Jerom Theunissen Photography


August 22-26

Consistently ranked the most livable city in the world, Vienna offers residents affordable housing, a rich cultural diversity, easy access to nature, and an excellent education system. In terms of transport, Vienna has had several successful sustainable mobility initiatives, such as the WienMobil mobility app, reusing energy from metro brakes to provide electricity at stations, and the affordable Vienna CityBike service.  I was keen to experience how these initiatives coupled with the city's transport and urban planning policy to improve quality of life for the city's residents.

City in Context

The city (and state) of Vienna is the capital city of Austria, and home to 1,867,582 inhabitants. What used to be a shrinking city on the outskirts of Western Europe become the sixth largest EU city (having surpassed Bucharest in 2016). From 2005 to 2015 the city's population grew by 10.1%. According to UN-Habitat, Vienna could be the fastest growing city out of 17 European metropolitan areas until 2025 with an increase of 4.65% of its population compared to 2010. These growth trends present significant challenges in terms of sustainable urbanization and transport.

Vienna has long been reluctant to adapt to the car. Most streets in the historic central city have remained narrow. The main exception is the monumental Ringstrasse, which encircles the oldest part of the city (District 1). Throughout its history, Vienna has been a compact, monocentric city with mixed-use development, generating many trips short enough to walk and placing most locations within  easy walking distance of public transport. It has also protected large areas from development, for use as parks, forests, and even working vineyards within the city! As a result, the share of land area used for urban development and transport infrastructure has remained around 50%

Although Vienna’s population shrank from 1.63 million in 1961 to 1.49 million in 1990, it increased to 1.80 million in 2015. Currently, the City of Vienna accounts for 70% of the 2.6 million residents of the metropolitan area. The remaining third of the population lives in the states of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) and Burgenland, which makes it necessary for Vienna to cooperate with these states on transportation issues. While Vienna achieves an amazing non-car mode share of 73%, the reverse is true for the regions outside of Vienna, where 79% of trips are made by car.

Things have not always been this way. Increasing affluence from 1960 to 1990 (roughly a tripling of real per-capita income) led to a quadrupling in motorization rates, from 90 to 357 cars per 1,000 population. A degradation in trip times due to roadway congestion, parking problems, air pollution, noise, and traffic injuries and fatalities resulted from increased dominance of the private vehicle. Transport plans from the 1960s and 1970s envisioned the construction of high-speed motorways in the city, but widespread public opposition—including anti-highway demonstrations in the 1970s and 1980s—blocked nearly all of these proposals. The main exception was the 18km Südosttangente, a cross town motorway (A23) in the southeastern part of the city, which at its closest passes 5 km from the historic city center. Starting in the late 1960s, preservation of the old town, with its extremely narrow roadways and historic squares, became a top priority—supported by the public and by the ruling coalition parties, the Social Democrats and Conservatives—leading to the city’s first car-free pedestrian zone there in 1974.

Opposition to the investment in road infrastructure may have had to do with recent population growth. As of 2012, according to official Austrian statistics, more than one-third of Vienna’s residents were of full or partial immigrant origin, including 460,000 with foreign citizenship. Over 90% of Vienna’s immigrants and foreign residents come from eastern and southeastern Europe, reflecting Vienna’s location southeast of Europe’s center and its historical ties to that region during Vienna’s days as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The influx of immigrants from eastern and southeastern Europe—with much lower rates of car ownership than Austrians—may have contributed to the growth in public transport use and cycling since 1993.

Public Transport in Vienna

A key point of interest in visiting Vienna was to find out how the city achieved one of the highest mode shares for public transit in the developed world (39%!). The first thing I found was a point of success was the continued and consistent investment in expanding and upgrading the U-bahn subway system over the years. The metro systems serves as the backbone for rapid transit in the city, whizzing a high volume of passengers with trains arriving every six minutes. The latest projects have included an extension of the U2 line to Seestadt Aspern, Vienna's latest greenfield urban development project. Further, the city has expanded its U1 line to the south and a new U5 line is being built.

Secondly, the city has also improved and extended the above-ground tram and bus network. For years, the tramway has provided the most public transport services for decades, providing extensive service outside U-bahn corridors and on feeder routes to U-bahn stations. Recently, modernizations of tramway tracks, stations and vehicles has made the service more attractive, as evidenced by growth in tram ridership from 242 million in 1990 to 304 million in 2014 (even as the U-bahn expanded significantly during this time). For buses, e-mobility has powered vehicles with electricity generated by renewable energy. As a whole, the Vienna Verkehrsverbund (the state of Vienna's transportation authority) and Wiener Linien (the city-owned transit agency) have improved the coordination of schedules, routes, and fares among different lines, different kinds of transit, and different parts of the region to make transit use as accessible and efficient as possible.

