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Public transport service and use in Brussels from 1950 to 2017

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This is the press release related to the article from Vincent Carton, published on September 17 2018. Read the article.

The recent presence of King Philippe during the inauguration of tram 9 in northwest Brussels underlines the exceptional nature of the creation of a new tram line in Brussels. While the debate on public transport is often centred on the project to extend the underground northwards, this implementation also has the virtue of highlighting the other STIB networks, i.e. the tram, but also the bus, whose service will evolve significantly by 2020 with the new "bus plan".

While it only constitutes part of an urban mobility policy, today, a modification of the public transport service is aimed at encouraging a "modal shift" from the car to public transport (which has not always been the case in the past), and therefore at increasing its use. It takes time to build the new transport infrastructures, and once they have been built, they sometimes take several years to produce all of the expected results. A long-term analysis is therefore fully relevant, not only to evaluate the current situation, but above all to optimise future investments.

The results of the painstaking work by Vincent Carton, published in the 123rd issue of Brussels Studies, have arrived just in time for mobility week, providing some historical depth to the reflections on public transport in Brussels. The author – who is a civil engineer, urban planner and an attentive observer who is active in Brussels politics – proposes a detailed analysis of the choices made in the area of public transport service in Brussels and their impact on network use, based on STIB statistics since 1950.

The reconstituted and harmonised statistical series concern the different aspects of the transport service (geographical area, capacity, vehicle frequency) as well as the number of passengers who use the network. The study has the virtue of distinguishing between tram, bus and underground, thus allowing a clear identification of the respective role of these different components of the STIB service.

Fifty years after its inauguration, the underground accounts for less than 10 % of the length of the network, but due to its strategic location and thanks to the feeding by trams and buses, it transports more than one third of passengers. However, in addition to the opening of new lines, it is mainly the overall increase in frequencies throughout the network which has caused the use of public transport to double over the past fifteen years, fuelled in particular by the population boom and the increase in the number of working-class Brussels households with a low level of car ownership.

The article goes further and underlines the relative nature of the impact of the underground, especially when we look at the long-term situation. The three moments when the network service was reinforced overall (from 1972 to 1977, from 1988 to 1993, and in particular from 2001 to 2017) were the only times when the number of passengers increased. The period during which there was a significant increase in the underground network (1978-1989) did not correspond to an increase in STIB clientele – on the contrary (- 10 %) – and it was also the period with the most significant decrease in the overall service. One of the conclusions of Vincent Carton's analysis is therefore that it is not enough to invest most of the means in one single mode – in particular if its territorial coverage is limited – in order to attract new clientele.

According to certain stakeholders, this puts the almost messianic position of the 5 km of the north underground into perspective, which has been planned for 2028 at the earliest, in order to "save" mobility in Brussels. In the short term, the increase in the transport demand cannot be met by private cars in congested roads during rush hour, or by the trams and buses in roads subject to traffic restrictions and which operate at full capacity, or by the underground whose extension is taking a huge amount of time. More systematic investments in bus and tram networks should be brought to the fore, in order to improve their flow. But giving priority to the surface networks – which are cheaper and, in theory, more flexible than the underground – probably require more political courage, in particular because room has to be made on the surface for public transport to the detriment of cars. This also requires arbitration between general interest and local interest, as not everyone is happy to see trams or buses driving past their homes, even if it allows traffic to flow better and everyone to breathe better.

Carton, Vincent, “Public transport service and use in Brussels from 1950 to 2017”, Brussels Studies [Online], General collection, No 127, 17 September 2018. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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