Vienna – The Secrets of a City That Works

ubahnJulia Brandstätter takes many trips outside Vienna every year, both near and far. And every time she comes back, she feels an embrace of familiarity when she steps into the U-Bahn, perhaps picking up a Melange and a Laugencroissant, or a Burenwurst Hotdog. She feels safe even in the early hours. Once at home, she texts her friend, fills a glass of water from the tap and settles back into Viennese life.

This is an experience she shares with many. With public transport costing just €1 per day and clean drinking water flowing down from the Alps, and among the safest cities in Europe, there is a lot to be proud of, as Vienna again ranks #1 as the world’s most liveable city.

Most newcomers share these sentiments. I particularly love how the Viennese cherish clean streets and quiet surroundings and fiercely protect their leisure time.

None of this is by chance: In Vienna, infrastructure management is taken very seriously. For a start, it is well coordinated, integrated under the Wiener Stadtwerke, which celebrated its 70th anniversary this year. Together, it is responsible for the Wiener Linien, Wien Energie, parking, cemeteries, among others systems.

“The general quality of life in Vienna is unsurpassed,” said Matti Bunzl, director of Wien Museum. “It is an extraordinarily beautiful, safe, open and pleasant city to live in.” While livability is a rather new science, Vienna has infrastructure systems long in place and that work very well. The city ranks very high in stability, quality of health care, culture and environment, in low crime rates and good education.

While cherishing tradition, Vienna has also been a city of forward-looking ideas and programs, some dating from the time of Maria Theresia and her son Joseph II, and spilling over from the avant-garde thinking that brewed in the coffee houses of the fin de siècle. Its infrastructure is well thought out, and measured growth over the years has ensured the city is prosperous and attracts progressive development on many fronts.

Becoming Urban

Over the course of the 19th century, Vienna became transformed from a walled city to a planned urban capital. There was really no choice: Between 1800 and 1850 the city’s population doubled, and by 1910, had increased nine-fold. Vienna needed to redefine itself.

One of the first moves, in 1857, was to tear down the old city walls and military embankments to build the broad, tree-lined Ringstrasse, providing space for public parks and palaces for the wealthy, for theater, opera, houses of government and the finest hotels. It was a pastiche of different building styles – from the neo-Gothic Rathaus, Hellenic style Parliament, French Gothic Votivkirche, Italian Renaissance for one of the oldest universities in Europe alongside Otto Wagner’s graceful Jugendstil modernism. The Ring not only added character but also a space for the entertainment and recreation of the whole city.

“Aesthetically, today’s Vienna [still] has its roots in the 19th century,” Bunzl said, “with some of it going back to 18th century and even earlier.”

Kaiser Franz Joseph also granted Vienna an independent municipal government in 1860 that allowed for dedicated measures for the city’s infrastructure. Soon after, the council launched many new projects, including a model water supply that still provides crystal clear drinking water to the city’s residents.

Vienna’s excellent public transport is but one of many factors that make the city so livable.

No discussion of Vienna’s infrastructure is complete without a mention of Otto Wagner. Apart from leaving a lasting imprint on iconic city buildings, he designed the Stadtbahn in the 1890s, which remains a major part of the U4 and U6 lines of the metro system to this day. “Otto Wagner was a brilliant, trail blazing architect,” Bunzl said. “His most important contribution was beginning to imagine a modern city that actually works and also allows for progress, that isn’t stuck in the past.”

“Vienna was a fabulous city in 1900 but only for the top 2% of the population.”

Matti Bunzl, director of the Wien Museum

Red Vienna

Through all this, Vienna remained a beautiful city, although mostly for the rich. The Ring Strasse further increased the separation, as stately buildings and neighborhoods were more markedly distinct from the older ones.

“Vienna was a fabulous city in 1900 but only for the top 2% of the population. The rest suffered and lived in poverty, [crowded into] terrible housing,” said Bunzl.

In February 1919, World War I over and the Empire dismantled, the First Republic gave birth to the world’s first democratically elected city council, faced with nearly overwhelming problems. With Austria now a tiny rump country 1/8th its former size (676,615 km², to 83,879 km²), thousands of unemployed as immigrants streamed into the city from across the former crown lands. Food supply chains were disrupted across the new borders, as undernourishment led outbreak of diseases. Life expectancy in Vienna was a mere 33 years.

The new WU campus with its Learning Center & Library designed by the late star architect Zaha Hadid shows that Vienna can also reinvent itself.

“The reason the city runs so well today is largely a function of the last 100 years and the way that progressive social democratic policies have transformed the city,” Bunzl said. “Starting in the interwar period, and continuing after World War II, quality of life, parks, recreation, welfare, medical care, public transport – all of these are social democratic achievements.”

The Social Democrats who ran the city beginning in 1920 began laying the groundwork for all the institutions that make Vienna a case study for urban planners.


