Cairgo Bike
The Cairgo Bike project is designed to boost measures being applied by the Brussels Capital Region to structurally improve air quality in the city. It targets reduction of transport related emissions by mainstreaming uptake of cargo bikes as a real and clean alternative to replace use of private cars and light goods vehicles (LGVs). This web article is the first in a series, designed to paint a picture of project activity, from inception to conclusion and hopefully further in terms of influencing urban practices across the EU. The series will examine the reasoning behind the initiative, action implementation, the role of partners and partnership and the monitoring of air quality/health risks and project performance. Here, the first article introduces the motivation behind the project, the context in which it was conceived and in which it is operating today, on a much changed urban canvas.

State of play

In the autumn of 2016, MOBI (Mobility, Logistics and Automotive Technology - Vrije Universiteit Brussels) organised a seminar in Brussels ("On small and big data. How to go to a more sustainable mobility system?) exploring the link between data and the realisation of sustainable mobility. Researchers explained how difficult it is to definitively quantify the impact of traffic and transport emissions on public health. There are many complex and interacting parameters to be considered and analysed, understanding of chemical, physical and other processes, effect of underlying respiratory and cardiovascular health issues, new science (i.e. what contribution does tyre and road surface/asphalt, degradation add to the pollutant mix), etc.

The EU’s most recent estimates suggest that overall air pollution accounts for some 400,000 premature deaths across Europe every year, while the latest annual European Environment Agency (EEA) “Air Quality in Europe report” (2020) states that “the road transport sector was the most significant contributor to total N0x emissions and second largest contributor to black carbon and lead emissions”(EEA 33 countries). In 2019, a study published in the European Heart Journal claimed that various sources of outdoor air pollution caused an estimated 659,000 extra deaths in the 28 member states of the EU in 2015. So today that difficulty of precision is still with us. Emitted substances are diluted, dispersed, mixed, and transported in the atmosphere. City size, density of building, wind direction, turbulence, temperature, nature of pollutant, proximity to source, topography… add to the complexity of analysis. There appears to be no aggregated easy one shot conclusion, but ongoing studies, emerging statistics and sophisticated modelling increasingly confirm the seriousness of cause and effect already recognised and accepted in scientific circles.

So what does that mean for the general public and society? On the whole people, certainly urban dwellers, are probably aware that the air they breathe is not an appellation contrôlée. Even young people who are to a great extent driving climate change and environmental consciousness, are also generally and understandably not consumed by worries of premature death directly affecting their immediate future. It is in a sense a “far from my bed” issue for most, an invisible threat, still under the radar for many. Yet while negative impact on air quality is often described as externality, health and medical consequences lead back to real, accountable economic and social costs.

A sad milestone, raising awareness and understanding?

In December 2020, a nine year old schoolgirl in London became the first person in the UK to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. Southwark Coroner’s Court ruled that air pollution had “made a material contribution to Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s death”. Justifying the decision the Coroner reported that “Ella had been exposed to two air pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (largely emitted by diesel cars) and particulate matter in excess of WHO guidelines, and died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.” A key piece of evidence in the case was examination of tissue samples and data from pollution sensors near her home close to the South Circular, one of the capital’s busiest roads. It was in fact her walking route to school. Study confirmed that exposure to illegal levels of NO² was a key driver of her asthma which saw her admitted to hospital 27 times before a fatal asthma attack in February 2013. The ruling concluded that “There was a recognised failure to reduce the levels of nitrogen dioxide, which possibly contributed to her death”  and “There was also a lack of information given to Ella’s mother that possibly contributed to her death”. While the first point here is predictably disturbing the second is perhaps an even more troubling indictment. The likelihood that this tragic mortality (and others) was completely avoidable has to be faced. It is potentially one of these landmark moments with hugely important precedent consequences in terms of culpability and compensation. As a result of the Coroner’s findings, schools across England have now actively started to investigate air pollution (transport emission) levels in their buildings, playgrounds and surroundings. Ventilation measures and outdoor classrooms designed to keep Covid 19 away, may be letting in an equally sinister health threat to impact on the school environment.

"Emission sectors with low emission heights such as traffic and household emissions generally make larger contributions to surface concentrations and heaith impacts in urban areas..." EEA - Air quality in EU 2020 

In Antwerp (May 2021) a pressure group “Recht op lucht” (Right to breathe), has launched a court case against the City Council and Flemish Government claiming that the authorities have taken insufficient measures to deliver improvement in air quality promised in their clean air policies and their requirement to meet EU standards. In Brussels a citizens group established by concerned parents, Filter Café Filtré, is mobilising city schools (+60) to pressure government on the air quality issue. The demand is to accelerate action on reducing concentration levels of fine particles, based on the conclusion that “too little has changed” since the group’s formation 3 years ago.

