19 June, 2018

Another tale of large-scale urban planning: The quandaries of mobility into and out of Campus Belval



This fall, it will be three years since major components of the University of Luxembourg – most notably the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (FLSHASE) – have moved (and were moved) to Belval. The following note is a response to on-going debates about the calamities of getting there and back home, and how to improve this endeavour. My aim is to provide some background information from a geography and planning perspective, to reflect upon current means of service and policy, and to propose some ideas for future debates.(1)

As geographers and planners, we were actually dealing with Belval years before the move, for two reasons. Firstly, we have always had professional interest in Belval because it is a case of large-scale urban planning in a small country that has a huge impact on the built environment and, further, on the potential users of the site. Secondly, as members of the UL, we are all an integral part of this project, whether we want to be or not. Even now, years after the opening of the new Campus, we remain moving objects, now and on a daily basis. Thus, we as individuals must experiment with the promises and quandaries of mobility, actually a perfect indicator of the paradoxes of modern life.(2)

Recent events spurred extensive debates at the level of the UL, and this is another striking coincidence of different news items surfacing simultaneously, addressing a similar problem (see the last entry on Urbanization Unbound on real estate markets in Luxembourg). For some time now, we have known that the more the district is developed, the more parking  becomes a scarce, and thus expensive, resource across the whole site of Belval. This is an idea one could easily subscribe to and support in the name of sustainable development, if proper alternatives to the automobile were set in place. Yet, this is obviously not the case. So, we see an increasing number of commentaries and contributions made by members of the UL. A couple of Fridays ago, a colleague gave a perfect illustration of the problem based on his own travel itinerary and necessities. It was really an excellent insight into how complex, constrained, and costly the apparently simple travel from A to B can be. Others chimed in too, adding more convincing evidence of this, and confirming what we have actually known for a while.

Empirically evident are also the frequent breakdowns of the train system, the major transit connector to and from Belval and a second cause for concern. The last major incident happed on Monday, 4th June, in the late afternoon, when five (!) subsequent trains from Belval to the City where cancelled – without any (!) notice given to passengers, neither on site, nor on the App, nowhere. No replacement buses were organised. Passengers were simply left on the platform for the next train. However, the problem is more complex than simply being an issue of trains out of order. It deserves some explanation and context.(3) 

So… What’s the problem here?
Belval is/was envisioned as a highly acclaimed reconversion of a former brownfield site into a Science City. Since it is situated somehow isolated from the rest of the City of Esch-sur-Alzette (and the connectivity to Belvaux/Sanem only slowly improving), the question of how to provide good and sustainable access to the site was one of the key challenges raised very early on. With the installment of Gare Belval-Université – some of us may recall the pomp and circumstance when the Grand Duke opened the station – a supposedly convenient and sustainable solution had been found that would suit everyone and everything: It would be good for users, the urban setting, and the environment. Access to trains would even allow the mobility system to be based on a so-called modal split that devotes 40% of daily trips to public transit, and only 60% to the private automobile. It seemed like a revolution for the otherwise heavily car-oriented Luxembourg. 

However, a couple of issues were overlooked when the promise of sustainable mobility to and out of Belval was made. Some of these issues are systemic, so they are difficult to change. Simply speaking, every trip made by an individual from home to work represents a chain that has two ends: origin and destination. While Belval as a destination seems well accessible, one has to accept that the origin from which staff and students start their journey is widely dispersed across the country and the Greater Region. It would therefore take much more than the usual means of building fast and reliable service on major transport routes to make the site properly accessible. We would need more or less flexible feeder-services that complement the main lines, in order to keep travel times within a reasonable limit. And, we would need a good local setting for bikes, scooters, and pedestrians.

At the moment, none of that is sufficiently provided. Instead, we have a run-down train service, which has huge problems in ensuring the mere business as usual, not to speak of significant improvements. Feeder lines are rare or hardly adjusted to the new locale. Those that do exist (such as the 306-Bus from Trier to Belval) are often stuck in motorway traffic. Buses 202/203 from the city serve the steel mills, not the Campus – welcome to the post-industrial age. After Belvaux was turned to a major construction site this spring, local buses stopped serving the Campus, adding another 900m walk alongside crowded street traffic to our daily journey. Local conditions for cyclists, such as those coming from Esch or taking the long way from the Luxembourg City (yes, some of us indeed do this) are disappointing to say the least. And, this is the situation we are confronting three years after the move. As it stands now, we will have to wait for future concepts and fantasies to be developed, and meanwhile simply struggle with the daily business as usual.