Within 15 years, the city council built 60,000 flats that housed more than 220,000 people. Today there are more than 1,800 municipal housing complexes making the City of Vienna the biggest landlady in Europe. Vienna thus remains one of those rare places where socialist planning has not only been maintained, but is also still actively being implemented. Just this March, a new law took effect that earmarked two-thirds of every new residential area for social housing, with a fixed basic cost that will be frozen. It is old school social democracy. And it works.

A Century of Red Vienna

Bus, Bahn, Bim

A stand out feature of Vienna is its public transportation system, used by more than 2.6 million passengers every day. Currently there are 822,000 annual pass holders – a number that has increased 2.5 times in the last 7 years – which means that almost half of Vienna has an annual pass.

“For just one euro a day, our passengers can use a network of more than 1,000 kilometers,” said Alexandra Reinagl, managing director at Wiener Linien, a subsidiary of the City Department of Finance that runs Vienna public transit. “But the range of services also needs to be right: Short intervals and night-time services, as well as on-call taxis in the outer suburbs. Safety, security and cleanliness in the vehicles and at stations – all these are just as important as is the regular technical maintenance of vehicles and routes. It’s the whole package that counts.

“It’s no use if the ticket is free, if the buses only come every 20 minutes.”

“It is unusual that poor people have a good quality of life.” Eugene Quinn, Urbanist and DJ

Wiener Linien is proactive, even hip, communicating with hundreds of passengers on a daily basis through their social media platforms. They have audience-targeted and content- driven posts and videos – explaining where Wiener Linien financing comes from, what new construction is planned, or how a bus driver spends his day.

Newcomers to Vienna are often struck by the priority seating stickers on public transport that have broken gender norms by portraying both men and women carrying babies and an old woman and a man.

“It is important to us that all our passengers and the Viennese in general have a positive relationship with Wiener Linien,” Reinagl said. “The stronger this relationship is, more people engage with the company and use public transport. That’s why we invest so much in a strong and unmistakable brand.”

This also ties in with the company’s green initiative with advertisement campaigns like “Greener Linien,” encouraging people to use the public transport, that can save as much as 1,500 kilograms of CO₂ emissions per person, per year.

This means everyone, and Wiener Linien tries to ensure that anyone, whatever the handicap, can use public transport. It also means barrier-free access to all underground stations and over 95% of tram and bus stops, made possible by ramps and lifts. Reinagl reports with no little pride that the Wiener Linien is a “leading example” of accessibility in Europe. Even the historical Otto Wagner stations have been made barrier-free while maintaining their status as listed buildings.

Another important step was the introduction of the 24-hour U-Bahn service on weekends and holidays, along with the existing nighttime bus services. “The City of Vienna wanted to help young people and make sure party goers got home safe and sound,” Reinagl said. Around 60,000 people make use of these services each year.

Wiener Linien also puts out transport lines to parts of the city that aren’t yet heavily populated. Data allows them to identify trends and forecast where future services will be needed. They begin with schedules, passenger statistics and costs, combined with population, age, locations of schools, workplaces and new development areas. “That was how we determined the need for the U2 x U5 intersection and the new routes operated by tram lines 6 and 11,” Reinagl said.

Uniquely Vienna

What this adds up to is that ordinary people, at all levels, live well in Vienna. “It is unusual that poor people have a good quality of life,” Eugene Quinn told me. An urbanist and DJ, Quinn is one of the founders of a culture group called Space and Place that engages with the city to make people aware of the qualities of urban life and its social interactions. His proudest achievement is getting the Viennese to go on walking tours of their own city.

“If you can find new ways of understanding and analyzing the city, and can bring together and engage a group of people, then you are going to have a more enriched understanding of the city, its history and its infrastructure.”

We met for a chat on the Donauinsel, a remarkable feat of flood control planning that doubles as a popular public park and recreation area, resolving the Danube’s ever-shifting course that had complicated the city’s history for centuries. An initial rechanneling of the river between 1870 and 1875 had created the beaches of the Gänsehäufl and the Alte Donau. A century later, in 1970, the channel was straightened further and dredged even deeper, and the soil gathered to make a 3.5-kilometer-long island passing under the Reichsbrücke along Kaisermühlen in the 22nd district. Beginning as flood regulation, it became a project of urban reinvention. Today it is a nature preserve, as well as a recreation area with beaches and playgrounds, and extensive space for parties and festivals.

Just five stops on the U1 from Stephansdom, you are always only minutes away from an outing in the countryside.

“Vienna is a beautifully trusting city,” added Quinn. “There are no ticket barriers on the U-Bahn – that reflects a level of trust of the people by the government, and I really appreciate that. You don’t have that in London or Paris.”

The system also serves the poorer neighborhoods as much or more than richer ones, said Quinn: “There’s a connection between good infrastructure, connectedness and economic prosperity.”

The city council also puts a lot of thought into public spaces in Vienna – the trees, seating, lighting, walkability and leisure. You are never too far away from a park, a supermarket or a restaurant.

