What the U.S. Can Learn from Belgium about Public Transport

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Terrible Brussels Traffic

According to annual INRIX Traffic Scorecard, Belgium has the worst traffic congestion of any country in Europe and North America. My adopted home, Antwerp, is listed as the city with the second worst city for traffic in the world, second only to….Brussels. Notorious cities for traffic, Los Angeles, Paris and New York are listed as the third, sixth and sixteenth worst cities for traffic, respectively. Boston doesn’t even crack top 25. While taking trips to Luxembourg and Normandy, we had to be ready to take the bus at 6:45 AM, simply because if we didn’t leave that early, we would have been stuck in traffic for hours. In short (kortom), traffic in Belgium is bad.

Although Belgium clearly has some of the worst traffic in the world, it still seems to me to be to be incredibly easy to get around this country. This is because although Belgium has an automobile traffic crisis, public transportation (openbaar vervoer), particularly in Antwerp, is efficient, frequent and inexpensive. As someone perpetually frustrated with transportation policy in the U.S., I would like to use this blog to talk about the innovations happening with public transportation in Belgium and what the U.S. could learn from them.

Trains

Belgium’s network of trains goes to virtually every Belgian city, town or village. There is even a train like that lets you beach resort hop along the Belgian coast. The trains are also regularly scheduled and frequent, so much so that I rarely, if ever, look up train times before heading to the station. Usually, the longest I will have to wait to go to another major Belgian city is fifteen to twenty minutes at the very most.

There are several types of trains. Thalys trains are the fastest, but are expensive and must be reserved ahead of time. These are best if you are hoping over to Amsterdam or Paris for a weekend. Within Belgian territory, Intercity (IC) Trains are the fastest and usually only stop in the larger cities. It takes only 40 minutes from Antwerp to Brussels with the Intercity Train, and many people commute from other cities to work in Brussels or Antwerp every day. Other trains include Inter-Regional (IR) Trains and L Trains, which are slower, but allow people from small towns to take the train too. Don’t take this on accident though if you are trying to get to Brussels within an hour. Oops.

Usually the cheapest way to get around Belgium is to use the Go Pass 10, which costs 50 euros for ten trips, which is quite a steal (5 euros per trip). I have used it to go to Liège, Mons, Brussels, Charleroi, and even Dordrecht in the Netherlands.

A little beat up, but always handy

A little beat up, but always handy

You could potentially use the train for a 6 hour ride from Knokke-Heist to Virton, which would cost you 25 euros and a standard fare. (I’m not sure why you would ever need to go from Knokke-Heist to Virton in a day, but just the fact that you could!)

All the way across Belgium for 5 euros!

All the way across Belgium for 5 euros!

One of my favorite parts of taking the train in Belgium is the ability to come back to Antwerp Central Station (Antwerpen Centraal) after a (usually not-so-long) trip to elsewhere in Belgium. The station was built at the end of the 19th century and commissioned by King Leopold and weirdly seems old-school and futuristic simultaneously. Coming back through the station always makes me feel very cosmopolitan.

Trams, Metro & Bus

Trams are the easiest, most effortless way to get around Antwerp. They are quite pricey if you buy your ticket on the tram: 2 euros. However, if you buy a 10-time punchcard, you get a 50% discount, which is a great deal. Along with the Antwerp Metro, you can go basically anywhere in Antwerp within half an hour. Along with a network of buses, the only time you would ever need a car in Antwerp is…well, probably never.

Shared Bikes

Antwerp has most likely the best shared bike system in the world, and the Velo system is how I most often get around Antwerp. For only 35 euros for an entire yearyou can make use of bikes placed strategically all over the city. There are several advantages to shared bikes (gedeelde fietsen) over owning your own bike. First of all, you never have to remember to bring a lock, keys or lights, they are already there! Second, It takes seconds to check one out and they are nearly always bikes available. In the very rare chance that all the bikes are taken, you just have to check your handy iPhone app to see where there are available bikes, which will not be more than a two minute bike ride away. Lastly, you never have to worry about your bike getting stolen (Looking at you, Amsterdam!) Velo is something that could work really well in many American cities. It would promote healthy living, decrease congestion and lower costs for those who don’t want to shell out for an expensive bike. Take note, Portland!

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