For the 10th consecutive time, Vienna was named the world’s most liveable city in the Mercer Rankings of 2020. But does that also mean that the city is particularly pedestrian-friendly? We talked to Petra Jens, who has been Vienna’s walking commissioner since 2013, about walking in Vienna – and thus about gender mainstreaming, funding structures (and their dilemmas), and pedestrian infrastructure. Read here what other cities can learn from Vienna, and where Vienna itself still needs to improve.
What does walking have to do with justice? More than one might think. Apart from the fact that walking is certainly the most accessible and a very democratic form of transport – it costs nothing, and anyone can do it (with or without a mobility aid in the form of a cane or a wheelchair) – the question arises as to which road users are given how much public space.
Gender-Equitable Planning: Who Has Priority in Traffic?
Those people who have high needs for public space – children, elderly people, people with care responsibilities – walk a lot more than others in their daily lives and routines. However, they are given little space and time on the street. The same applies to political attention for walking – although it is clear that no transport system would work without it. This means that we need to ask ourselves who has priority in traffic – and how vulnerable groups can also be taken into account on an equal footing.
We have become accustomed to thinking of the street as a transit space. In reality, however, it is much more. Every traffic planner asks himself first and foremost: “How can I get as many vehicles as possible through there in as short a time as possible?”
This transit function is important, but a multidimensional view of the function(s) of public spaces and streets would be even more so.
So, what is Vienna doing differently in this regard? A look in the direction of gender research is worthwhile here, explains Petra: “In Vienna there is a tradition of gender-equitable planning and building with the pioneer Eva Kail. Dealing with the question of justice led to social space analyses being carried out before renovation works. This includes considering and involving different user groups.”
“How do they use this space? What can I do so that these people are better off after the renovation and have access to this space?“
This diversity of uses (of public space and streets) is what is being looked at here. For example, women’s locomotion and daily journeys are radically different from those of men. While men move in a very linear and regular way – to work in the morning and back in the evening – women tend to make many more different journeys per day (at different times), using different means of transport, walking much more.
Taking these differences into account is a core task of gender-equitable planning in Vienna, and it influenced street lighting, widening pavements, bench design, park design, and social housing projects designed by and for women.
Gender mainstreaming is also a big issue in Vienna – it has been since the 1990s, even if it caused a big outcry at the beginning. Details can be found in our article on feminist cities and gender mainstreaming using the example of Vienna, as well as in a manual from 2013 on gender mainstreaming in urban planning and development.
A dedicated department has been set up to assist the administration through its gender mainstreaming processes. While Vienna is a role model in this regard, there are also areas where there is a need to catch up. This applies to funding logic or interdepartmental cooperation, for example.
Interdepartmental Cooperation and the Funding Dilemma
“Although there are calculation models on how to quantify the economic health benefits of active mobility, it is not yet included in any funding models”, Petra acknowledges. In theory, walking is part of all kinds of strategies, also intersectoral – the Vienna Health Strategy refers to walking and public space, as well as to active mobility. The transport concept also emphasises health benefits and climate protection. But there’s a catch:
“If you want to operationalise this, it’s suddenly over, because there are completely different logics at work. What does a transport politician care whether some measure has a health benefit and vice versa? We know that these things influence each other. But we have no mechanisms that would allow a health department to have a say in the design of a road. The economic benefit is never distributed; at the concrete practical level, these departments do not come together”, Petra points out.
Something that she aims for is developing processes out of trialling singular pilot projects. This is exemplified in the Anglo-American region. With the concept of “Healthy Streets”, for example, the transformation of the street space in London is strongly linked to health issues.
Funding Our Way Forward: Financing Active Mobility
One factor that can definitely influence investment in walking is a coherent funding structure for pedestrian measures. In the case of Vienna, Petra speaks of a “dilemma of funding logics”.
In Austria, walking is the responsibility of the municipalities. Applied to Vienna, this would be the districts, the smallest municipal unit. Municipalities do not have large budgets and are responsible for maintaining their roads. There is little incentive to change them in a way that would be better for walking.
This can be changed: about 15 years ago, the Cycling Master Plan was published in Austria. For the first time, there was a nationwide strategy for cycling, which, like walking, is actually the responsibility of the municipalities.
Through that, a lot has happened: a funding programme – Klimaaktiv:mobil – has been set up, which has allowed the federal government to support municipalities with transport infrastructure. There are now bicycle coordinators in every federal province, as well as nationwide meetings, and joint efforts.
For walking, on the other hand, there was no such thing until very recently. On May 25, 2021, there was a news release announcing the first nationwide fund for infrastructure that favours walking. A very important step, according to Petra: as soon as there is some kind of support from a higher authority, it is an incentive for municipal units to move in the same direction. It also enforces the development of organisational and content-related structures in that regard. If there’s nowhere you can get money, then there’s little motivation.
