6 Urban Planning Lessons from... Austria

6 Urban Planning Lessons from... Austria
By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities.


Austria is one country that has their urban game together, as evidenced in expansive bike/ped amenities, well-connected transit systems, and compact development. Given this, it comes as no surprise that an international survey of 260 cities has rated Vienna as the most livable city in the world seven years in a row. But instead of resting on its laurels, Austria is not shy about stepping up its urban game by describing in detail the country’s European and national sustainability initiatives and proudly promoting its eco-tourism. So, if you want to see how cities and countries thoughtfully and efficiently handle urban and regional planning issues, Austria is a great place to visit. Just be sure to buy the right transit pass in Vienna.


1.  The country rocks when it comes to cycling, pedestrians, public transit, and sustainability.  And the cities are taking this a step further. In Vienna, a website dedicated to “Sustainable Vienna” covers a variety of topics, from urban gardens to biking around to organic/vegan restaurants to sustainable kid’s clothes to urban bees. Interestingly enough, the city is one of the largest organic farmers in Austria with 860+ hectares of organic growing land among three city farms. Vienna is also working to meet EU targets for reducing CO2 and energy use through the TRANSFORM (Transformation Agenda for Low Carbon Cities, partially funded within the EU's 7thFramework Program for Research) program; in 2014, city council adopted the Smart City Wien Framework Strategy with the ambitious goals of 80% CO2 reduction per capita, 40% less energy consumption and 50% renewable energy sources. Over in Salzburg, the city hosts urban planners and related professionals at the annual SCUPAD conference, or “congress.” SCUPAD is an independent non-profit, international network organization of planners and development specialists, which was founded by the fellows of the Salzburg Global Seminar’s Planning session in 1965. This year’s topic is on displacement, definitely a relative current issue considering the refugee and immigrant crisis in Europe. Salzburg is also participating as a community in the e5 national program for energy-efficient programs. Well done, Austria; well done.


2.  Pets/transit-wise, officials seemed to be more strict about dogs wearing muzzles.  I wasn't stopped or anything, but signs were posted everywhere and I saw many dogs wearing muzzles, leading me to think that the transit officials enforce the rule.  (Also, the clerk in a pet shop where I was buying a muzzle told me it is enforced.)  In Vienna, dog owners are also required to pay the fare for their dog; I'm not sure if this is countrywide or if it's checked, but no official ever asked to see Mango's ticket.


3.  The city has been using a trolleybus system since 1940.  Prior to visiting Salzburg, I don't recall ever seeing a trolleybus system used as the primary mode of local transportation in cities.  (Turns out: There are currently only 8 trolleybus systems operating across the US, out of a total of 65 dating back to 1898.  It's interesting that most trolleybus systems in the US opened in the 1930s with the majority closing in the 1960s, not coincidentally after Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 that neglected public transit in favor of private automobile use.)  Fortunately, the Salzburg trolley bus is here to stay and the system is quiet, efficient, exhaust-free, and well-used.  In 1909, an electric tram system replaced horse trams, and eventually these trolleybuses replaced the electric trams more than seventy-five years ago. Last thing on the Salzburg trolleybus system:.  It has its own Wikipedia page, peppered with facts such as it "is one of the few transport companies worldwide that operates trolleybus lines, but no diesel bus lines."

4.  The city recently tested a driverless minibus in the city center.  Salzburg's foray into driverless transit isn't aiming for transformational changes to the current transit system.  Instead, the city's goal is to simply connect those nagging first and/or last miles of one's commute, a key factor in getting people to use public transit.  According to an article in The Local, the autonomous minibus is really "a supplementary mode of transport to help people get from the bus or train stop to their homes."  It can transport up to 15 passengers and drive safely up to a maximum speed of 45 km/h and is perfect for narrow streets, like the ones in Salzburg's car-free Old Town where it was tested.  It sounds sort of like what Ljubljana has done with its Kavalir taxi service, but way more complex.


More photographic urban notes on Salzburg:


the scarlet letter of transit

the scarlet letter of transit

5.  Transit officials are *very* strict about fares.  So much so that they fined me $110 dollars and humiliated me in the process.  Okay, allow me to set the scene: I had just arrived in town and was at the U station purchasing a weekly transit pass at the kiosk.  An older man, reeking of booze, approached me during my purchase and started gesturing oddly.  (Mango, my ever-so-valiant guard dog, stood idly by in his puffy coat.)  It was dark and no one was around, so I bought the ticket as fast as I could and hurried to my train. A few days later while riding the U I was stopped by the transit authorities and asked to show my fare. “Easy enough,” I thought to myself, as I reached in my bag to retrieve it. But it wasn’t in the side pocket where it should have been, and I realized with a sinking feeling that I had left it in my other bag in the apartment. As much as I pleaded with the officer, even pointing out that I was a mere tourist and my poor dog was muzzled (trying to prove that I’m not one to eschew rules), he yelled at me for not having my pass. At the next stop, he herded me off the train at the next station with a group of other people without passes that he and his colleague had picked out (they must work on commission, ha). Rather aggressively, the officials gathered us on the platform and started demanding IDs and asking how we would pay the fine. We were all a bit scared by their shouting, which attracted stares from people passing by. The transit officials then herded us out of the station to a nearby atm, where the man literally stood over my shoulder and watched me as I withdrew $110 for the fine to pay on the spot. I paid the fine and dejectedly walked back to my apartment, $110 poorer and with my morale in tatters. The next day, I took my ticket and fine to the U customer service, hoping someone there would be a little sympathetic to my plight, and was further humiliated: The agent coldly pointed out that, in my haste to get away from the drunk man accosting me, I had purchased a weekly pass for the upcoming week, as the weekly pass starts on a specific day and not the day you purchase it (which actually makes no sense to me, because that means I should have purchased either two weekly passes or a daily pass every day, costly and more complicated options). So essentially, I was screwed either way and neither transit official was willing to be flexible with their rules. While I do realize that ultimately this is an insignificant experience of life and I was technically at fault, I couldn’t help but be a bit upset by it and in turn not want to return to (or recommend) Vienna. Never have I been treated with such hostility by transit officials, and I have used public transit for decades with drama-free fare checks throughout Europe, including checks where I was at fault. Even rule-loving Sweden let me slide once when I hadn’t yet validated my pass, a comparison that tells me a lot about Vienna’s transit fare rules.


6. The city has built a brand-spanking-new city nearby, Vienna DC.  Northeast of the city center and across the Danube (Donau) River is the shiny new mini-city, Donau City.  A 2010 overview plan with information on the buildings says that DC is to "function as a second city centre that would absorb the financial boom forecast after the opening-up of the economies to the East, hence easing the pressure on the historic city as a high-level office location. [Also], it [is] to provide an urban, multifunctional hub for the rapidly growing urban growth areas across the Danube."  In keeping with sustainable practices, the site is a rehabilitated landfill and the highway has been located underground, allowing more space for buildings and other development. According to the DC’s Wikipedia page, the core is 70% office/commercial, 20% residential, and 10% “cultural.” An estimated 15,000 people currently live and work in the central part with low-rise residential and recreational space surrounding it. Which is good, because I don't think I'd want to live in one of the 1,500 residential units in the rather bland downtown. But hey, kudos to the city for realizing such a huge project by the proposed deadline of 12 years, no easy feat for city planners.


More photographic urban notes on Vienna: