A Tale of Three Cities – Brussels: Biking because I could

As I mentioned in my previous post, I vacationed in Europe this past March. My friend and I visited Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. While I was there for vacation, most of my photos are of transportation. In the first part of this series, I discussed meeting my daily step goals walking around Paris. In this post, I reflect on traveling around Brussels by walking, biking, and riding public transportation.

We took the train from Paris to Brussels. While I love Amtrak, riding the Thayls in Europe was the next level of train experiences. I liked that my seat was assigned, which meant not having to walk up and down the aisles of the train to find a seat. They also screened all bags and passengers before boarding the train. After an hour train ride, we arrived in Brussels. To get to our accommodations in Brussel’s city center, we took a subway train to the neighborhood and walked the rest of the way.

My transportation takeaways are:

Most streets are for People

Brussels was a nice change of pace. In Paris, people walking and biking were a priority only on the streets for biking and walking. On streets with cars, people were walking and biking at their own risks. However, in Brussels it seemed like people walking and biking were a priority even on streets with cars. Most of the secondary streets in Brussels are for walking and biking only or walking and biking priority. I could walk from where we were staying to other places around Brussels without ever interacting with a motor vehicle. Even on the main roads, people drive slow and give priority to people walking and biking.

The density and street layout of Brussels encourages a walking and biking lifestyle. Brussels was design prior to the invention of cars, so most of the buildings have retail on the bottom and residential or office on the top. Most streets are narrow and/or are cobblestoned.

I couldn’t NOT Bike

In Brussels, I couldn’t get on a bike fast enough. The bike infrastructure and the friendly behavior of people driving was all the temptation I needed to get on a bike. Brussels has a bikeshare system with stations every few blocks along the main roads. There were a few streets where the bike lane has a painted buffer. For other streets, they have wide lane with a dashed bike lane in the center to keep people biking out of the parked car door zone on the right and have 3 feet of clearance from moving vehicles on the left. Many of the one-way streets are signed two-way for bicycles.

The bikeshare system was easy to use. It took me about two minutes from start to finish to rent a bike. For a 24-hour pass, the price was only $1.71 (USD) and a $150 hold on my credit card. I biked around for about 20 minutes. For my first ride, I identified the bike number I wanted to use and the system released that bike for me. I received a code to use from 24-hours for any other rides.

The signage for bicycles was at an appropriate eye level for people biking. Even without knowing the language, the bicycle signage used a clever system of arrows and pictures to clearly show which streets I could bike on and the best routes for me to travel. The most amazing part about biking was no one parks or stops their car in the bike lane. For example, while biking I encountered a truck that was unloading in a car travel lane and not in the bike lane.

More Information is Better

The public transit system was easy to use and generally intuitive. My favorite feature of Brussel’s system was the next train arrival information displayed outside the train station on the street. In the DC region, if you want to know next train arrivals you either need an app on your phone or you must walk into the station. I wish WMATA would adopt a similar display system outside their metro stations, especially at locations where I have an option between bus and rail.

In the next post, I will discuss Amsterdam, one of the world capitals of biking. Did I bike or not? Find out in a few weeks!

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

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What is Inclusion?

In 2016, I have given talks of various lengths about transportation/urban planning and equity. Over my career, I have found that when people hear the words diversity and inclusion they default to race and income, often confounding the two. For example, I hear people mention low-income, minority communities. However, as we work on different project and I grow as a professional, I have learned that diversity and inclusion does include race and income as well as other factors. In transportation, I believe that a system that is diverse and inclusive gives everyone independence, options, and assurance that they can get to point A to B safely, timely, and reliably.

On Friday November 4, 2016, I had the privilege of being the keynote at the Annual Harrisonburg & Rockingham Bike-Walk Summit. This year’s theme was “Stronger Together: Building an Inclusive Biking and Walking Community”. As the keynote, I framed the conversation and provided food for thought. The afternoon sessions where small group discussions of how to take my talking points and apply it in the Harrisonburg & Rockingham County context.

Here are some points that I shared with them to consider when building an inclusive biking and walking community.