However, there is another difficulty with the funding logic, Petra explains: “Klimaaktiv:mobil funding is environmental funding, which means that every measure must be converted into a theoretical CO2 equivalent saved. The calculated CO2 equivalent is then used to measure eligibility for funding.”
When we walk, however, we are talking very short distances. We don’t cover many kilometres because the network effectiveness (meaning the contribution of walking to a full trip using other modes of transport) is not taken into account and evaluated. This is the second dilemma for walking. It would only be fair to consider the health effect walking has.
“We’re not all the way there yet,” Petra says, “but it is an approach where you can recognise a societal added value and operationalise it that way, so that walking infrastructure can also be promoted and eligible for funding.”
Infrastructure and Awareness Measures: Walking Through Vienna
When it comes to infrastructural measures that cities can take to become more pedestrian-friendly, you have to take into account a few unique features of walking. Mapping the infrastructure of pedestrian traffic is much more difficult than for cycling, for example. Cycling is channelled; walking takes place in the field – it’s difficult to compare with other modes of transport.
Improvements in infrastructure therefore start with the simple question: what actually is the pedestrian infrastructure? At first glance, there is the pavement, the traffic light, and the zebra crossing. However, the view must be much broader, according to Petra:
“Walking has a lot to do with the width of the pavements and qualitative features such as greenery, trees, shade, seating. All of this is regularly not recorded as a pedestrian traffic measure.”
The infrastructural adaption that has probably saved the most lives in Vienna since the 1980s is the so-called “ear conch” (Ohrwaschl in Viennese). These are pavement extensions in the intersection area. “At the beginning, this caused a lot of commotion because cars used to park illegally in the intersection area,” recalls Petra, “but the widening of the pavements in the intersection area has improved visibility, which has drastically reduced the number of accidents. Measures like these, which slow down cars in the intersection area, are also part of the pedestrian infrastructure”.
In any case, the most important measures are those that do something good for as many people as possible – i.e. in places where many people walk every day. According to Petra, this especially applies to school environments:
“If you invest there, you can achieve a lot. Above all, you can influence the routines in families towards active mobility.”
“If you make it more difficult to drive to the school gates, but easier to get there on foot or by bike, if you can stay there, maybe have a chat with neighbours, with other parents – if children can play together, then that is also a very important social function”, she says.
School mobility management and school streets are therefore a central approach (not only in Vienna). The share of parent taxis has decreased significantly from 2010 to 2019 (data from the modal split survey). “This means that regularly informing parents about the impact mechanisms and the importance of the way to school has had an effect after all”, she sums up.
A second important area is public transport hubs, i.e. major transfer points. Here, too, a lot can be achieved by analysing and improving the environments for pedestrians – after all, walking is also an important part of routes that are not exclusively completed on foot.
What Makes Vienna So Pedestrian-Friendly? Quick and Not-So-Quick Wins
In fact, two key factors that make Vienna a pedestrian-friendly city are not “quick wins” and cannot be directly replicated by other cities: first, pedestrian-friendliness is strongly related to long-term factors, such as urban development or the organisation of spatial planning. Here, Vienna is fortunate to be a very compact city with a high mix of uses (no mono-functional districts).
Petra sees a second factor in the fact that Vienna, unlike other cities, has never abolished trams. While many cities did so with the construction of underground railways, Vienna still has a dense network of trams – and thus has not completely relegated public transport underground.
Of course, this should not be an excuse for other cities to avoid putting measures in place for pedestrians.
As mentioned above, schools can be an essential tool in raising awareness and changing behaviour – for pupils and parents alike. The establishment of school streets and the successive reduction of parents’ taxis are definitely a success that can also be transferred to other cities and has been widely supported by the citizens with positive feedback. The concept is also being implemented in cities like Paris and London and is proving its worth.
Another approach is aimed at construction sites – which, as we all know, are always around somewhere in cities: if you make it a principle to improve every torn-up street for pedestrians as well, then a sustainable process is put into place.
Lastly, communication plays a core role. In general, it makes sense to focus on a city’s strengths and to highlight what is already there. Positive, not deficit-oriented communication is the be-all and end-all.
For all the details about Petra’s role as a pedestrian representative, her communication efforts, and her vision for Vienna, head over to her CityChanger portrait. And while you’re pondering on where to get started in your own city, enjoy this cheerful video of people dancing in what is now one of Europe’s longest pedestrianised shopping boulevards.
Need more facts and figures on pedestrian traffic in Vienna? Here’s an overview from 2015 (Vienna’s “Year of Walking”). If you’re in Vienna and ready to explore, check out Wien zu Fuß for inspiration, routes, and maps – or check out on of Eugene Quinn‘s unusual walking tours through Vienna!