Long-time Vienna resident Martina Griessner now lives in Linz. Most of all, she misses the cafés: “The smell of the coffee, the sounds, reading a newspaper, the waiters’ interactions.” In Vienna she had a choice of at least six or seven cafés in most neighborhoods. “In Linz, there are probably [only] so many in the entire city.”

You are also probably not far from a water fountain. “Vienna has 900 free fountains in the city,” Quinn said. “It not just ecological, but also great city branding: Vienna is clean.” The council is also consciously inclusive: Since 2002, all new streets have been named after women, and some cross walks show Ampelpärchen that represent both same-sex and straight couples.

Vienna might even become (again) agriculturally self-sufficient in a few decades. At present, one-sixth of the city is actively farmed, producing fresh vegetables, fruit, wine, honey and mushrooms.

“Long term planning is at the heart of Vienna,” Quinn said. “The government is involved in your life here,” and almost always to the good: “They even have ‘grill social workers’ on the Donauinsel to sort problems that come up during grill parties!”

Into the Future

Stadt Wien is ambitious with its vision for the future. While many initiatives are already underway, the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals has reinforced the infrastructural projects that touch our lives. People come to Vienna from all around the world to learn the city’s secrets of institutional thinking. Some 10,000 people visit Seestadt every year to see and learn about possibilities for urban design.

“Futuristic neighborhoods like Seestadt is what Vienna in the future is going to look like,” said Quinn. “Fewer cars, more migrants and sophisticated design is what Vienna is tending towards.” For himself, though, he prefers the Sonnwendviertel surrounding the Hauptbahnhof in Favoriten: “Clever, colorful and urban, with an energy that is missing in Seestadt.” At least so far.

Cities for Future

Vienna’s socialistic legacy, however, is in a constant battle with private investors and urban development. Recently, some projects have met with widespread criticism, like the proposed skyscraper on the site of the Hotel Intercontinental on the Heumarkt. If the construction goes ahead, Vienna’s inner city could lose its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Other irregularities have also been, but protests and opposition have so far only deferred the project, not stopped it.

This reflects a larger problem. Many believe that investors dictate too much of Vienna’s infrastructure planning and are often approved arbitrarily. As former President of the Chamber of Architects Christoph Mayrhofer remarked, “We have arrived at a state in which property owners write their own building regulations.”

He pointed out how the Danube Flats project being constructed near the Reichsbrucke panders to investors. “At the time the land was acquired, the zoning prohibited the building of apartments. Originally, the maximum height was only 26 meters.” Currently 600 flats are planned in a building 160 meters high.

“The ‘skyscraper districts’ offer few high-quality public spaces for the corresponding quality of living,” said Ulrich Aspetsberger, chairman of Architekturforum Oberösterreich from his Vienna office. “In this context, it is also necessary to discuss how to deal with the investment goals of investors.”

Added to this, there is a lack of zoning and rent control of commercial space. Riding on a real estate boom a few decades ago, many investors built commercial buildings instead of housing. Today, as a result, tens of thousands of offices are vacant in Vienna. Aspetsberger said. “A reform of the (rental) law and subsidies could do a great deal to solve the problem of massive vacancies!”

This lack of zoning has also resulted in the loss of local stores and restaurants in the inner district and the city-wide invasion of international brands.

“Neoliberalism is a danger to Vienna because Vienna being taken over by corporations,” Bunzl told me emphatically. “I do quite enjoy McDonald’s but having Vienna’s restaurants replaced by McDonald’s has its drawbacks. It is harder and harder for smaller establishments to remain open; that’s not a Viennese peculiarity, but it surely is changing the Viennese character.”

Experts also agree that car traffic in the city must be more aggressively controlled to preserve and, where needed, improve the urban experience of the city.

To help address this, Wiener Linien is investing heavily in digitalization and new technologies. Vienna will soon be getting its first autonomous buses and its first fully automated underground line. “Future mobility will be more focused on passenger needs than ever,” said Reinagl. Wiener Linien is continuously expanding its services and linking with other forms of mobility, with sharing services where passengers can change from the underground or the tram to e-bikes or freight bicycles, hire a car or store their bikes securely in a “bike box.” These are already available at WienMobil Station Simmering and should be available throughout Vienna in the near future.

In a few years, Reinagl projects, no one will read analogue timetables. “The Wien Mobile app already plans all my journeys,” she said. Passengers can buy a ticket online, update arrival times, and combine taxis, car-sharing and cycling along their routes – moving the city toward a future of sustainable and innovative infrastructure.

These measures, tied in with the Smart City Initiatives and tourism promotion has, for the last 10 years, made Vienna one of the fastest growing European cities.

Bunzl concurred: “We live in unbelievable economic prosperity. If we gauge the quality of life for a cross section of Viennese, I have no doubt that it has never been better than it is today.”

But why? Why does Vienna work so well? Quinn laughed. “It’s because Austrians like to follow the rules!”

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