Admittedly, this is also the result of a lack of service-orientation that runs through the whole train and transit system, which if was implemented would not necessarily make the trains run more efficiently per se, but would at least make daily trips less painful and adventurous. Just to give one more recent example: in response to complaints about the train incidence at Gare Belval-Université in early June, the CFL provided a lengthy technical explanation of what had happened and why this had caused turmoil. However, we still haven’t received any measured explanation concerning why passengers weren’t informed about the incident, and why no advice whatsoever was given concerning alternative routes.

Problems are also related to the mere fact that Luxembourg is suffering under its own economic and demographic success. For a small country, a development that has exhibited a constant annual growth rate of GDP (2.5-4 per cent) for over a decade brings an enormous strain on infrastructure systems. This implies a huge challenge to the whole country: to government, planners, transport providers, and of course, to customers. One could certainly argue that Luxembourg is rather active in future mobility policies. The problem is simply that what we currently observe is more or less the trying to catch up with the past, and not a planning for the future. There are at least 20-30 years of road building, combined with an entrenched car culture and systematic neglect of rail & bus all coded into the country’s DNA, which is hard to change in one sweep. In this regard, the future has not even started at all, except on paper. Expanding the infrastructure goes necessarily at the cost of present users, who have to accept delays and cancellations, at least in the next while. And, the idea of a more balanced spatial development that brings the places of work and residence closer together is also difficult to imagine because the housing market is not in any order of health and that is not likely to improve soon. Thus, recommending that cross-border and distance commuters settle in Luxembourg is not the same as offering a serious alternative.

Also, Luxembourg’s business model is ultimately geographical by nature. The small country is not only – and almost accidentally – surrounded by larger neighbours that provide the labour pool for its expanding economy, but its wealth generation is also something that was established over the past century on the foundations of a clever evolution and likewise management of external relations. Thus, the spatial imprint of the small country is much larger than its surface area of 2,500+ km2. The key commodity traded here is flows. These include flows of all kinds, such as money, politics, data, knowledge, goods, services, and labour. The present and future of the small state is almost entirely about circulation (and its regulation), which is probably also illustrated by the next big shot of economic development: space resources. The forgotten issue is that this massive volume of circulation is underpinned in physical space, in infrastructure systems and arteries that ensure the seamless flows of all the items mentioned above. Even though the flow of money through the financial marketplace seems increasingly virtual, the enabling systems for operating a top services and financial industry location are necessarily material: One needs educated staff, offices, accessibility etc. A small country that emerged as the second largest hub for investment funds on the planet essentially relies on 1st class systems of all kinds, and given the poor performance of transit that we bemoan, there clearly remains a lot of work to do. 

Those are a few notes on the general and historical background of the current state of affairs in a nutshell.

The problem behind the problems
It is clear that the dilemma we are facing is really difficult to resolve, and far from being a quick fix. Some of the structural and systemic factors mentioned above seem almost inconceivable to change, and if change is indeed possible, then probably only in the mid- or long-term. Geography is yet impossible to alter, particularly since it is part of Luxembourg’s political economy, a.k.a. business model. The focus on extracting value from flows, based on external relations of the small country with the rest of the world will most likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. The economy is destined to grow further, otherwise one would put the established level of wealth and income at risk. While the government’s emphasis is on expanding and improving the various infrastructures, it is also clear that: a) this takes time to implement; and b) given the foreseen growth of GDP and employment, it may suffice for absorbing additional demand, but not for solving existing problems. Belval is also specific in this respect, as: a) recent policy frameworks such as MoDu 2.0 or the Plan Sectoriel Transport do not devote particular attention to Belval, even though the site is actually the most important new generator of transport demand in the country; and b) the foreseen degree of density in the urban design of Belval will bring more and more people to the site, while accessibility won’t improve in the short term and parking capacities will be further reduced in due course. This makes the issue even more pressing.

