Railfuture is pro-rail rather than being anti-road. However, many imagine what life might be like if roads did not dominate people’s lives as they currently do. Whilst on a business trip to Brussels, Jerry Alderson had a chance to experience what a world with far fewer cars would feel like and how the public might make use of their new freedom to walk, cycle and play in relative safety. All photos by the author.
When Number Six (John Drake?) woke up in ‘his’ bedroom and looked out of the window he didn’t see the street scene he was expecting (and not because his Lotus 7 Series II car had vanished). He immediately knew it was very wrong, and soon found that he had become a prisoner in ‘the Village’.
Sometimes the world looks the same but less is happening.
In the mid-1970s BBC television series Survivors, created by Terry Nation, the eponymous characters found themselves in an almost silent and still world where normal life ceased to exist because 99% of the population had died.
Sometimes one doesn’t immediately realise that anything is ‘wrong’ at all, perhaps because it feels so ‘right’, just how the world actually ought to be. It looks the same as normal, plenty of people are moving around but it is still eerily silent.
On 17 September 2017 when Railfuture director Jerry Alderson stepped outside onto the streets of Brussels it felt like a typical quiet Sunday morning. It was possible to cross the street without having to wait for any traffic. Only after six minutes when the first vehicle passed by, a taxi, did it become apparent that it was the first motorised vehicle of any kind. It was soon followed by a bus and another taxi. These were the only sounds to be heard, apart from birdsong, which was another new experience.
Walking into the Métro station at Schuman, which is next to the EU Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, the ticket barriers were all open and each was showing green (see photo below). No-one was queuing at the ticket machines and everyone just walked straight through without ‘touching in’. Something else that didn’t feel right.
So, when in Rome…, if no-one else is paying let’s become a ‘black traveller’ (a rather dubious term for fare evader) for a change.
Although the metro trains were not particularly busier than normal, the travellers seemed a little more affluent that usual and that is ‘code’ for being white. It’s a sad fact that, unlike the London Underground, which is used by everyone, the majority of Brussels metro users are relatively poorer than average and far more than half are non-white. Despite the governments investing in infrastructure enhancements to the public transport network, the better-off are more likely to use their cars especially as the Belgian tax system encourages car use including company cars offering unlimited ‘free’ petrol purchased within Belgium.
More people were making use of the public transport. However, because a Saturday service was operating there wasn’t overcrowding. Unlike Britain, which has increasingly become a 7-day society, on much of the European mainland Sunday is still a quiet day with high-street shops all being closed.
There was nothing to tell people that it was a special day. There was a complete absence of notices, posters or announcements that public transport was free, and nothing either to tell people not to use their car, although some roads were blocked. Whether drivers would be fined was not clear; however, as it is an annual event, taking place on one September Sunday each year, most drivers would know.
The touchpads by the doors on the trams were displaying a message that the travel was free (see top-left corner of photo montage). Some people boarding did touch-in. When reminding them that it wasn’t necessary several said that it was done out of habit (habitude). Let’s hope those with pay-as-you-go smartcards were not charged.
Unfortunately no –one had thought to suppress the automated announcements on trams and buses that reminded passengers: "Please don’t forget to validate your ticket" so they had good reason to claim a refund.
The real joy of the day was not the free travel or the lack of noise but seeing people enjoy themselves. Rather than being confined to their gardens or perhaps a park, young children with stabilisers on their bicycles were learning to ride on the road, others riding on manual scooters, and both young and old using skateboards and rollerblades. All in the middle of the road. People even stood there and chatted, as if to make a point, just because they could.
Despite being the 17th successive year where a September Sunday had been designated a car-free day, the free Metro newspaper considered it sufficiently newsworthy to make it the main photo on the front page.
For Railfuture a continual concern is the millions of people who would never consider using public transport simply because they never need to. At least this annual event makes people think even if there’s little evidence that it changes daily behaviour. A question for Britain is whether its major transport bodies such as Transport for London (TfL) or Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) might consider doing something similar?
Railfuture is run entirely by volunteers and funded by its many members (click Join). It campaigns for a bigger and better railway in Britain, especially improving the passenger experience. Feedback can be e-mailed to feedback at railfuture.org.uk.
Read some of the previous articles by this writer: Eurostar's New Trains, Carlisle Sets Example, Day Ranger Day Out, Railfuture Gives Evidence, Prague Compared, Hopping to Catch a Train, Mountain of Ideas, Sent to Coventry, Fare Rises - RPI vs CPI, New Year, Better Railway, Passenger Growth Future, Passenger Priorities, Accessible Travel, Stansted Experience, Widening the NET, Cheapest fares by law?