"There is much evidence confirming that the health impacts of transport emissions correlate with proximity to the source. In densely populated areas where traffic volumes are high, the health impacts will therefore be more significant" - Air pollution and transport policies at city level, CE Delft, March 2021 

Building momentum for change

The EEA Air Quality Report maintains that policy intervention including European emission legislation is reducing ambient air pollution across the EU, which gives some ground for optimism looking forward. It seems then reasonable to assume that more bicycle use and walking, improved vehicle and fuel standards, increasing take up of electric and hybrid vehicles, reduced commuting and car ownership will continue to fuel a positive trend towards better air quality. Many schools across the Netherlands and Belgium are actively pushing the “STOP” principle for the school run (Stappen-Trappen-Openbaar Vervoer-Personenwagens/Walk-Pedal-Public transport-Private car) relegating private motorised vehicles to the position of last option. Policy making on sustainable mobility in the Brussels Capital Region is further underpinned by the A-S-I approach of Avoid/reduce-Shift/maintain-Improve, where priority is focussed more and more on active travel and public transport. In June 2021 the Regional government committed to excluding diesel-fuelled vehicles completely from Brussels streets by 2030. Here progressively stringent limits are set to reduce all fossil-fuel traffic (including motorbikes and scooters) from 2025-2035.

“For both road and non-road transport sectors, emissions of key pollutants  (e.g. NOx) have decreased significantly, although transported passenger and freight volumes have been gradually increasing. Policy actions at the EU level have been taken to address transport-related air pollution while allowing sectoral growth. Regulating emissions by setting increasingly stringent emission standards (e.g. Euro 1 to Euro 6) or by establishing requirements for fuel quality are good examples of such actions at EU level” - 2009-2018, EEA, Air Quality in EU 2020

A pandemic transforming mobility patterns

The Corona virus has clearly had a devastating global impact in terms of mortalities and public health, on economic activity and general way of life. In Europe people’s daily transportation routines were dramatically transformed. Almost with a flick of the switch, experience changed for long periods to home working, low commute levels and reduction in car journeys, but also decrease in public transport use, transfer to active travel, virtually no conference tourism, air transport grounded. Without imagining that these behaviour patterns will completely persist as the pandemic eases, this has shown  that there are valid and potentially acceptable alternatives to business as usual. Particularly in relation to the zero pollution ambition of the EU Green Deal and air quality issues, Covid 19 has provided an important opportunity to review and adjust traffic and transport practices and associated emission levels before simply pressing the reset button. The Covid “condition” has also moved the goalposts somewhat, for instance what effect does poor air quality have on aggravating infection, transmission and health perspectives?

Brussels driving the shift to clean air

The Brussels Capital Region has been consistently active in identifying air quality as a key challenge from an early stage. From its inception as Regional Authority, it has progressively promoted traffic calming measures, developed a regional cycle network, introduced a Low Emission Zone and Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) kilometre charging, adopted a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan approach (with 30 km limit) and supported car sharing, last mile logistics consolidation, pedestrian area initiatives. Further road charging plans for vehicles entering the city are on the table but contested by the surrounding Flemish and Walloon Regions at the present time. The number of people cycling to work or for leisure in the city has grown exponentially in recent years. The government has taken advantage of the relative traffic calm as a result of the pandemic to reduce vehicle lanes on some major arteries and extend provision of cycle lanes to facilitate non-polluting active travel. In this it is worth remembering that  though the South Circular road in London is a route with intense traffic flows it is not comparable to the canyon like built typology of, for example, the rue de la Loi or the rue Belliard in the centre of Brussels.


Brussels, Rue de La Loi - with cycle lanes on two sides


Paradoxically then the growth of active travel, combined with proximity to emission source and topography of the built environment means that in a transition phase, while vehicle levels remain high, cyclists as instruments of change are also exposed to a probable health risk on certain routes through the city. The project looks to examine this by measuring user experience (inhalation) and exploring best route options.


Taking a breather, waiting for a green light.


Mobility management promoting modal shift from fossil-fuelled vehicles to active travel is seen as a potential game-changer to combat ongoing deterioration in air quality. A transfer from cars and LGVs to cargo bike use is designed to add to an armoury of transformational measures introduced by the Regional authority to reduce transport-related pollution and so contribute to improving ambient air quality. Cairgo Bike is firmly conceived as a trigger to mobilise a structural change in choice of transport mode at the local level where citizens and businesses can join together to help the city move forward.


Cargo Bike in Brussels pedestrian zone

In recent years there has been a strong collaboration between Brussels administrations, particularly  Brussels Mobility and Brussels Environment, and city universities. On mobility issues, urban logistics and effect of transport related emissions, a valuable cooperation exists with the Vrije Universiteit Brussels (MOBI research division), partner in Cairgo Bike.

About this resource

Philip STEIN, UIA Expert
Brussels Capital Region, Belgium
About UIA
Urban Innovative Actions

The Urban Innovative Actions (UIA) is a European Union initiative that provided funding to urban areas across Europe to test new and unproven solutions to urban challenges. The initiative had a total ERDF budget of €372 million for 2014-2020.

Go to profile
More content from UIA
1126 resources
See all

Similar content