The ABSoluut Gent 10 Mijl presents a unique course on a unique day. On Car-free Sunday, you will run in and back out of the city via the Fly-over (B401), the viaduct that connects the E17 highway with the heart of Ghent, exactly on the day of the 50th jubilee of this equally famous and infamous monument.
By today’s standards, a highway that ends up right in the middle of a city centre is absurd. However, at the end of the sixties, this was considered a sign of progress and innovation. The car ruled the streets in those days, and in Ghent the red carpet was rolled out in the shape of the B401.
In order to construct the famous and meanwhile rather contested Fly-over, four hundred houses and shops were disowned, about 1,000 people had to move and part of the Zuidpark disappeared. Quite literally, the city had to make way for the car. The B401 followed the old railway line to the former Zuidstation. Isn’t it symbolic: the train, considered an old-hat means of transport, was made obsolete by the car, the future. The Fly-over connected Ghent with the E17 (then still named E3) and, via the Zwijnaarde interchange, with the E40 (then E5). This futuristic gate to the city opened in October 1972, right before the first oil crisis would make a small dent in the car’s godlike status.
Fleeing the city
This new city highway link in fact resulted in urban flight. Because of the B401, the suburbs and rural hinterland became easily accessible, whereas the traffic situation in the city centre deteriorated. Both people and shops left Ghent, for instance fashion retailer E5 mode, in 1979 named specifically after its location next to the E5 highway (now E40) in Sint-Denijs-Westrem. The city centre crumbled into impoverishment and empty buildings…
The concrete dragon that on a daily basis spews 10,000 cars in and the same again out of the city, has become an anachronism. People have found their way to the city again, and crave a literally life-size centre, with shared space for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport. Anno 2022, the car, once the embodiment of freedom, is now associated with expensive fuel prices, traffic jams and blocks, noise, pollution and climate change.
For the last decennium at least, the Fly-over has been a nemesis to Ghent’s council and many of its inhabitants. However, it is not the Ghent council, but Flanders that owns the B401. Until now, the Fly-over has not exactly topped the agenda of the Flemish government.
In 2017, the city council took matters in their own hands and started a thinktank on the future of the viaduct, which in 2014 officially had lost its highway statute. The outcome of this exercise is a step-by-step approach where first the central part will be phased out, secondly the connecting roads. The viaduct would make way (pun intended) for a new, modern boulevard, with the regained space becoming an enjoyable district with plenty of green and space for pedestrians, runners and cyclists.
Ghent dreams of re-extending the Zuidpark and for it to become, inspired by New York, a ‘Central Park’.
Still, some seem to remain rather fond of the B401. Of course, when you drive into the city by car, from the highway you can park your car in the Zuidpark without a hitch – what a delight. The concrete mastodon has become tamed indeed, still instilling beauty in all its ugliness.
The Fly-over continues tongues to wag and the jury is still out. Once a year, on Car-free Sunday, cyclists, runners and pedestrians can experience what it would be like if in the future the Fly-over becomes their red carpet. The view of the medieval skyline of Ghent, with its three towers, is truly unique. On that day, that view of the past becomes the view of the future.