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Brussels: Hailing a ride like it’s 1995

man driving vehicle with GPS system turned on

So, you’re caught in a monsoon-like downpour while walking in Brussels and you want to hail a ride with your smartphone. Sorry, this service is no longer available. Unless you remembered to bring along your fax machine and saw the rain coming well ahead… You can no longer tap a button and get a ride right from your phone. Not in Brussels anyway. Or so it may soon be true.

Rudi Vervoort, Brussels government premier, has dusted down a 25-year-old regulation and banned ride-hailing drivers from using their smartphones to accept rides and navigate to their customer’s destination. Effectively, that could mean 2000 hard-working drivers losing their livelihoods in the middle of a pandemic that’s already destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs. The alternative as proposed by premier Vervoort is to continue working and risk being fined, losing their licence and/or having their car towed away by the local authority. While consumers will have to fax their ride request 3 hours in advance.

“Brutal, sneaky, archaic” is how an op-ed in La Libre Belgique described the decision this week. “Tightening the screw,” said its francophone rival Le Soir. Even his own ministers disagree with Mr Vervoort: “let’s wait to hear what the Constitutional Court decides on the taxi/Uber sector,” said one, referring to an outstanding case. And rightly so.

Brussels, the capital of the European Union, likes to promote itself as a smart city, the epitome of modern urban living: safe, green, affordable – just like the core themes of the EU mobility strategy launched by the European Commission at the end of last year as part of the European Green Deal. But this feels more akin to bureaucratic immobilisme.

One positive, and there are very few, to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic is that digital mobility is finding more and more favour among European citizens, complementing often reduced public transport service. Even if the entire employed workforce of our continent goes back to their offices, factories and depots just a few days a week, it won’t be a return to the status quo ante.

People are embracing digitalisation because it makes living and getting around simpler, safer and more sustainable. It renders connectivity – physical or, increasingly, virtual – easier and more accessible. We may not be flying all over the world for now but we can still link up with each other and do so more readily thanks to smart mobility.

As Adina Valean, EU transport Commissioner, put it in setting out the case for a 90% cut in transport emissions by 2050: “Digital technologies have the potential to revolutionise the way we move, making our mobility smarter, more efficient, and also greener.” Platforms are striving to become greener too, introducing ambitious electrification goals, including in Brussels.

Yet, it’s not just a question of switching to more environmentally friendly powertrains but connecting to other modes of transport as well. Ride-hailing accounts for, at most, 3% of vehicle miles in, say, the US and the more we can do to facilitate (private) car-free lifestyles the better. And that way results in less polluted, less congested urban centres and a more efficient, resilient transport system.

But, as often the case with laudable EU strategies, fragmented and, in this case, outdated local rules can undermine them. If the Brussels administration truly wishes to promote the shared and collaborative services at the heart of the new mobility strategy, it must embrace digital technologies.

The choice before us surely is this: moving forward with digital mobility or getting stuck in an analogue world.

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.