal box can mean the difference between experiencing a city and merely passing through it. Public transportation and cars make it about the destination, while walking and biking shift the focus toward the journey. And if you’re lucky, you might find something more than just the destination you set out for.

[Inspired by Leo Babauta’s post on going car-free]


  1. Public transportation is part of the experience of a city as well, but nothing is missed by avoiding it. 

  2. Similar programs exist around the world

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