6 Urban Planning Lessons from... Bosnia & Herzegovina

6 Urban Planning Lessons from... Bosnia & Herzegovina
At 10:00 a.m. on January 1, 1885, the first tram, pulled by horses, passed through the city. News spread like wildfire because Sarajevo was the first city in the Balkans and Central Europe to have a tram. The first tram operator was Johann Hanke, who drove passengers along the 3.1-km-long track for 5 kreuzers.
-'The Sarajevo Tram'



1.  Historic electric tram system

I have a huge soft spot for trams, especially old trams. So you can imagine how excited I was to learn that Sarajevo was the first city in Europe, and second in the world behind the Saint Petersburg area of Russia, to install an electric tram system. The city ran its first tram in 1885 during the Austro-Hungarian rule, with the government using Sarajevo as a testing ground for Vienna’s future electric tram system. Today, Sarajevo’s tram system is still in use although its network is limited; I assume the introduction of the car and the Bosnian War are key reasons for this. Many of the cars are rusty and pretty beaten up, likely scars from the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, but there are some newer cars. Tragically, dogs are not allowed on the tram but when Mango and I first arrived in the city and hopped on the tram, no one said anything (an elderly lady actually gave me her seat because the car was crowded, what a generous soul) until I went to pay the driver, who pointed at Mango then the tiny ‘no dogs allowed’ icon in the window but let us stay aboard.


2. Not-so-user-friendly bus & train systems

Sarajevo train station

Sarajevo train station

When traveling between Mostar and Sarajevo, I was looking forward to taking the train because various travelers raved online about the beautiful views and memorable experience. My heart sank when I learned train service was suspended (‘track maintenance’) but fortunately dogs are allowed for free on the bus, so that’s how Mango and I rolled. The bus ride was inexpensive (about $12) with spectacular views of the river and countryside, although the winding route upset my stomach a bit. Information on Bosnian buses is not readily available online so it’s best to go to the bus station or tourist information office to get the schedule. (Based on my internet research, Bosnian buses don’t seem to go everywhere in the country and frequency is an issue.) To further complicate things, many bus companies operate in the country, running the same routes and arriving/departing from the same station, so if you’re like me and buy a round-trip ticket, the ticket for the return journey may be useless if you get a bus from a different company. Overall, though, I found the buses to be reliable and affordable, if not a bit shabby; smoking is not allowed on board but that didn’t seem to deter the driver.


3. War in the 1990s changed everything

While I’m no expert on urban planning in Bosnia, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to picture the cities differently before the war in the 1990s ravaged the urban landscape. With throngs of people visiting from around the world in 1984 for the winter Olympics in Sarajevo, surely the city was much more amenable then to people getting around without a car, and there were more trees than concrete in the city. While visiting the Tunnel of Hope and watching videos of the poor city on lock-down, with the occasional person running like mad to avoid sniper fire or a lone car speeding in terror down an empty street, I understand a bit how Bosnian cities became what they are today: once world-class cities, Sarajevo and Mostar were brought to their knees during the war and afterwards did their best to return to normalcy by the fastest, most cost-effective means possible. So, in its rush to rebuild, cities (especially Sarajevo) didn’t have time to develop lofty ten-year plans or consider pedestrians, meaning the city is paying the price for this unfortunate but understandable lack of foresight.  Seeing pictures of shelled trams during the war, it's almost a miracle the system survived.


4. Money dictates planning

According to a tour guide in Sarajevo, city planning follows the money. And I believe her, because once outside of the city’s historic Baščaršija, narrow streets densely lined with beautiful buildings from the Austro-Hungarian empire quickly give way to rows of ugly concrete boxes haphazardly arranged and divided by a six-lane road. Granted, there are wide sidewalks and the occasional tree or protected bike line in this part of town, but it’s not enough to eliminate the unpleasant experience of urban sprawl where it shouldn’t exist. Striped crosswalks exist, but pedestrians have to fight a short cross time or the aggressive turning cars that also have a green light. It is painfully obvious that there is no cohesive, thoughtful approach when it comes to planning throughout the country, although inappropriate development thankfully seems to stay in urban centers and the countryside is mostly devoid of opportunistic new construction.  And with Bosnia's bloated, purportedly corrupt government, appropriate and sustainable urban planning won't be a national priority anytime soon.


5.  Cars rule

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, cars are king. Cars are the easiest way to travel around the country and they can do whatever they damn well please in urban areas. Narrow residential streets are choked with parked cars, speeding cars, and waiting cars, and pedestrians must pause and practically press their back to the wall to allow cars to pass in the narrow parts. Now, this drives (pun intended) me crazy because I believe pedestrians should always have adequate and safe spaces to walk, as well as the right of way.  The places I visited across the country had little to no infrastructure for cyclists and I saw very few bicycles.  Outside of the pedestrian-only old towns, pedestrians must give way to drivers lest they be run over, and exhaust from all of these cars has sadly taken a toll on the buildings.


6. Abundance of water fountains

Because Bosnia has such a large Muslim population there are mosques all over the place, and with these mosques comes water fountains so visitors can clean themselves before entering. Well, praise be to Allah because reliable access to clean, fresh drinking water is a welcome sight for thirsty people like me who don’t like having to constantly buy bottled water while walking around the city. (Public water fountains in Europe are surprisingly rare, even in airports; how in the world do all those people quench their thirst? Do they all buy bottled water??)