Commuters in Belgium urged to hitchhike to cut traffic congestion

World Saturday 28/September/2019 10:58 AM
By: Times News Service
Commuters in Belgium urged to hitchhike to cut traffic congestion

Brussels: The act of thumbing a lift has been in and out of favour over the years, romanticised in great works of literature chronicling the travails of workers in the Great Depression or the young and cash-strapped seeking adventure in the second half of the last century.

While it might no longer be the stuff of novels, there are signs in Belgium, at least, that the practice could be making a comeback – albeit in a digital form and with help from the authorities.

Under plans being formulated by the local government in Brussels, commuters are set to be encouraged to hitchhike to work as part of efforts to free up what are among Europe’s most congested roads. The average driver in Brussels spends 85 hours a year stuck in traffic.

A hitchhiking app that connects drivers who have spare seats to those without a ride is being developed by a start-up. The Brussels capital region government is in talks about promoting the service through its own official travel app, which, once launched, will bring together as many alternative modes of transport as possible.

Local officials are coming under pressure from MPs to ensure that the model it promotes stays true to the original hitchhiking concept by ensuring there is no money exchanged, unlike in existing carpooling services.

Julien Uyttendaele, an MP in the Brussels parliament whose Socialist party is part of the governing left-Green coalition, said that in part due to a rise of “individualism” the practice of hitchhiking had fallen into disuse and that it would be a major step in the right direction to revive it.

“The goal here is not to have a business logic like BlaBlaCar or UberPOP but to offer an app that would allow drivers to get in touch with passengers who want to share part of their journey for free,” he said.

“Hitchhiking has become obsolete and the logic of bringing a stranger into the vehicle is considered insecure. But via new technologies, this measure would help in the fight against the damage we are inflicting upon ourselves.”

“I think hitchhiking has come into disuse because we are more individualistic,” Uyttendaele added. “I take public transport but if I had a car, I would have no problem picking someone up from the street. Especially if now because of technology I know who that person is. I want this to be done by the administration or a non-profit association, not by a commercial organisation.”

The Brussels region’s government wants to reduce the number of single-passenger cars on its roads by 20 per cent – a target that would clear up traffic jams.

It is creating its one-stop app to bring together all the possible alternative transport methods, and the minister for mobility, Elke Van den Brandt, told the Brussels parliament this week that an app in development that is seeking to “reinvigorate hitchhiking” would be included.

Pieterjan Desmet, from the minister’s office, said the government elected in July was determined not to close its mind to any schemes that would ease congestion in Brussels.

“The cabinet had a meeting with the developer,” he said. “The economic model they propose is that people pay a fee of €5 to €10 to sign up to the app and they put the driver in touch with the person who needs a lift. The driver then can calculate how to share the cost of travelling but that is left to them to sort out among themselves”.

Recent studies suggest that Brussels is one of the most congested cities in Europe, if not the worst. Contributing factors to the problem include a corporate tradition of providing cars to employees, Belgians’ propensity to commute into their main cities and the poor layout of orbital roads around Brussels.

The Belgian capital’s efforts to tackle congestion have also been hindered by its complicated structure of government, with the Brussels parliament needing to coordinate efforts with the federal, francophone Walloon, and Flemish authorities.

Van den Brandt said that beyond clearing the roads, it was vital to act now as part of efforts to tackle the climate crisis. She said: “We have to look for what we have in common and find solutions together. Maybe it will not be easy, but we will talk. I am optimistic.”

The city is also looking at introducing a congestion charge similar to that deployed in London. It is estimated drivers in Brussels can expect a journey to take an average of 37 per cent longer than it should.