Thousands protest new traffic ban in Belgium that is a mix of cycling, car restrictions

EDINBURGH, Belgium — Martin De Heenaer of Brussels held aloft a sign that proclaimed: “Boycott CAVDE-19.” She said her job at a military factory had been threatened by Brussels’ new law banning cars in cities during rush hour, but now she feared that as a driver, she’d be targeted as well.

“Belgium’s driving restrictions will destroy jobs,” De Heenaer told the crowd.

Large marches and demonstrations in Belgium took place Sunday against new state-imposed traffic restrictions. Bikes and cars could be kept off the roads from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday until the end of March, when the law takes effect.

Authorities said the new restrictions are designed to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution in the city center and nearby industrial estates, with the hope that businesses and families would spend less time at home and will be able to move more easily.

The restrictions could disrupt work and school hours, and could push up prices at restaurants and other services. But officials say they’ll all be compensated for, and spending will remain unchanged.

The Socialist Party led protests over the new law, which was passed overwhelmingly in June by Brussels’ socialist-led city council, but which also enjoyed backing from the country’s Catholic and conservative parties.

The new law has angered lawmakers across Europe, prompting protests in Lisbon, where 120 people gathered to show their opposition, and in Paris and Berlin.

What causes problems is twofold: First, the law affects every public and private car, but it does not affect anyone with a bicycle, which has already seen an upsurge in popularity over the past few years. The city of Antwerp, for example, saw more than half of all its pedaling commuters over the past year taking to the streets in their three-wheeled meccas, in greater numbers than in any other Belgian city.

Officials say however that other cars that are not meant to be traveling on urban roads at that time can take routes on gravel and dirt, but few people are willing to do that — especially now that it is impossible to return home after work from work without setting out on that own dangerous bike.

“All of a sudden it will be decided where one has to get off, which schools cannot let you send your children,” said Samuel Belfort, a technician for the Caering group of military plants, where thousands of Flemish farmers produce military and civilian components.

Belfort was marched in Sunday’s protesters and said his uncle was gravely ill and his mother was ill. He said banning cars in the city was not only cruel to his family but also would push employees out of employment.

Protesters at Sunday’s march said their fears for their jobs have not been alleviated by official compensation plans.

Belgian transportation authorities say all firms caught breaking the new traffic restrictions — from taxi drivers to pizza shops — will lose the equivalent of four months’ salary. But some businesses that have worked out that it would cost $440,000 to keep vehicles running for four months, said they wouldn’t pay a dime.

On Sunday, protesters voiced anger at how the law was passed, and at what they say is the government’s failure to come up with better proposals to satisfy economic-prosperity groups and the unions that have opposed it.

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