Why and How Cities Must Take Pedestrians More Seriously

Vienna is a case study and part of Harvard University’s Transforming Urban Transportation project. Ralph Buehler, Associate Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning and a Faculty Fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center, has visited the city. An interview by Andrea Weninger, Walk21 Program Director.

What was your first impression of Vienna?
The initial experience was that the city is relatively dense, many streets are narrow, at least compared to the United States. And motorists are generally well behaved. And of course, Vienna has a very good public transport network. Public transport trips typically include walking as an access mode.

What do you think about the public transport system?
Vienna has a dense network with many stations. This makes it easy to reach most places in the city with easy transfers from one public transport line to the other. Very often I have the tendency to want to have a one seat ride: you get in at the origin and you exit public transport only once. But here in Vienna it is quite possible to make many easy, well connected switches and changes within the public transport network.

What surprises you most about the city?
Most surprising was the feeling of density. There are buildings 5 or 6 storeys high on both sides of the street. That gives you a nice feeling of enclosure as a pedestrian. Many city blocks are short and you can see your destination. Moreover, it is easy and interesting to walk, you can look left and right and look in shop windows which is quite pleasant. 


Walking in Vienna. Image: Florian Gerlich | PlanSinn.

Vienna’s mode share of walking is 27 %. Do you think measures can be taken to raise the share of walking?
It is quite normal in most western cities, for the walk share to be flat or even decreasing. I believe it does not have to be that way. Most cities have focused on promoting driving for several decades. Some cities have also tried to promote public transport or bicycling. Walking has been neglected as a mode of transport and a goal for planning. There have been the big projects, like downtown pedestrian zones. But cities have not really thought about pedestrian networks and pedestrian accessibility outside the city centre. I think cities have to take pedestrians more seriously.

Can it be effective to advertise walking?
It is a very good idea to promote walking, but I don’t think you can just tell people to walk. I believe you can make it interesting and attractive, with the support of marketing programs. But in order to implement such programs, you also need the infrastructure, so that the people who walk, actually have a good experience. The attempt to make walking stylish always has to go in hand with infrastructure improvement.

Walking promotion in Vienna. Image: Wien zu Fuss

Why should people walk more?
When you walk, it may sometimes take you a little bit longer to get to certain places, but it is good for you and it is physical activity. Your heart rate rises if you walk longer at a higher pace. So the very selfish idea of doing something good for yourself and walking go together very well.

Is it popular in the US to connect walking to public health?
Yes, and I believe the same is true for bicycling. In the US health problems and especially cardiovascular disease and obesity are big problems. About one third of the US population is considered obese. In Europe, I believe, people are getting larger as well, but they have not reached US proportions yet. Including walking into your daily routine will help protect against disease in the future.

Times Square New York City.

Future GDPs will not be growing as they used to. What will be the impact on mobility and mobility behaviour? Is there a connection?
There are different ways to look at that. One is, that walking and non-car use as transport modes can contribute to economic development. In US cities there is competition for new creative and talented people, they are called the “creative class”. Cities are competing to attract their talent. These people are more inclined to walk, to cycle or to use public transport. Twenty or thirty years ago, young and successful people were driving a car and cities tried to accommodate them by building highways and nice parking garages. Now it turns out cities need these young and successful people to grow the economy. These people are are interested in walking, cycling and public transport.

How can walking contribute to local economies?
Well, walking, cycling and public transport can contribute to your local economic development. The GDP will still be growing, but it will not be the manufacturing-based GDP, rather it will grow from tech based innovations. If a city does not have a growing GDP, it does not have a growing tax base. Investing in pedestrian and cycling facilities is much cheaper than investing in public transport or in roadway capacity. Also, people who cannot afford a car or a public transport ticket, may still be able to get a cheap used bicycle or they can also walk.

In times of economic crisis, will we have to change our mobility behaviour? Is there any relevant research on that topic?
There is some research on … well not on transport, but on shrinking cities and how cities that are losing population try to adapt. But I have not seen good research on connecting this to mobility. I think it is safe to say, that a city that has a transport system that relies more on walking and public transport, should be more resilient against outside economic shocks than a city that is fully car dependent. The economic crisis more severely affected suburban neighbourhoods in the US that were only accessible by automobile. This coincided with very a high gasoline prices. People had bought houses they could not afford. Suddenly, they don’t even have enough money to pay for the gasoline to get to these neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods that were closer to the public transport stops or to the inner city, had it much better. So maybe there might be a link between resilience and the different modes of transport.
Roma_Via Fiori Imperiali_Walk21VIE_MA18_CityofVienna

Rome, Via dei Fiori Imperiali.

What about the future of urban mobility in 30 years. How will we be travelling in cities?
It’s a difficult question. From the behavioural side, what you are seeing now as a trend I think will continue, which is a diversification of transportation use, of multi-modality. More people will use more different modes of transport. Diversification of usage in modes will continue.

How will technology impact our future mobility?
Technology is the big unknown in the future. If you believe some transport engineers and the car industry, their big dream since the 1930s is just around the corner. We will have automated and connected vehicles. Cars have gotten much more automated already, they can park themselves now, and some cars have technology that can help avoid or reduce accidents. The next dream of the car industry is that the cars can communicate with each other, with traffic signals and you don’t have to do the driving any more.

Would this mean more or less cars on our streets?
If you believe in automated and connected vehicles, the future of mobility could hold a lot more driving. On the other hand connected and automated vehicles may need less space, because they can travel and park closer together. We can then use that space for other modes of transport or public spaces.

Besides technology, what else will change future transportation?
I think it is the desire of people for public spaces, for being outside, for interacting with others. The future may thus look more like our past—before mass motorization and adapting cities to cars. People increasingly value and enjoy public spaces and public interaction.

And this would not even be that expensive!
No, not as much as all the technological changes. But of course, the technological changes are always more intriguing to politicians and seem to be the way forward as an extension of modernist car-oriented planning that dominates many cities. It is harder to get money for walking and cycling, which does not sound so futuristic or maybe not that cool.

Sharing urban public spaces. Mariahilferstraße, Vienna.

How can the culture of sharing impact mobility behaviour?
Some car sharing programs are attempts by the car industry, to catch up with young people, who would not drive otherwise. So, just because it is sharing does not mean that it is necessarily less driving.

You are researching on what cities can learn from other cities, like Vienna. What lesson can will take home?
If you make a mode of transport extremely attractive and convenient, people will use it. That seems to be the case with public transport in Vienna. The other part is parking management that is going on in the inner districts in Vienna. You cannot just use carrots and make one mode more attractive, but you also have to use a stick to push people a little bit out of their cars. And a city must have good alternatives such as walking and cycling infrastructure, as Vienna is providing. I think that could be a lesson from Vienna.

Ralph Buehler, PhD is Associate Professor in Urban Affairs & Planning and a Faculty Fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center. Most of his research has an international comparative perspective, contrasting transport and land-use policies, transport systems, and travel behaviour. Together with colleagues he works on a case study of Vienna as part of Harvard University’s Transforming Urban Transportation project.


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