In this context, one would wish that the actors and institutions in charge begin rethinking the problem and concentrating on intelligent investments, rather than initiating large road and rail works that need years to come to fruition. Long-term infrastructure improvements are, of course, a vital component of mobility policy and therefore necessary. This is the case with the possible high-speed tram extension to Belval. However, it is predicted that this will  not be completed until 2035 at the earliest.(4) Do we really want to wait more than fifteen years for a proper means of transport? This is rather unpalatable; therefore, in parallel, one ought to introduce some small changes that can make a big difference – organizational measures that allow certain effects to materialize in the immediate term. Unfortunately, the regular habits of infrastructure provision focus on large-scale construction plans in order to catch up with growth. And, they need time and capacity to be wisely planned, balanced (between different aims and alternatives) and openly communicated, rather than rigidly executed. Particularly, all these measures require an enormous degree of integration, which is questioned by the country’s setting of institutional fragmentation (fragmentation between state and communes, among the communes, between the different transport modes, and policy subjects…). A coherent body of policies that tackle the complex assemblage of mobility problems and their inter-related causes is urgently needed so that a significant impact is achieved relatively soon.

What should we do? A few steps towards a new direction

1 For Belval, a ‘quick response’ transport demand management strategy is urgently needed.(5) Accessing Belval is a huge challenge, which should no longer be treated with the business-as-usual attitude of long-term infrastructure policy that we’ve seen so far and which doesn’t help us now. Instead, the mobility issue should become part of a dedicated process of introducing short-term means and measures to improve the situation now. Consequently, we need a transport demand management (TDM) plan that scans the problems and systematically develops alternatives, particularly those that may have the biggest effect in the shortest period of time. This could include a beta-version of a rapid bus network (BNHS) to which the existing RGTR could be developed in due course. A comprehensive programme to improve the accessibility of Belval by bike is urgently needed as well. And, it would be helpful if there could be more time to adapt to planned changes in parking regulations as they have direct and significant consequences on labour and their needs and expenses.

2 In the context of the first point, the UL and the other institutions in Belval should jointly create an employer’s mobility scheme. While the state and related bodies can’t be released from their prime responsibility of providing the proper means of mobility into and out of Belval, employers can make a significant contribution to resolving this dilemma. They represent a sufficient critical mass of staff, so one could do more in terms of providing a good data basis and promoting alternative means such as car-pooling, car-sharing and the like. Such lengths are definitely worth the joint effort. In addition, one could also think about accompanying measures such as promoting teleworking, at least for some staff members. The university and government should push forward the possibilities of digitalization at least for those sorts of activities that can be done remotely, where physical presence on Campus is not essential. Certainly, each member of the University could also contribute on his and her own to improve the situation. Not all road trips are essential and necessary. Not all drivers are captive and thus without alternatives. Not all seats in vehicles are occupied, so why not promote a more efficient use of capacity? The bitter truth is that there is no constitutional right for free parking, and we simply have to accept this if the Campus is ever going to be sustainable.

3 The mode of planning and communication with the users of Belval on the one hand, and development and political responsibilities on the other hand, deserve improving, striving for a more inclusive approach than what has been practiced so far. Modern planning textbooks consistently emphasise transparency and participation, commitment and creativity. Yet in contrast to what is taught in the literature, the majority of small states (to put it this way) tend to execute plans and programmes in rather orthodox ways. While this country’s infrastructure policy adopted for good reason a multi-modal and no longer car-oriented approach, its implementation still follows the tradition of the powerful, authoritative state. The related first (government) and second (sectoral planning, development, construction) order institutions still stick to top-down planning and implementation, particularly when it comes to third parties and customers. However, planning, building and infrastructure provision are increasingly understood as learning processes, based on a mutual exchange of what the problem is, what possible solutions could be (there are always alternatives), and how a careful decision-making could be organised. Don't we want to go there as well? Or, would we prefer the old fashion of the “godfather” planning ideal (Walter Siebel)?

4 There is one more reason why policy measures should be balanced more carefully: There is an issue concerning social equality when the cost of commuting is raised as a topic that effects everyone in similar ways. Losing 1,000 €/year for parking impacts each captive person differently because of wage differentials and the complexity of his/her family circumstances. Obviously, supporting an exogenous change is much easier for let’s say a male Luxembourgian professor who inherited a comfortable house close to Luxembourg city centre, than for a foreign female support staff, renting an apartment in a small town in Belgium, France or Germany. Deciding to work in Belval is the result of a complex trade-off between housing costs, transport costs, and travel time. Related decisions concerning where to live and where to work are made in long term. In turn, it is very complex to alter: relocating may mean the changing of schools, lower proximity to family networks, more stretched commuting for the partner, etc. Changing jobs may actually be easier.

