Those “text-walking lanes” in Antwerp were a marketing stunt that broke Belgian law

The disappearing lane.
The disappearing lane.
Image: Mlab
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If you’ve been on the internet in the past few days, chances are you may have seen the new “text walking” lanes installed in Antwerp. But so has Antwerp’s mayor, and he is not happy.

Initial reports mentioned that officials in Belgium’s most populous city were interested in expanding the new lanes, which were supposedly meant for people to walk in while looking at their phone screens. In an email to Quartz, the mayor’s press secretary made it quite clear that nothing could be further from the truth. “To be frank: we are not at all interested in expanding these lanes,” Johan Vermant wrote. Vermant went on to explain numerous ways in which “the company that wished to get publicity with this stunt” had violated both municipal and federal laws.

That company, a mobile phone store chain called Mlab, claimed that the purpose of the new lanes was to improve pedestrian safety. “You probably walk through the streets while texting or sending Whatsapp messages to your friends and don’t really pay attention to your surroundings,” Mlab’s marketing director David Verbeyst said. “This causes collisions with poles or other pedestrians. You could, unknowingly, even be endangering your own life while you ‘textwalk’ when you cross the street without looking up.”

But Vermant said that the lanes had the opposite effect. “Spraying alternative lines on a street as to make people believe it has an official character, can be very confusing and even lead to accidents,” he wrote. According to Vermant, not only did Mlab not ask for permission to spray-paint the streets—itself “a form of graffiti which is strictly forbidden in our city”—but also lied to police who came to investigate.

Text-walking lanes appeared last summer in Washington, DC, as a social experiment filmed by National Geographic. Subsequent rumors about ”no-cellphone” lanes in the Chinese city of Chongqing turned out to be a hoax—the lanes were only installed on a single, 50-meter (160-foot) strip of sidewalk in a theme park that is also home to the world’s largest toilet.

The managing director of Mlab’s advertising campaign, Bart Verschueren, admitted that the text-walking lanes were a gimmick. But, he said, “it shows that Mlab is constantly looking for opportunities, serious ones as well as entertaining ones, to help and guide people in the world of smartphones.”

Entertaining as the opportunity may have been, it will also prove costly for Mlab. Vermant told Quartz that the city of Antwerp has removed the lanes and charged Mlab for the removal costs, as well as fining it for breaking the law.