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A car-free inner city – effects on traffic, local residents and businesses

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The ongoing megatrend of urbanization makes cities all over the world grow in size, putting high pressure on the mobility infrastructure. With available streetscape being a limited resource, the allocation of the available space among modes of mobility is subject of an ongoing social and political debate. In Austria, the debate is currently focusing on the reduction of car traffic in the very center of the city of Vienna by enforcing a car-free inner city.

To steer away from the political aspects discussed in wake of the upcoming Vienna election, this article focuses on the implications of a car-free inner city on different stakeholders. While such an area-wide traffic measure affects a wide number of stakeholders, this article focuses on three effects:

  • Effects on traffic
  • Effects on local residents
  • Effects on businesses

The assessment of these effects and the resulting implications is based on the proposed regulation, the list of exceptions and a comparison with similar traffic reduction projects.

The plans for a car-free inner city in Vienna:

In an attempt to reduce car traffic in the city centre of Vienna, Brigitte Hebein, Deputy Mayor of Vienna, announced plans to create a “car-free inner city”. The plans concern most of the First District of Vienna, the area of the historic city center with roughly 2.9 square kilometers and home of 16.400 inhabitants, enclosed by the Ringstraße and the Donaukanal.

Picture 1: Area of effect of the proposed driving ban

Despite the announcement of a “car-free inner city”, a complete ban of private vehicles is not intended. Instead, only vehicles with a special permit will be allowed to enter. A list of sixteen exceptions is to govern this permission:

Table 2: List of exceptions and stakeholders affected by these exceptions

Originally scheduled to be enacted in time for the upcoming Vienna election in October, the plans are currently subject to political discussion. It is therefore uncertain whether the traffic regulation will be enacted in the proposed way, and by when.

1.) Effects on traffic:

Traffic is impacted in multiple ways by the proposed driving regulations. Most directly, the entry ban for the Frist District reduces the number of vehicles allowed to enter. According to a study by Paul Pfaffenbichler, Institute of Transport Studies, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, the plans will result in a reduction of workday traffic by 26 percent, which equals 8,700 trips less per day. The surrounding districts will face a slight increase in traffic by less than one percent, or 1,700 trips per day. With the loss of parking possibilities in the First District, pressure on parking slots in the surrounding districts will increase from 83 to 87 percent. Public transport is not affected directly, as all public transport lines will have continued access to the city centre.

For an assessment of the broader effects on mobility behaviour in Vienna, a comparison with Oslo, Norway, is helpful. In the city centre of Oslo, a traffic reduction of similar scope was undergone in 2017. In an analysis of this measure Hagen et al. [1] found that the effects on modal split were not significant. Even before the regulation, over two third of commuters and regular city centre users used public transport, and less than 10 percent used private cars. The share of car uses affected by the measures was low, resulting in no significant shift in modal split. For the First District of Vienna, with its high share of public transport users, the modal split will likely be affected in a similar unsignificant way.

Implications:

The estimated reduction of 8.700 trips in the city centre per day results in a reduction of congested traffic and subsequently reduces air pollution and time loss. Especially hunting for parking space is a big contributor to urban congestion, with 30 percent of vehicles in congested traffic being on the search for a parking space. [2] By denying access to the city centres for most private vehicles without a reserved parking space, the amount of parking search is reduced drastically.

Carrying over the calculations by Donald Shoup for Westwood Village, Los Angeles, US to the first District of Vienna, the reduction of parking search by 8.700 vehicles per day would result in 5.600 kilometres travelled less per day, Over the year, this equals 1.4 million kilometres travelled less, a saving of 112.000 litres of fuel and 269 tons of CO2.

Another implication is the gain of street space by reducing the number of vehicles and subsequently parking space. In the First District, over 7.500 parking spaces are located in the streetscape [3], taking up over 82.000 square meters of public space – the equivalent of more than 11 soccer fields. Redistributing parts of this space to other uses allows for more space for supply traffic, pedestrians and cyclists, in return increasing attractiveness for these modes of mobility and increasing their share. By using streetscape as public space, for pausing and consumption could increase stay attractiveness in some of the less frequented areas of the First District.

2.) Effects on inhabitants of the First District:

For the owners of private vehicles, with a total of 19,112 vehicles registered in the First District [4], the changes have minimal effects. Owners of a vehicle with a valid parking permit in the First District, as well as owners of a vehicle with a private parking space, are exempted from the driving ban as shown in table 1. The only group of local inhabitants directly affected by the driving ban are those who own a car, but use public parking without a yearly parking permit. For those, an application for such a permit neuters the effects.

