On the Rationality of Network Development: the Case of the Belgian Highway Network


  • Thomas Vanoutrive University of Antwerp
  • Ilja Van Damme University of Antwerp
  • Greet De Block University of Antwerp




The development of transport networks has been explained, predicted and planned using a variety of methodological approaches. These range from narrative historical accounts to the application of models borrowed from the natural sciences, the latter being predominant in the field of transport economics. Probably the most remarkable example is the mimicking of highway networks by slime mould in Petri dishes. The aim of this paper is to examine and compare methods used to hypothesise on and explain the development of transport networks, and we specifically focus on methods that emphasise topology over topography, relations over form (in line with the work of Gabriel Dupuy and others). Belgium was chosen as case because the topology of Belgium’s highway network is considered by some as one of the most ‘rational’ in the world, although its form and materiality are often qualified as ‘chaotic’, or indeed ‘irrational’. The quantitative analysis of the development of this network reported in the present paper indicates that this supposed rationality is seldom followed and seemingly ‘irrational’ parameters literally deviate its growth. Therefore, the quantitative part is complemented by a historical analysis which focuses more on the role, and indeed rationality, of historical actors and the wider institutional context. Material provided by this case study supplies fuel for discussion about broader issues, in particular the underlying ideological and political-economic claims associated with a particular methodological approach. This is especially relevant given the fact that models used to predict past transport investments are also employed to evaluate future investments in infrastructure. Quantitative approaches generally attribute a central role to the concept of demand, and thus degrees of ‘rationality’ are in fact linked to ideas of consumer democracy where individual demand guides investment decisions. In contrast, interpretations of a less deterministic nature emphasise the degrees of freedom of political actors/choice. We conclude that the views held by actors of the past, present and future of transport networks are relevant for democratic debates on transport policy since the metaphors and models used are not value-neutral.


Adamatzky, A., S. Akl, R. Alonso-Sanz, W. van Dessel, Z. Ibrahim, A. Ilachinski, J. Jones, et al. “Are Motorways Rational from Slime Mould’s Point of View?”. International Journal of Parallel, Emergent and Distributed Systems 28, no. 3 (2013): 230-48.

Armstrong, H., and J. Taylor. Regional Economics and Policy. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Benguigui, L., and M. Daoud. “Is the Suburban Railway System a Fractal.” Geographical Analysis 23, no. 4 (1991): 362-68.

Black, W. R. “Iterative Model for Generating Transportation Networks.” Geographical Analysis 3, no. 3 (1971): 283-88.

Burger, M. and E. Meijers. “Form follows function? Linking morphological and functional polycentricity.” Urban studies 49 (2012): 1127-1149.

Claeys, “La route international de Londres à Istanbul et les routes en Hongarie. Rapport de mission”, Annales des travaux publics de Belgique (1936).

Dardot, P., and Ch. Laval. The New Way of the World : On Neoliberal Society. London: Verso, 2013.

Davoudi, S. “Polycentricity in European spatial planning: from an analytical tool to a normative agenda?” European planning studies 11 (2003): 979-999.

De Block, G., and B. De Meulder. “Iterative Modernism: The Design Mode of Interwar Engineering in Belgium.” Transfers 1, no. 1 (2011): 97-126.

De Block, G., Engineering the territory. Technology, space and society in 19th and 20th century Belgium. Leuven: PhD thesis KULeuven,, 2011.

De Block, G. “Ecological infrastructure in a critical-historical perspective: From engineering ‘social’ territory to encoding ‘natural’ topography.” Environment annd Planning A 48, no. 2 (2016): 367-390.

Devallée, A. “Les routes de l’Etat en Belgique. Autoroutes”, Annales des travaux publics de Belgique, (1938), 289.

Dupuy, G. “Les Stations Nodales Du Métro De Paris: Le Réseau Métropolitain Et La Revanche De L’histoire.” Annales de Géographie 102, no. 569 (1993): 17-31.

———. “Network Geometry and the Urban Railway System: The Potential Benefits to Geographers of Harnessing Inputs from “Naive” Outsiders.” Journal of Transport Geography 33 (2013): 85-94.

Foucault, M. Naissance De La Biopolitique: Cours Au Collège De France (1978-1979). Paris: Gallimard/Seuil, 2004.

Gandy, M. “Above the treetops: nature, history and the limits to philosophical naturalism.” Geoforum 39 (2008): 561–569.

Graham, S. and Marvin, S. Splintering Urbanism. Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. London: Routledge. 2001.

Hayek, F.A. “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” The American Economic Review XXXV, no. 4 (1945): 519-30.

Hodgson, G.M. “Hayek, Evolution, and Spontaneous Order.” Chap. 16 In Natural Images in Economic Thought “Markets Read in Tooth and Claw”, edited by Ph. Mirowski, 408-47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Hondermarcq, H. “La modernisation du réseau routier belge” Annales (1950)

Hondermarcq, H. Le réseau des routes E. Liège: CERES, 1964.

Kim, K. S., L. Benguigui, and M. Marinov. “The Fractal Structure of Seoul’s Public Transportation System.” Cities 20, no. 1 (2003): 31-39.

