The first officially recorded Belgian traffic jam dates back to the 1950s, when cars became stuck in the new tunnels on Avenue Louise shortly after they were opened in preparation for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair.
Many decades later, Belgium now has the doubtful honor of having two of its cities – Antwerp and Brussels - ranking very highly in lists of the most traffic congested cities. Though the exact place of these cities in the rankings may differ, depending on the statistics and rankings consulted, it’s yet another reminder of the severity of the congestion issues that many of us experience on a daily basis.
Looking at media coverage, the increased number of passenger cars, vans, and trucks are frequently defined as root causes of traffic congestion, combined with the perceived mindset of the company car driver as being unwilling to set their company car aside and consider alternative modes of transport.
The reality is more complex. If we look at Antwerp and Brussels, where traffic is most intense and congestion issues are most grating, it’s hardly a coincidence that these are two of the areas with the highest economic activity, combined with high population densities and growth above the EU-average. Not to mention that Belgium’s geographical location has a prevalent logistical role to play for many companies - a key factor contributing to the significant number of trucks on our roads.
It’s easy to identify issues and causes, but harder to come up with effective solutions. One possible solution we often hear proposed is to ‘abolish’ the company car regime or make it more expensive, seemingly forgetting that several (mostly tax) measures have already made the company car more expensive over the past few years. The extent to which any additional increase in cost would have a positive impact is uncertain, as studies have shown that if employees no longer have a company car, many will likely still opt for another car solution - for instance, their own car - which may ultimately be more polluting.
Meanwhile, there is no question that traffic congestion issues have a high economic and ecological cost. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) the economic cost can be estimated between 1% and 2% of our gross domestic product (GDP) or 4 to 8 Billion Euro per year. On a positive note, as awareness of these costs increases, a lot of people - including those that have a company car - are gradually changing their behavior, moving away from (company) cars and considering more sustainable mobility options. That we do not see the immediate effects of this mentality shift is probably due to the fact that the gradual change in mindset is outweighed by the increase of the number of people who are professionally active. Not only do we have more people working in Belgium, but people are also staying professionally active for longer over the course of their lives.
More people at work means more people on our roads commuting, visiting clients, or travelling for meetings and conferences. Identifying and implementing effective sustainable solutions to decrease traffic congestion under these circumstances depends on a combination of factors across different levels of decision-making. In this respect, it’s worth making a distinction between government policy and enterprise levels, although the two are interconnected.
At government policy level, there is an urgent need for more consistency and collaboration between different levels of government in Belgium. Government measures and policies need to be better aligned; common approaches in the design and planning of major infrastructure works are an absolute necessity if these projects are to have a cohesive impact beyond specific government territories.
At enterprise level, employers are ideally placed to transform car policies into mobility policies that incentivize employees to choose sustainable mobility options. No-one can deny that many enterprises show a willingness to redesign their policies, and great hopes have already been placed on the implementation of two legislative initiatives: cash-for-car and the mobility budget.
But the question is not whether employers want to encourage sustainable mobility solutions, or whether employees want to consider them, but whether the cash-for-car and mobility budget regimes are sufficiently flexible and able to meet the requirements of employers and employees. As it stands, the extent to which employers can put these regimes into practice remains largely dependent on the possibilities offered by the legislative framework, and as always, ‘the proof of the pudding, is in the eating’.