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No Hassle Transit? Try Hasselt

Belgian city offers BC a workable, fare-free model.

Dave Olsen 9 Jul

Dave Olsen is a bicycle and public transit consultant, researcher, and advocate who lives in Vancouver. This article is part of his series funded by readers and supporters who made tax deductible donations to the Tyee Fellowship Fund for Solutions Reporting.

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[Editor's note: This is the third in a five-part series funded by you, the readers who donated to a Tyee Fellowship for Solutions-oriented Reporting. To find out more about Tyee Fellowships, click here. To learn more about the series' author, Dave Olsen, go here. Or listen to the audio interview with Olsen by Katherine Gretsinger.]

Ten years ago the people of Hasselt, Belgium embarked upon a bold experiment: no more charging for bus rides. Ever since, they've been proving the idea can work wonderfully.

This city of 70,000 residents, with 300,000 commuters from the surrounding area, has made traveling by bus easy, affordable, and efficient. Now, people in Hasselt often speak of "their" bus system, and with good reason. The Boulevard Shuttle leaves you waiting for at most five minutes, the Central Shuttle has a 10 minute frequency, and system-wide you never have to wait more than a half an hour.

Just like the Whidbey Island, Washington, system we visited Friday, in Hasselt wheelchair users not only have access to the entire fleet of buses, they can reserve a spot by calling the "Belbus" line an hour in advance. According to the City of Hasselt's website, the driver will help the wheelchair user get aboard, "even giving a push, if desired," and help with unloading, too.

A prime lesson offered by Hasselt is the fact that they radically improved the bus system as well as their walking and cycling infrastructure before they removed the fare boxes. In 1996, there were only three bus routes with about 18,000 service hours/year. Today, there are 11 routes with more than 95,000 service hours/year.

  Hasselt, Belgium Nanaimo
Service Population 70,000 92,300
Ridership 3,706,638 (in 2001) 2,317,763
Service Kilometres 1,624,000 2,263,992
Service Hours 95,000 94,333
Vehicles in Service 40 Buses 31 buses
Operating Budget 5,119,968 € (~CA$7,850,000, all from taxes, both municipal and national) $6,906,910 ($3,065,488 from fares)

The transit system in Hasselt cost taxpayers approximately $1.9 million in 2006. This amounts to one per cent of their municipal budget and makes up about 26 per cent of the total operating cost of the transit system. The Flemish national government covered the rest (approximately $5.4 million) under a long-term agreement.

For comparison, one per cent of the City of Vancouver's municipal budget for 2007 is about $8.5 million.

Making it go

So how did Hasselt make it happen?

On January 1, 1991, the Flemish Authority brought together three public transport companies and joined them into one autonomously operating state company. This company's raison d'etre is to provide transport for the whole of Flanders. That was the beginning of the Flemish Transport Company, since then generally known under the name "De Lijn." This structure allows them to buy buses more cheaply and they can even share buses among the different city and regional systems, whenever needed.

By contrast, BC Transit doesn't seem to purchase enough buses to offer similar benefits and they don't operate any systems outside Victoria any longer so sharing isn't possible. BC Transit's main role for smaller transit systems in B.C. seems to be providing pre-paid media (tickets and passes), which obviously isn't needed for fare-free systems like Hasselt.

Jean Vandeputte, the chief engineer-director for the City of Hasselt, shared by e-mail these thoughts about converting existing transit systems in B.C. to fare-free systems:

"To be successful, I think that the public transport system must not be crowded at the start. Our project was originally organized to attract more passengers and to have less cars in the city centre. The buses also need separate lanes, because travelling by bus has to be faster than by car, so the infrastructure of intersections and streets has to be adapted. The buses have to be modern, clean ... you need to have more bus stops. And the shelters must be attractive."

Ridership zooms

Hasselt City Council's principal aim in introducing free public transport was to promote the new bus system to such a degree that it would catch on and become the natural option for getting around. And it did -- immediately. On the first day, bus ridership increased 783 per cent! The first full year of free-fare transit saw an increase of 900 per cent over the previous year; by 2001, the increase was up to 1,223 per cent and ridership continues to go up every day.

By making public transport free of charge it became possible to guarantee the right to mobility for all residents in Hasselt. Their position was that an improved public transport system simply means a better use of the public space that will not only improve the quality of traffic, but the quality of life in general.

Why isn't this our position as well? Isn't it worth trying a similar experiment at least somewhere in B.C.?

The Hasselt experience before 1997 was not much different than anywhere else in the western world. Car ownership in Hasselt rose by 25 per cent from 1987 to 1999, while the population increased by only 3.3 per cent during this same period. Although Hasselt is the fourth largest city in Belgium, it ranked first in car ownership during those years.

After implementing fare-free transit, over 40 per cent of the people visiting hospitals switched from a car to the bus. Over 32 per cent of the people "going to market" switched from using cars to buses. Overall, in November 1997, 16 per cent of all bus riders studied previously drove a car. It is important to understand that this was achieved by both the elimination of fares as well as the implementation of bus priority measures such as bus lanes.