  1. Be inclusive of persons with disabilities: Often when talking about biking and walking, persons with disabilities are excluded. There are opportunities to include persons with disabilities in active transportation. For example, the organization that I co-founded, Black Women Bike, has visually impaired women that ride with us. We use a tandem bike and a pilot, which is a sighted person.
  2. Engage non-traditional partners: One way to accomplish this is engaging non-traditional partners in transportation planning. For the District’s multimodal plan, moveDC, we engaged advocates that serve low income, homeless, veteran advocates, youth, immigrants, disability/mobility, and LGBTQ populations.
  3. Use images that reflect the community: Photos and images are an easy way to make people feel included. Often on marketing materials the person biking or walking is a fit, young adult. If there is diversity, it is what I call the United Colors of Benneton diversity, which is one person of each race, but they are young models. Photos should reflect the diversity of the community including race/ethnicity, age, abilities, size, shape, professions, and neighborhoods. One way to get photos is to set up a group on a photo sharing website to crowdsource from the community.
  4. Don’t fight, invite: In my work with Nspiregreen and Black Women Bike, I’ve heard all the arguments against “cyclists”. I’ve learned not to fight. Instead, I invite them on a bike ride. Every time I’ve done this it has disarmed people. What I’ve realized is that some people perceive biking as something that is for young, physically fit people. The root feeling is exclusion. After describing how they can bike despite age and physical ability, people are curious and start asking more questions.
  5. Take meetings to the streets: The best way to engage people is to go to the streets. This could include farmer’s markets, bus stops, transit stations, events, festivals, and the literal street corner.

After hearing the report out from the interaction sessions at the summit, I was able to respond and leave everyone with final thoughts. The take home message from the day is that diversity and inclusion has to be intentional, authentic, and built into the planning process versus trying to retrofit after the fact. Diversity describes who is in the room during the planning process.  Inclusion is when people feel heard, they were part of the process, and the outcomes meet the needs of their community.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.

 

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Transportation Safety Means More Than Crashes: Beginning to Heal

See Part 1 of this blog discussing the issue of international and domestic transportation safety for women.

“Pink Transport” is a gender-segregated bus or train car that currently operates in over fifteen countries as a solution to personal safety for women. However, these gender specific mode options do not provide the capacity or service that make for equality and safety for women. Women entering the general boarding cars of trains-  which are now referred to as “men’s cars”- are targeted and harassed for not using the women-only cars. Women in cities like Beijing are even advised to dress more conservatively, and avoid wearing so-called “provocative” clothing like miniskirts. However, all of these transportation interventions and messaging puts the burden of personal safety solely on the victim of harassment.

With the goal of sustainability and the movement toward a greater non-auto mode split, the perception of safety on and around public transportation is paramount for success. People, especially women, will not travel on alternate means of transportation (bikes, bus, rail, etc.) if the system lacks the proper measures to protect personal safety. There are steps that agencies, the community, and women can take to help with this problem:

  1. Transit operators need to have the knowledge and practical steps to better deal with this issue. Sensitivity training, knowledge of proper actions to deal with crises, and a streamlined method of reporting these offenses to transit or local police could be implemented.
  2. Women should be encouraged to speak up or report offenses. Women need to feel empowered to recognize when harassment is occurring and how to report it. Public awareness campaigns in transit systems as well as on television and radio media could be used to increase awareness of the issue, provide easy information on reporting offenses, and help women to understand that they will be heard and action will be taken when they report harassment.
    Women are feeling more and more empowered to speak out and tell their stories of injustice, harassment, and sexual assault. Groups like the Collective Action for Safe Spaces DC and HollaBack help give women a platform to share their stories and avoid the isolating effect that harassment in a public spaces can bring. In the District, WMATA has a platform to submit instances of harassment on the Metrorail and Metrobuses but often this is after the fact.
  1. Harassment is everyone’s problem. The public must realize that everyone has a hand in making transportation systems safe. According to HollaBack, all it takes is harassers to have the mindset that their behavior is acceptable or will go unnoticed, and a community around the person that are unwilling to intervene. Everyone has the opportunity to make transportation systems safer for all users. 

Everyone can and should take part in ending harassment and violence against women both locally and globally. Harassers need to be confronted about their behaviors and made to understand that it is not acceptable, nor will it go unnoticed. It takes a community of allies to help stop this behavior and help defend women that may feel- in the moment- embarrassed, alone, and helpless.

No one has to do everything, but everyone has to do something”- HollaBack

 

Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 

 





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