Slaying the mobility dragon
We have work to do, that much is clear. If we take a ‘business as usual’ approach to our mobility situation, then within a few years we’ll be driving at 30km/h. Indeed, it is a frightening thought that our increasing mobility could in fact lead to immobility, bringing us all to standstill. That is why we need to be proactive in managing the mobility challenges of the coming decades. In this the government has a clear responsibility; according to Kris Peeters, government must have the courage to make innovative choices to prevent Flanders from choking on its own mobility.
Looking at it from the long-term, how do you see us tackling the mobility challenges in this country?
I think there will be a lot more reflection about our personal mobility. We will more often ask ourselves the question whether making a journey is really necessary, and if so, how we should best approach that journey, by car, by public transport, the timing too. Cost will be an important element in this—certainly with measures such as road pricing—but also the environmental cost will be considered. The alternatives will get more interesting too, just think of the new audiovisual communication technologies, internet, etc. Perhaps we’ll even be moving toward less mobility.
The management of our road capacity will also change. At the moment we all drive to and from work at the same time. We all take our kids to school at the same time. Freight too is all too often still forced to move about during the peak times. We need to spread that traffic out more. There is so much spare capacity on our roads during non-peak times, especially at night—we need to exploit that capacity better. We’ve got projects in place to explore these opportunities. It must be possible to get more lorries off the road during peak hours by means of better arrangements with ports and distributors. Also, distribution in the cities could be organised differently.
New transport modes will probably be introduced too, for example, pipelines for moving goods. A lot has been said about this but it should really be explored. In a densely populated area such as Flanders this makes a lot of sense. We also already have serious know-how in this area.
Public transport is another key area. A lot of work has been done here. We have tried to guarantee basic mobility by giving people access to public transport within 500 metres of their door. Admittedly, we need to move away from this approach and focus more on the urban environment, on quality, on punctuality, on safety; those are the success factors to make public transport more dynamic.
It strikes us that policy in this area is difficult, because it involves so many different domains, urban planning, environment, energy, logistics and the economy, etc...
Obviously there is no silver bullet solution here. This is why it is so important to address mobility issues carefully and very pragmatically, to look for good policy measures by trying them out. Even with the best research and studies it is crazy to simply churn out new legislation. That’s why I am a great believer in pilot projects to test things out. The Dutch are pretty good at this. In the past this has worked well, for example, the 70 km/h speed in the Kennedy Tunnel. The super trucks should also have been tested, perhaps we still can. It is so important to try new measures out first, in the real world, before we turn them into legislation. That’s because mobility is like a dragon with many heads: if you think that you’re solving one problem, a new problem pops up a few metres away.
In our conversations with others in the mobility world, we hear a lot about how well other countries do. Think of the Dutch with their roads and cycle paths, the Swiss and their trains. In Flanders’ strategic plan (Flanders in Action - VIA) logistics is a key focus area. Is this our attempt, our answer to making this country a benchmark case in the world of transport?
We already are to a certain degree. I can assure you, if you enter Flanders via the Port of Antwerp you definitely get that wow effect. Sure, we have to compare ourselves to other countries—it keeps us focused—but it is important to understand the unique context too. Every country organised its available space and transport infrastructure according to its own needs, context, and challenges. We’re unique in that sense too. And we have to be honest about our strengths. We have a world-class port in which we invest very heavily—the dredging alone costs millions per year. The same goes for our inland waterways—this is unique infrastructure. Our rail network too, sure there is room for improvement here, especially in freight services, but nevertheless it is a great deal of infrastructure. With VIA we are saying that we need to exploit this investment, this infrastructure, our unique location. To not do so, to let it simply slide, would be a capital mistake. Our investments need to deliver an economic return. But what we’re also saying with VIA is that it isn’t about quantity but about quality. That’s why we’re calling it intelligent logistics. We are looking for logistics with added value. Logistics has become a very sophisticated business, a great deal is happening in that world.
Let’s talk about public private partnerships (PPP) for infrastructure development. We have spoken to proponents and detractors—what is your view on the matter?
In Flanders we started with PPP a little later than other countries, and – with hindsight – we launched into it a little too enthusiastically. We immediately opted for very complex PPP constructions, such as the Antwerp Masterplan. But in the past five years we have learned a great deal, we all have, the contractors too. The conclusion after five years of PPP is that this instrument must be used in the future too, but we will be more careful, and better prepared. We know a lot more about risk management, about ‘best practices’ and standards in this area.
How is the cooperation between the ports going? You took an initiative there with Flanders Port Area. Are your expectations too high? Higher than what the ports have in mind?
We have two major ports (Antwerp and Zeebrugge), and Ghent and Ostend are pretty significant too, in such a small area. That is pretty unique internationally. Surely it makes that the ports have a constructive working relationship. I think there was some anxiety about the initiative that we wanted to create a single super port, to reduce their autonomy. Therefore we’ve approached it very gradually, stepwise, to explore areas for better cooperation. The trade missions abroad have been very useful in that regard. And who would have thought back then that we’re now seeing such cooperation on the financing of the locks for the waterways.
One of the criticisms we’ve heard is that there is a need for more integrated policy across the various governments—the regions, the federal government...
I’ve said it before; the colour of the cat doesn’t matter, as long as it catches mice. We need to approach this very pragmatically. It makes no sense to get stuck in heavy political discussions. In some areas it makes sense that we take the initiative (as we are with Flanders in Action), in others it makes sense that Brussels does, or the federal government. We need to address the challenges very practically. We’re a complex country. People abroad look at us with interest in the way we organise things here. Indeed, there are some interesting constructions, for example, the distinction between a region and a community. But I think this has worked so far because we could afford it. Looking ahead though, I doubt whether this is a sustainable way of managing our challenges, it is simply unaffordable. But in the mean time I think it’s best to tackle things very pragmatically.
In conclusion, do you have any suggestions for business? How can companies prepare for the changes in our mobility situation?
Most companies already realise that mobility comes at a cost, and that this cost will only increase, especially as the environmental cost begins to be factored in more. Thus the challenge for companies will be how to manage their mobility more intelligently. This needs to be done more proactively. There is an opportunity in this too, for companies that want to develop smart solutions in mobility and logistics. We at the level of policy have a responsibility to offer a framework, via infrastructure, via road pricing, but also by not being afraid to innovate and trying out new things. But this applies just as much to companies, who need to think up new solutions using the resources and intelligence they have access too.
About Kris Peeters
You're exploring 'Move', The Fifth Conference on transport and mobility in Belgium
About The Fifth Conference
The Fifth Conference is an innovation platform for people who like to think. We publish a journal, host events and make this website.