Kolars, J., and H. J. Malin. “Population and Accessibility - Analysis of Turkish Railroads.” Geographical Review 60, no. 2 (1970): 229-46.

Koopmans, C., P. Rietveld, and A. Huijg. “An Accessibility Approach to Railways and Municipal Population Growth, 1840-1930.” Journal of Transport Geography 25 (2012): 98-104.

Laporte, G., J. A. Mesa, F. A. Ortega, and F. Perea. “Planning Rapid Transit Networks.” Socio-Economic Planning Sciences 45, no. 3 (9// 2011): 95-104.

Levinson, D. “Density and Dispersion: The Co-Development of Land Use and Rail in London.” Journal of Economic Geography 8, no. 1 (2008): 55-77.

Levinson, D., and R. Karamalaputi. “Induced Supply - a Model of Highway Network Expansion at the Microscopic Level.” Journal of Transport Economics and Policy 37 (2003a): 297-318.

———. “Predicting the Construction of New Highway Links.” Journal of Transportation and Statistics 6, no. 2/3 (2003b): 1-9.

Martens, K. “Basing Transport Planning on Principles of Social Justice.” Berkeley Planning Journal 19, no. 1 (2006): 1-17.

Mirowski, Ph. “Postface: Defining Neoliberalism.” In The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective, edited by Ph. Mirowski and D. Plehwe, 417-55. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009.

———. “The Realms of the Natural.” Chap. 17 In Natural Images in Economic Thought “Markets Read in Tooth and Claw”, edited by Ph. Mirowski, 451-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Ozeki, T. “Topological Analysis of Tokyo Metropolitan Railway System.” Chap. 2 In Infrastructure Design, Signalling and Security in Railway, edited by X. Perpinya, 25-50. Available from: http://www.intechopen.com/books/infrastructure-design-signalling-and-security-in-railway/topological-analysis-of-tokyo-metropolitan-railway-system: InTech, 2012.

Picon, A. French Architects and Engineers in the Age of Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University press. 1992.

Picon, A. Les Saint-Simoniens. Raison, imaginaire et utopie. Belin, 2002.

Ramadier, T. “Transdisciplinarity and Its Challenges: The Case of Urban Studies.” Futures 36, no. 4 (2004): 423-39.

Rietveld, P., and J. Van Nierop. “Urban Growth and the Development of Transport Networks; the Case of the Dutch Railways in the Nineteenth Century.” Flux 19 (1995): 31-43.

Roth, G.J. A Self-Financing Road System. London,: Institute of Economic Affairs, 1966.

Ryckewaert, M. “Building the Highway System. Planning & Mass Motorization in Belgium since 1945.” In Dutch mobility in a European context. Two centuries of mobility policy in seven countries edition:2. Utrecht, 2009.

Saey, P. “En Toen Was Er Akkermans, Minister Van De Mensen - Een Introductie in De Pioniersperiode Van Vlaamse Planning.” In... Ter Wille Van De Samenleving - Liber Amicorum Georges Allaert, edited by L. Boelens, H. Leinfelder and A. Pisman, 19-39. Ghent: Academia Press, 2013.

Schwanen, T, “Geographies of transport II. Reconciling the general and the particular”, Progress in Human Geography (online Januari 31, 2016).

Sorensen, K. “Metaheuristics-the Metaphor Exposed.” International Transactions in Operational Research 22, no. 1 (2015): 3-18.

Tero, A., S. Takagi, T. Saigusa, K. Ito, D. P. Bebber, M. D. Fricker, K. Yumiki, R. Kobayashi, and T. Nakagaki. “Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design.” Science 327, no. 5964 (2010): 439-42.

van Nederkassel, M. Waarom België Één Van De Meest Rationele Autosnelwegennetwerken Ter Wereld Heeft. Antwerp: Master Thesis, University of Antwerp, 2015.

Vickrey, W.S. “Congestion Theory and Transport Investment.” American Economic Review 59, no. 2 (1969): 251-60.

Weber, D. De Blijde Intrede Van De Automobiel in België 1895-1940. Ghent: Academia Press, 2010.

Wils, K. De omweg van de wetenschap; Het positivisme en de Belgische en Nederlandse intellectuele cultuur, 1845-1914. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. 2005.

Witte, E., J. Craeybeckx, and A. Meynen. Politieke Geschiedenis Van België Van 1830 Tot Heden. Antwerpen: Standaard Uitgeverij, 2005.

Xie, F., and D. Levinson. “Modeling the Growth of Transportation Networks: A Comprehensive Review.” Networks & Spatial Economics 9, no. 3 (2009): 291-307.

Zuidhof, P-W. “Imagining Markets: The Discursive Politics of Neoliberalism.” Rotterdam: Ph.D. thesis Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, 2012.

———. “Thinking Like an Economist: The Neoliberal Politics of the Economics Textbook.” Review of Social Economy 72, no. 2 (2014): 157-85.




How to Cite

Vanoutrive, T., Van Damme, I., & De Block, G. (2016). On the Rationality of Network Development: the Case of the Belgian Highway Network. International Planning History Society Proceedings, 17(3), 235–246. https://doi.org/10.7480/iphs.2016.3.1264