You'd be hard pressed to find an area of Vienna not accessible by public transport! Source: Wiener Linien

Lastly, the most significant action attributed to the city's high mode share of public transport is it's affordability.  In 2012, led by Maria Vassilakou, Vienna's vice-mayor for transport and member of the Green Party, the city reduced the price for an annual ticket for unlimited travel within the city's boundaries from €449 to €365, or just €1 per day. For seniors, the annual ticket costs only €224 per year. School students pay €60 and university students pay €75 per semester. 

In 2015, Vienna introduced an upgraded version of the annual pass called the Mobilitätskarte (Mobility Card). For just an extra €12 annually, users will have discounted access to the City’s bike share system and park and ride lots, with plans to offer discounts for car sharing, electric vehicle charging stations and so forth with the aim that all sustainable mobility is available on one mobility card.

In making public transport more affordable, the number of pass holders increased 50% from 400,000 in May 2012 to 600,000 in January 2014. The Vienna mode share of public transport rose three percentage points during this period, five times the annual growth rate of increase during the previous decade (2001-2011). 

In sum, these developments have made use of public transit irresistible in the city. High quality service and smart growth have translated to high degrees of customer satisfaction and usage. In a 2014 survey, 98% of Viennese residents described public transport service as either good or very good. The system is used by most of the population: 52% reported using transit daily, 76% at least once a week, and 88% at least once a month.  

To read more about the political and fiscal considerations of sustainable transport in Vienna, this excellent article sums it up very well.

STEP 2025 - Vienna's Urban Mobility Plan

Back in 2014, the city of Vienna adopted it's latest 10-year city development plan, known as STEP 2025. By 2025, the goal is to further reduce the city's 27% private car mode share down to 20%. The comprehensive plan directly states that this goal is to ensure the city's livability as the city grows in population and affluence. This means a significant growth will be needed in Uweltverbund (German for sustainable modes), as the number of car trips in the city would increase by 12% if car mode share remained the same.

To correspond with new mode shares sought in STEP 2025, Vienna has plans to reprogram he built environment on heavily-trafficked roads with reallocation of space to sustainable modes. As just under two-thirds of road space is taken up by cars for driving or parking, Vienna aims to dedicate more street space to walking, cycling and public transit and transform streets to create attractive places for sustainable modes. Measures include the increased use of 30 km/h zones and shared spaces to calm traffic, especially in residential areas.

To read the whole plan, click here.

Vienna by Bike

Cycling is an area that remains a challenge for Vienna. Currently cycling mode share sits at 7%, well below that achieved by many other cities in Europe with high quality of life. The current total cycle network of 1,379 km is impressive, but only 21% of this has separated infrastructure. The rest are routes painted on roadways or signed routes on low-volume streets. To mimic the success of cities in t he Netherlands and Copenhagen in Denmark, separated routes with continuous networks should be pursued wherever possible. To this end, the City of Vienna announced its plans to develop cycle highways through the city that should have better infrastructure and also connect the city with adjacent areas in Niederösterreich (Lower Austria).

Perceptions of cycling are that it is not safe, especially near high-traffic corridors. Compared to cities in the Netherlands or Denmark, where the elderly happily cycle without a worry, Vienna's cyclists need to possess some level of boldness and caution when sharing the road with motor vehicles. That said, there is a lot of promotion for cycling by the City of Vienna’s cycling agency Fahrrad Wien and a substantial cycling program with dedicated funding from the city government.

To read more about Vienna's cycling manifesto, click here.

Vienna on Foot

With public transit stops around every corner, compact neighborhoods as well as many impressive sights, vibrant public places and green spaces, Vienna is a city made for walking, reflected in the city’s relatively constant mode share for walking of 28%. In 2013, Vienna appointed a Walking Commisioner and introduced Wien zu Fuss (Vienna on Foot), an organization for promoting walking at the city-level.

Improving infrastructure to increase accessibility and promoting walking and its health benefits are the core of Wien zu Fuss’ activities. Moreover, so-called Flaniermeilen (long walking routes through the city with wider sidewalks) and a wayfinding system for pedestrians are planned. Seven routes are planned, with two of these routes should be completed by 2018 with five further routes to follow by 2025.

Vienna's Planned Flaniermeilen. Source: Stadt Wien

Vienna's Bicycle Network. Source: Stadt Wien

Encouraging Sustainable Modes via Parking Regulations

Unitary governance of Vienna (being both a city and an Austrian state) implies a relative cohesion in terms of implementation of changes. However, the city is broken up into 23 Bezirke (districts) which are granted significant autonomy, meaning that local issues and concerns can (and do) override city-wide priorities. 

District autonomy is acutely expressed when it comes to parking regulations and parking space management. To reduce traffic in the city and distribute scarce parking space, parking regulation was first introduced in 1959 in the form of short-term parking zones. In 1975, this was monetized when spaces begun being charged per hour. District residents are exempted from paying short-term fees, an instead pay between €90-€120 (depending on the district) for parking each year. On-street parking is generally limited to 2hrs for non-district residents, while there are no time limits or hourly charges for residents who display a parking decal purchased annually for €90-€120. These measures have been adopted across different districts since 1993, and have expanded to 15 of 23 districts in 2015. 

