Vice Mayor Birgit Hebein unveils the plan to make the inner city car-free

The End for Cars in the Inner City 

After years of campaigning by the Green Party, automobile traffic will now be banned in Vienna’s 1st district. With exceptions for residents and public transport, the Alt Stadt is set to become a car-free zone before the Viennese elections in October, according to a report in the Kronen Zeitung. Details are expected to be announced by Vice Mayor Birgit Hebein (the Greens) and District Leader Markus Figl (ÖVP) in the coming weeks. 

A car-free Vienna city has long been a subject of debate. To ease traffic, former Vice Mayor and the city’s Transportation Minister Maria Vassilakou (the Greens)  championed a driving ban for non-residents and pressed for a city toll. Vassilakou cited Italian cities like Rome and Milan as models, where “zona traffico limitato” were restricted to authorized persons. 

Her push to limit driving in the 1st district follows a series of initiatives to ease traffic in the city, including transforming the Mariahilferstraße into a Fussgängerzone (pedestrian zone) and the Rotenturmstraße into a Begegnungszone, a mixed traffic so-called “encounter zone”. 

But over the years, Vassilakou’s proposals were met with opposition from Figl. The District Leader boycotted the opening of the new Rotenturmstraße at the end of last year, claiming Vassilakou had failed to include the residents in the process, a concern also cited by Mayor Michael Ludwig that could undermine the city’s newest project. Even though Figl had welcomed an overhaul of the district’s traffic regulations as long ago as 2018, his difficult relationship with Vassilakou hampered negotiations. 

With Hebein, discussions have gone more smoothly. The two reached an agreement on Tuesday evening June 9, and unveiled further details in a press conference Wednesday morning. Although the Wiener Institut für Standortberatung had already studied the feasibility of the project in the 1970s, a new study, initiated 18 months ago, is also underway. There are 17 exemptions from the ban, including diplomatic vehicles, public buses, taxis, residents with a Parkpickerl, vehicles for people with disabilities, owners of garage parking spaces and others. Furthermore, people working in the district or traveling outside of public transit hours are still allowed entry. 

So in reality, the city will not become completely car-free. “There will still be deliveries, constructions and other things,” said Mathias Ballner, lecturer and researcher of integrated urban development studies and IT security at the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien. “But you can keep most of the traffic out of the inner area, which historically has very narrow streets and where there has actually been no way through in 30 to 40 years.” 

Still, this could be a stepping stone towards a completely car-free inner city. “At the beginning, to enforce the whole thing politically, you will have to make exceptions,” said Günter Emberger, head of research of traffic sciences at the Technische Universität Wien. “Then, you can successively revoke them so that you get closer to car-free.” 

Calmer and Cooler

Efforts to ban cars is part of a trend in cities across Europe to raise quality of life. Cities like Oslo have eliminated excess traffic and provided more space for pedestrians and cyclists. In Vienna, pedestrian walkways, encounter zones and, more recently, a pop-up bike path, should help create a calmer environment and ensure safer mobility. People have increased opportunities to enjoy public spaces, roam around freely and let their children play on the streets. 

In many ways, this could make the 1st district even more attractive and livable. “With proper exceptions for residents, I could imagine that people view the minimized disruptions as pleasant,” said Gregor Spiegelfeld from Spiegelfeld Immobilien. 

Essential to the expansion of public space is the gradual removal of street-level parking. To create more space for pedestrians, bikers, Shanigärten, trees andgreen spaces, cars can instead be parked in one of the district’s 22 parking garages, said Emberger.

Environmental concerns and efforts to combat climate change are at the core of this new project. The planting of trees and the creation of green spaces could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and disperse heat. 

 “One of the biggest problems we will face in the next decades is that Vienna is becoming too hot,” Emberger said. “As soon as we take away street-level parking, we can create green spaces, which lead to cooling.”

This is particularly needed in the inner city, which tends to become a heat hotspot during the summer, said Ballner and his colleague, Lukas Rohatsch, researcher and lecturer of urban studies at the University of Applied Sciences Technikum Wien. 

“Heat persists in areas where there is a lot of concrete and sealed surfaces,” Ballner said. “More green spaces can help to influence and improve the microclimate.” 

The project has its critics, including shops and restaurants, who fear the new restrictions will harm their businesses. Ballner rejects these claims, pointing to traffic figures that prove that fewer and fewer people drive into the city by car.  

“Before converting the Kärntnerstraße into a pedestrian zone, people similarly feared shops would die out,” Ballner said. “This of course didn’t happen, also because of tourism.” 

Additionally, this could fuel the development of new services that could improve shopping experiences for customers and simultaneously create new sources of profit for the shopping industry. “Shops could deliver your purchases to your car in the parking garage or to your home such that you no longer have to take a car,” said Emberger. 

Experts believe that the transformation of the inner-city could be exported to other districts and lead to further reduction of car use in the world’s greenest city. “The concept of car-free and pedestrian zones exist, and now we have also seen that it makes sense to make temporary encounter zones in some places,” Emberger said. “New pedestrian zones will surely open up around the city.” 

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