Careful planning is key

Karl Storchmann, a researcher at Yale University, has documented that even the 12 per cent of bus riders that were previously cyclists, as well as the 9 per cent that switched from walking to the bus in Hasselt, will produce a net positive change for society, since pedestrians and cyclists "belong to the most endangered road users, [and] every decrease in these modes will lead to a reduction of automobile-caused costs [i.e., deaths and injuries]."

The primary difference between Hasselt and most other places since 1997 is the creation and implementation of an integrated policy Hasselt calls "Working Together on a New Form of Mobility" ("Samen Anders Mobiel" for you Flemish speakers).

Within this sustainable mobility policy, there are two traffic policies: a Large Traffic Policy and a Small Traffic Policy.

The Large Traffic Policy includes the public transport policy (fare-free transit with appropriate service levels), a Mobility Plan, Cycle Policy Plan, Parking Policy Plan, Programme of Thoroughfares, Green Boulevard, an Outer Ring Road Plan, and a plan to reconstruct the area surrounding the main train station.

The Small Traffic Policy offers quicker solutions to local residents like "no parking" signs, speed humps (sleeping policemen that prohibit speeding), raised crosswalks, street narrowings (corner and mid-block bulges), and many others.

The Mobility Plan included targeted campaigns to help make residents aware of the policy and plans. These campaigns included car-free days (similar to East Vancouver's Car-Free Commercial Drive Festival), shop-by-bike, bike pools (primarily for school children in Grades 1 to 5), and more.

A 'mobility plan' for all

Because Hasselt's policy makers understand that bikes are the most sustainable form of transport, today in Hasselt one can borrow a bicycle, tandem, scooter or wheelchair bike free of charge. On the Groenplein (behind the town hall) you can also borrow a stroller free of charge for your little one (as their website states, "Handy when your toddler can't make the distance"). And two wheelchairs are available for free loan from the tourism bureau. This is one mobility plan that includes both families and people with physical challenges.

The Mobility Plan notes that in the city centre, "you will find a network of pedestrian shopping streets, where as a pedestrian you can breathe easily and move freely as the imminent danger created by traffic has been removed." In these car-free areas, there are free guarded bike racks (similar to the bike valet system that the Vancouver Parks Board recently voted against) and luggage guard services. Again, this plan is not just for commuters and younger folks.

The businesses in Hasselt know very well that restricting cars can dramatically increase the numbers of people visiting them (the Vancouver Folk Music Festival has learned this, as well). In Hasselt, they've taken the next step and made it easy for people to shop as much as they want -- without a car. Elsewhere in the city, there are practical and pleasant "short-cuts" pedestrians can take to make it easier to walk than to drive.

The "Green Boulevard," formerly the inner ring road, was a traffic nightmare in the 1960s. Starting in 1997 and finishing in 2000, it has been transformed into a multi-use transportation dream: a nine-metre wide pedestrian area (Vancouver's standard sidewalk width is less than two metres), separate bike paths, separate lanes for transit, and roads that are engineered to ensure that cars drive at a maximum of 30 kilometres an hour. Although there are only two lanes for cars, there is rarely any congestion.

Money saved

The Mobility Plan has saved the City of Hasselt millions of Euros on transportation infrastructure costs and has eliminated the previously perceived need of a third ring road. Overall, taxes have decreased because the city spends less money on transportation with the new Mobility Plan, despite the huge increase in pedestrian, cycling, and transit infrastructure and services.

The Hasselt website also describes the "Women's Promenade" running through the city centre: "All kinds of women who over the years have made their mark on the city have been literally placed on a pedestal." The promenade shows off famous art and comic strips featuring women, as well as displays ranging from "the nuns' convent and witches' coven, to a club of cigar smoking ladies from Hasselt."

Clearly the city isn't afraid to innovate. As Hasselt Mayor Steve Stevaert declares, "We don't need any more new roads, but new thought highways!"

Are you listening, Kevin Falcon?

Contrast Hasselt's forward thinking with the recent manoeuvre by B.C. Minister of Transportation Kevin Falcon and the provincial government to change TransLink's governance structure. It's the latest attempt to further privatize public transit in the region.

Who is accountable?

The proposal creates an appointed 11-member board to oversee day-to-day operations. This board would be "made up of professionals," which clearly means that we will be paying private sector folks to run our public transit system. The existing board is made up of mayors and councillors elected throughout the GVRD. The current structure has been criticized for not being democratic enough, but if Falcon has his way, his government's hand-picked officials won't be accessible to any voters, anywhere.

This kind of top-down politics in service of privatization has already given us the RAV/Canada Line, a public-private partnership (P3) that guarantees the private contractor who builds and operates this automated light rail line will receive a hefty profit every year for 35 years, regardless of ridership. They also get the lion's share of the $2.5 billion of our taxes spent on the project, while hiring non-union imported labour to build it. And when they borrow more money from private sources at interest rates higher than government would pay, we the taxpayers pay for that, too.

A TransLink board stripped of democratic accountability will also make it easier for Falcon's ministry to push through mega-projects like Gateway (which includes the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge), with further subsidies to privately-owned automobiles -- the major producers of greenhouse gases and toxic pollution in our region.

When this series resumes, we'll look at ways to get the "public" back in public transportation. We'll examine the costs of collecting transit fares and sustainable, long term funding strategies used around the world.

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