Metro - CC / Flickr

A pedestrian bumps into another pedestrian who is blocking the pavement.

The pedestrian gets a wet foot from a loose paving stone and clambers over bags of rubbish on the way to the Métro.

The same person takes the Métro, and when leaving the train at Gare du Midi he knocks into a passenger trying to board before he leaves the train.

He’s late for his train, and then when ascending the escalators from the Métro to the concourse other people are blocking the escalators. He asks them to move, he’s met with a ‘je m’en fous’ shrug and a snide comment, and a raging, verbal argument ensues.

By this point he’s so mad he shouts at an employee of the STIB, who hits him.

OK, this is not a true story. But all of the pieces of this I have seen (sometimes regularly) over the years I lived in Brussels, and all of this was brought to stark attention this week when a Brussels Métro, Tram and Bus strike in Brussels was provoked by… a Métro driver punching a customer. Seriously. Le Soir in French here, Google translation here.

But what is actually at stake here?

Brussels is a city where everyday anger is all too prevalent – in the public spaces, between customers and owners of enterprises, between car drivers and pedestrians, and in the public transport. There’s also an annoying level of street crime. I’m aware that what I’m writing here is an intuition, but I sure have heard less raging in 6 months in London than I did when I lived in Brussels, and I know others feel the same.

So how do you solve this? I’m far from convinced that the British (or anyone else) are inherently less rage-prone. But – just to take the London Underground as an example – the rules are relentlessly repeated, over and over, until they eventually become social norms. “Let passengers off the train first”, “Move down inside the cars”, “Stand on the right” (on escalators). Even tourists very soon get the message on the latter, and everything runs more smoothly, for everyone. Isn’t it about time that Brussels started to do some of this – on the STIB network at the very least – and started to enforce some more civilised behaviour?

Photo: la Ezwa “L’ancien metro
October 2, 2009 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. Signs against crime? Would it really be so easy? I guess not, the post is oversimplifying. Btw., I saw STIB adverts saying “We are the STIB”, to remind passengers, that STIB’s employees are just as much average people as they are: they make mistakes, can be tired, etc., and most importantly definitly don’t like to be abused either verbally or physically.

    Without the intentions of being racist… I guess the problem is also caused by the mix of nationalities, cultures. Very often people come from countries, where violence is an everyday part of life. Congo, Arab world, for example. These people, already prone to rage – to a ceratin degree – are than complemented by “normal” European people, who walk around thinking “Anyways, it is not my country, not my problem”… This is the point where you have to pull in SWAT to divide two ordinary people.

    Also, bear in mind, that with all the EU institutions, Brussels has a monopoly. That is why hotel rooms are extremely expensive. Now this monopoly generates money and wealth. This money and wealth in turn attracks criminals. Why steal a goat from a farm, when you can just pick a pocket on the escalator?

  2. Ex-Expat

    I left Brussels in 2009 after being there for 2.5 years. I did not drive, but I never had my house robbed, and I don’t really remember big problems with street crime or when taking public transport. Have things really declined so much? Or was I just blissfully unaware?

  3. About crime, to help your intuition, the statistical probability of your home getting robbed in Bxl is 1%. This is 10 times higher than in the worst city in Germany (Berlin). It is higher than in London. It is the highest in Europe. These are Eurostat statistics. One percent is insanely high.

    About street crime, there are few pavements in the center that are not covered with broken glass from smashed car windows. Just walk behind the Palais de Justice, for example. On a length of about 100 meters, you will be walking on broken glass, it is ridiculous.

    About aggression in everyday life. Have you ever driven a car here? The Belgian drivers have no sense of safe driving, they have no patience, and they are reckless too. No wonder car insurance premiums are way higher than elsewhere. Oh, and the statistics reveal that Belgium has 3rd highest traffic mortality in Europe, 10th in the OECD. Numbers don’t lie, but my fellow Belgian coworkers find all kinds of creative excuses to explain them away.

    Anyways, it is not my country, not my problem.

    I have lived here for 5 years and am sick and tired of all this. The worst is that the citizens of Bxl just simply do not care. They try to explain the problems away, or ignore them altogether. If you complain, they look at you as if you’re from Mars.

    Here are the 4 stages of how Belgians deal with actual problems (i have learnt this from experience working and living here for 5 years). Anyone who has lived here long enough will know what I am talking about:

    Stage 1: Ignore the problem (“There is no problem”)

    Stage 2: The problem is not really a problem (“This is normal. It happens everywhere.”)

    Stage 3: The problem is not so serious (“This is not a big problem, it is a small problem. Why are you complaining so much.”)

    Stage 4: Ok, it is a problem, so let’s find a compromise. Let’s all be equally unhappy.

    I am moving back home in 4 weeks where I will earn more money, pay less taxes, and I know when I call the Polizei, they will come and ensure law and order. Brussels could be a magnificent city, but as things stand now, it is a hopeless dirthole. I am really sorry for all those who have to spend their lives there.

  4. Bram Koster

    “Let passengers off the train first”, “Laissez d’abord les voyageurs sortir”. “Gelieve reizigers eerst uit te laten stappen”, “Bitte lassen Sie die Fahrgäste erst aussteigen”. I don’t know. Gets kind of annoying in the Belgian context, hearing everything so many times. And leaving out Dutch or French is, obviously, impossible. Thinks will only get more confusing in this already very confusing city.

