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So this is what traffic-free tourism looks, sounds and feels like. How did this happen?
14th August 2023
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I’m in Ghent (or Gent). OK, it’s not rural, but it’s a living lab of stripping cars out of somewhere as a key part of rethinking what the place is all about…and blimey, does Gent know what it’s all about. This is what car-free looks like…

This didn’t happen decades ago, but really all started in earnest less that 10 years ago. Take a look at the video How to Ghentify your city – or scroll down the Links page to find shortcuts to the juicy bits.

So what does it feel like?

It’s busy, but not rammed – perhaps “busy calmness” if that’s not a contradiction? Noises are of hubbub and chatter in many languages, not the drone and squeals of cars. Walking around is calm and there is a feeling of safety – like everyone is welcome and sharing in the experience.

How did this happen?

The stripping out of cars was to make the city more liveable. Indeed, liveability is one of the recognised principles on Gent’s Tourism of the Future Strategy 2020-25. In focussing on liveability, it’s like it has given new oxygen to all sorts of other qualities of the place. Its built heritage is on show front-and-centre, but so is its modern edgy culture, and a pride in its brilliant transport – from more functional buses through trams and bikes to water transport. This is all available for visitors on the Gent City Card along with access to its main attractions. The driver (or is it a pilot?) / guide on our boat said – without prompting – that boat tourism in the form of the hop-on-hop-off “boat tram” and numerous tours only really started booming in the last 5 years as part of Gent’s transformation.

It feels like Gent has had a big think about about how to present the core elements of the place but for the mid 21st century and looking forward – not with pastiche and apology.

There are some important ideas embedded within Gent’s Tourism of the Future that align pretty much directly with the 6-component model for visitor transport decarbonisation; They are pretty explicit that Ghent is for longer stays  specifically “overnight visitors [that] include culture lovers, gastronomes, ecologists and conference goers, but not day-trippers who take a few selfies and are off again“. They are also keen to emphasise that “The City will target regions with regular train and coach connections“. Add to this the quality of its integrated local transport plus the user-facing simplicity of the integration between visitor transport and attractions via the Gent City Card, and pretty much all decarbonisation bases are covered.

There is loads here that could relate to rural destinations. It all starts from really capturing what are the core assets and qualities of a place, crack a future-looking mobility plan that builds from the qualities of the place rather than sitting on top and ruining it, and wrap all of this together – confidently – to provide modern, sustainable, distinctive visitor offers that contribute to the health and liveability of local residents and businesses. Ahh….

So does all of this lead to effective decarbonisation? That’s the big question I hope to be able to dig into as I come back through here in late September.

As two postscripts, maybe these two displays in Gent’s STAM city museum sum up the civic culture that has shaped Gent’s approach:

…and finally “Morning rush hour in the 21st century…”

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