The effect of this policy has seen a reduction in occupancy rates of parking spaces, unauthorized parking, car traffic, parked cars not from Vienna, and pollution, but not across the whole city. Eight districts continued to reject parking management as of February 2016. These are mostly outlying districts with low-density development, long trip distances, higher motorization rates, ease of free curbside parking, and less public transport service. Yet, from 1995 to 2013, as parking management spread, the percentage of residents reporting severe problems finding parking during the day fell from 47% to 27%, and during the evening, from 58% to 37%.

Despite these regulations in the inner districts and a few outer districts, parking remains a major challenge and a contentious issue in Vienna. The municipality requires a minimum amount of parking to be provided in new developments, although this ratio can be reduced in areas with good access to higher order public transport. A perverse effect of this can be on small-scale developments where the minimum parking requirements can make the development either economically unfeasible or that the parking requirement itself makes it impossible to carry out the development in a way that is friendly to the existing built form.

STEP 2025 proposes an exemption from minimum parking requirements for such small-scale developments but there doesn’t seem to be any overall plan to get rid of parking minimums. However, the recent amendment of Vienna’s building code (Bauordnung) lowered parking requirements from one parking space per apartment to one parking space per 100  square meters, which should decrease the overall number of parking spaces required given the increased demand for smaller apartments.

I visited two developments that challenged the paradigm of building parking spaces with each new project: Autofreie Mustersiedlung and Bike City.

Autofreie Mustersiedlung features 244 apartments for tenants who, as part of the rental agreement, agreed to not own a car. Through this agreement and the development's access to public transport, the city waived the minimum parking requirement. The space and money saved has instead been dedicated to common infrastructure, such as a bicycle repair shop, car-sharing spaces, a sauna, a fitness room, playgrounds for children, a youth room, and roof gardens. Due to the special nature of this project, a community website set up by the tenants has led to various common activities, resulting in a a more cohesive neighborhood. The project is among the first examples of car-free housing in Europe.

After the success of Autofreie Mustersiedlung, the housing development dubbed "Bike City" and "Time2Live," targets the needs of cyclists, an increasingly popular way to get around Vienna. The demand for the 99 new apartments was extreme: over 5000 people applied for tenancy. The ground floor of the development includes bike rental and bike maintenance services, relaxation rooms and a wellness area. The access routes to the building are of course barrier-free and bike-parking spaces are close to the building entrances. Large elevators make it possible to take bikes into the apartment, and over 300 spots for secure bicycle parking spaces are available throughout the building. In contrast, only 56 car parking spaces for private use were offered for the 99 housing units in a subterranean garage. The money saved not building more parking spaces was used for the bike and wellness areas as well as the beautiful courtyard in the center of the building. This development hopes to make an impact against the negative effects of car-induced traffic, while simultaneously offering an attractive place to live.

Affordable and inclusive housing is a topic Vienna is known for worldwide, and is a major reason why the city ranks highly in terms of livability. The two projects I highlighted above are just two of thousands of innovative housing schemes in Vienna. To learn more about Vienna's social housing developments, the site (and book) the Vienna Model covers sixty prototypical projects from the last hundred years, with a special focus on the public art that has complemented the city’s housing since the First Republic. See the video below as well.

The 49 minutes video essay gives an overview of housing development from the late 19th century until today. The movie is produced to highlight the rich variety of social housing in Vienna. 

Space for Kids. A Dream City - Special Exhibition at Kunsthalle Wien

My hosts in Vienna, Ad and Riet, are avid museum-goers and took me to see a special exhibit about urban planning. Ad didn't tell me much about the exhibit at first, probably to induce some surprise when he and I arrived at the museum. We walked in and saw the most wonderful exhibition I've yet to see on my travels. Titled Space for Kids, the needs and perspectives of children are co-created by building their vision of a city from scratch. The whole lower hall of the Kunsthalle became a location of learning and exploration. The first part of the exhibit was a room filled with images from science fiction films, urban planning documents, and cityscapes. The walls of the room were re-purposed as poster boards, inviting visitors to "design a fantastic plan with us and create a city of the future" (See image on the left below). The second room was dedicated to actually designing and creating their city of the future. Cardboard, duct tape, and any materials brought to the exhibit were the instruments of creation. Platforms and overhangs gave their new city a "geography" to work with. This space combined action and contemplation, production and reception, as well as visual and other forms of art experience. I felt like a kid again, and reminded me again of the innate curiosity children experience with such fervor. Seeing so many children create with enthusiasm at the exhibit offered an important perspective, one where urban planners must incorporate creativity and the perspective of a child, for they may have the answers to our most pressing urban problems.

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