So, the result of non-negotiable and socially undifferentiated policy may actually cause a much greater turnover of some particular staff, typically support female support staff with kids and less flexible hours. And, obviously frontaliers are hit the hardest, when one considers who is primarily affected and what their average salary is. As a consequence, it is difficult to imagine any transport management plan or parking scheme that is socially blind.(6) Given the sometimes rigid and inflexible ways a policy scheme is implemented (such as the 60:40 modal split) demonstrates the lack of understanding – and power playing – by particular (Luxembourgian?) elites vis-a-vis other workers, who are typically cross-border, often female, and with kids. Overall, a positive step forward would actually be to add some granularity in the policy, typically a fare system that recognizes the availability of public transport at residence, the category of staff, and their family status.

5 What could institutions such as the UL do by themselves in order to tackle the problem? There is certainly a need for education and creating expertise in mobility management at the level of larger enterprises and institutions. Apart from some notable exceptions (among them the UL), there is little knowledge in the country concerning company mobility management, except for perhaps the expertise in providing XXL-parking lots that cater to SUVs in underground garages... Corporate policy could become a fundamental element of TDM solutions as discussed above. There is also an urgent need to collect data about demand (scatter and door-to-door trips) as well as supply (reliability, punctuality).  Instead of collecting single experiences, it is important to show the global picture. In past years, data was in fact collected through surveys. These should now be repeated in order to analyze how the users have responded to the palate of transport offers and resources. Setting up a mobility plan would be a first step, but it won’t be trivial. As members of the UL experienced in developing the transport policy plan at the University, we know that this comes with many challenges, and that it requires developing alternatives and what-if scenarios.

To sum up: 
While the actual debate about parking seems to have gained momentum only recently, the issue of how to best plan proper access to Belval is not new. Indeed, this note was inspired by comments made by individuals at the UL concerning the current malaise: Listening to single voices is clearly important (!), as it provides an empirically grounded view of the problem at stake. However, individual responses do not signal the ultimate solution, as politics need to consider the public good. In this context, two peculiar issues in the country’s policy and planning traditions must be reflected on, addressed, and overcome: Firstly, the tradition of asking the government (or the mayor …) to take care of particular issues that result from very special interests (Partikularinteressen) needs to stop. This goes usually at the cost of more coherent overall strategies and the common good. Secondly, there is a tradition in Luxembourg of sticking to large-scale urban projects, which are costly, risky, hard to integrate and often subject to delays. While real-life implementation of small but useful steps in the right direction is challenging in the details (and less glossy and therefore harder to sell to the public), policy makers are tempted to go for the big thing, the polished technical solution. This is also the case in Belval: Options such as rail, super-bus, or now fast-tram were already promised and calculated, and the former two have already been rejected. Should we now wait for another 15-20 years of large-scale infrastructure planning to materialize, while we already know how difficult the planning and political process can be in a small country? We need an open and constructive debate with all parties involved on how to improve the situation now, as soon as possible, not in two decades.

Markus Hesse

Index
(1) Many thanks to Geoffrey, Francesco and Katja for reading, commenting and providing inspiration, and also – as always – to Connie for editing. The responsibility for this remains of course solely mine.
(2) Sheller, M. & J. Urry (2016). Mobilizing the new mobilities paradigm. Applied Mobilities 1(1), 10-25.
(3) This note focuses on the core of the transport problem, while layers such as social cohesion, identity and the like remain excluded.
(4) These days Minister Bausch presented a high-speed tram from Luxembourg City to Belval to be built by 2035. Such news is good for providing headlines, but won’t provide relief now. Given the increasing frequency of press releases on tram extension in the capital city and beyond, one must have the impression that the tram is becoming primarily a political vehicle, rather than an effective means of resolving pressing problems.
(5) See for example: Black, C. & E. Schreffler (2010). Understanding transport demand management and its role in delivery of sustainable urban transport. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board (2163), 81-88.
(6) There are manifold societal and equity dimensions inherent to mobility and transport, which call for a more than technical treatment of this subject matter; see e.g. Lucas, K. (2012). Transport and social exclusion: Where are we now? Transport policy 20, 105-113.


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