Implications:

As the effects on local inhabitants are minimised by the exceptions, there are few relevant implications. One aspect is that permits for private visitors of local inhabitants are affected by the driving ban. This is subject to ongoing political discussion, in order to find a balance between allowing auxiliary services for people with restricted mobility without watering down the restrictions too much.

Indirectly, the regulation could have implications on the life of inhabitants of the First District. A reduction of traffic in combination with measures to make the streetscape more attractive could result in a relocation of life into public space, revitalizing street life in the inner city.

3.) Effects on businesses:

For businesses located in the First District, the proposed plans might have a number of effects. Employees are not permitted to enter the First District with their private vehicles. How company-owned parking spaces for employees are handled is not entirely clear at the moment. Staff driving to work in the downtime of public transport between 24:00 and 05:30 is permitted to enter the inner city by the exception list as shown in table 1.

Loading activity will be permitted between 06:00 and 18:00 on working days and between 06:00 and 13:00 on Saturdays, allowing the resupplying of local businesses. Time-sensitive supplies like perishable food or medicines are permitted on Sundays as well. For businesses conducting service work in the First District, entrance is also permitted. For loading work, the plans might even be beneficial. Hagen et al. [1] find that in Oslo delivery drivers named a lack of sites for loading as one pressing matter. A reduction of parking spaces in the First District might allow a widening of such zones.  

Implications:

The plans for a car-free inner city will impact commerce and gastronomy in the First District in different ways. One effect is that customers from outside without a special permit will not be able to reach their destination by vehicle. This might result in a lower number of customers. On the other hand, a reduction of car traffic might lead to a higher quality of stay, resulting in a higher number of pedestrians and ensuing higher footfall and sales. The scale of these effects is disputed, but Wylie [5] states that in most cases, business went up after traffic reduction measures. However, this effect is not identical for all kinds of businesses. Restaurants and cloth retail might profit, while shops selling “daily goods” may endure losses.

Regarding shopping practices in relation to travel mode, Mørk [6] states that while motorists spend more money per shopping trip, the higher share and frequency of pedestrians and public transport users offsets this, leading to a higher overall impact on total turnover by these groups. Shop owners regularly overestimate the importance of car accessibility for their customer base.

Based on these examples, the consequences of the car-free inner city on businesses in the district are going to differ individually. Businesses with a high share of customers using motorized vehicles might suffer, while businesses with a high share of walk-in customers might profit. A specific aspect is that the First District already consists of large pedestrian areas. Whether pedestrians will leave these more prominent streets for the backstreets is questionable and will depend on the construction measures implemented to increase quality of stay and streetscape attractiveness, as observed in Oslo. [5]

Conclusion:

Based on the impact analysis of the proposed measures on different aspects, it can be concluded that the extensive list of exceptions manages the traffic reduction well. The negative effects on local inhabitants and businesses are mitigated by the special permissions. But this also results in a lower effect of the measures, with the “car-free inner city” resulting in a traffic reduction of only 26 percent.

The example of Oslo shows that in order to harvest benefits from such a project, the freed-up space has to be cultivated. This is essential for the attractiveness of the streetscape and subsequently the living quality of inhabitants and the footfall for businesses. But any physical measures need time until implementation and public funds. By including all of the first district, the number of streets affected is high, and an overarching approach to road redesign is required in addition to individual decisions for each road. For a successful implementation of a car-free city concept in Vienna, a higher share of the public discourse should therefore shift towards the accompanying construction measures.

This article was published by Wolfgang Blumthaler, accilium

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Sources:

[1] Hagen, O. H., Caspersen, E., Landa-Mata, I., Tennøy, A., & Ørving, T. (2020). BYTRANS: Changes in the City Centre of Oslo 2017-2019. Effects and Consequences for Commuters, City-centre Users, City-centre Attractiveness, and for Delivery Drivers (No. 4334).

[2] Shoup, Donald. (1997). The High Cost of Free Parking. Journal of Planning Education and Research. 17. 3-20.

[3] Stadt Wien, Statistische Kennzahlen – Parkraumbewirtschaftung, https://www.wien.gv.at/verkehr/parken/entwicklung/kennzahlen.html

[4] Stadt Wien, Kraftfahrzeugbestand nach Gemeindebezirken (2018). https://www.wien.gv.at/statistik/verkehr-wohnen/tabellen/kfz-bestand-bez.html

[5] Wylie, J. (2019). Reducing business opposition to car-free city centres: The case of Oslo. IIIEE Master Thesis.

[6] Mørk, I. K. (2016). On-street parking and shopping street vitality: Comparing customer and shopkeeper perspectives on shopping practices and experiences in Markveien, Oslo (Master's thesis).