    I noted that in the Belgian trains they have signs showing people not to listen to loud music etc, they are in French and Dutch equally distributed. Might be a better alternative here.

  5. Few people know that Brussels Metro tannoy system is in the hands of a renegade group of out of work wedding DJs who are holed up in a disused tunnel engaged in a world record attempt at the longest ever continuous party mix. They’ll never allow an announcement to interrupt their life’s work.

  6. @Peter – agree. But there are examples where things *do* improve. Investment in road police, and speed cameras, in both the UK and France has massively reduced road deaths by making drivers go slower and behave more responsibly, and making deaths decline at a faster rate than would be achievable just thanks to safer cars. So if governments put their minds to it change – for the better – is possible.

    @Frazer – agree re. the booze issue. But another anti-social aspect of booze – drink driving – is MUCH more prevalent in Brussels than in London. So it’s not altogether simple. And I agree that public transport employees get a lot of stick, but – especially bus drivers and the way they often drive – surely doesn’t help either. Some zen training for them would help matters a bit I reckon!

  7. Jon, what you mention is a general pattern I notice more and more often in Brussels, but also other – mainly – cities in Europe: an increasing intolerance, disrespect and lack of empathy in the way we deal with the unknown other in daily lives.

    Car traffic would be another good example. There are of course more and more (one might say way too many) cars on our streets, but the system often fails due to egoistic, aggressive behaviour and a lack of control by the authorities. How often do I get annoyed about obeying the rules, when every second driver doesn’t, gets away with it and is eventually progressing faster than I do.

    And unfortunately, most societies will not simply stick to sensible rules just due to common sense. Someone will have to set these rules and enforce them (in particular the latter being somewhat lacking in our beloved World Record country). Common sense is missing too often. One example that strikes me on a daily basis is the fact that several shops, amongst those fast food chain Quick, are allowed to put large promotion stands on the sidewalk at Porte de Namur, thus blocking half of a pedestrian strip that is anyhow too small for the masses of people using this bottle neck everyday. Who gave the permission? And i there’s no permission (more likely), why is there no authority acting against such lunacy?

    But maybe everything will be so much better once we finally get a government – in 100 or so more days…

  8. Well John I kind of figure it depends where on the resepective networks you are (and when) as to whether you see any violence / agression in London v Brussels.

    I had entirely the opposite experience when I moved to Brussels from the UK twenty years ago – it took me years not to flinch if I bumped into someone in a bar awaiting the “OI – YOU SPILLED MY PINT!” that never came.

    And I would bet a fair amount that you’re still much more likely to see casual street violence – alcohol fuelled – on assorted London high streets on Friday and Saturday night than in Brussels….

    But I do agree that the trend in Brussels has been much more to mirror the UK street culture over the last 20 years – but without some of the more “civilising norms” you find in the UK. But to be fair to STIB and London Transport employees – both have seen localised “wildcat” strikes (some London bus depots have seen this over the last year or so) by employees being the object of violence (even if the initiator in the latest Brussels instance appears to have possibly been the employee). The fact that employees are willing to loose pay demonstrates that they both have a daily experience of hostility, aggression and sometimes violence.

    As a passenger experienceing an decreasingly efficient public transport offer in Brussels – perhaps I might suggest that there is a link here between how stressed and fustrated the public are, and the levels of agression that employees encounter? – Its not their fault, but they are the “face” of increasing ineptitude…

  9. @Europasionaria – do write it! The more solutions we have to these issues the better…

    @Karen – agree there is a bit of chicken and egg to this, but hell, a few signs can’t cost too much, so why not at least try to see if it could work? I also agree that pointing out a sign is easier than trying to reason with someone.

  10. Jon!!!! I had a very similar idea for a blogpost: a typical journey with the STIB. You were faster… Of course my conclusions would have been slightly different but I agree with you on the appalling lack of civility in the Brussels métro compared to that of Paris for example, or London in your case.

  11. Two points: 1) is good behaviour created by rules or a well behaved people more likely to put up signs with rules? However this should not stop rules from being enforced in “badly behaved” places 2) does better levels of information for travellers reduce aggression?

    Firstly in Japan then they are even more keen to enforce rules of good behaviour in public and the public is very well behaved in public spaces such as public transport.

    I had a feeling when there that it’s a bit a chicken and egg issue.

    But there’s no reason to not just start informing people of what is considered good behaviour they will at least not have an excuse of not know what is expected.

    And I believe it also encourages people to be less accepting of bad behaviour when they can just nod at a sign. And perhaps this feeling of being allowed to say something will reduce the need to rage about other’s bad behaviour and thus raising the level of aggression.

    Secondly in my experience the level of information given to the passengers is very high in Japan and Zurich. It is easy to get the needed or not yet needed information – the next 3 stops on the tram and the connections available there (Zurich) or how many meters there are to the metro line, which you are walking towards (Tokyo) when transferring from one line to another in a station.

    Perhaps all of this information makes people feel more in control of their journey and less prone to aggression…

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