Vienna: A city in the fast lane of the smart mobility revolution

By Woo Hoi Yuet

The Head of Vienna’s Smart City Unit reveals how the Austrian capital uses technology and citizen-centric engagement to make transportation sustainable.

Sustainability meets convenience in Vienna. The capital of Austria is reinventing its streets to favour public transportation, cycling and walking rather than cars. Image: Canva 

Pandemic lockdowns and containment measures have been a nice breather for the Earth. Travel restrictions have led to an unprecedented decline in mobility worldwide, with CO2 emissions from transportation globally decreasing by more than 10% in 2020, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

But the drop in carbon emissions is by no means permanent. Demand for transportation, especially aviation and cargo transport, is rebounding as more countries open back up. Decarbonising the transportation sector is a long journey, and relying on temporary travel restrictions and closed-off economies is not a sustainable way for cities to achieve long-term emissions goals.

So how can cities maintain the momentum to clean up transportation? One answer lies in smart mobility, which revolutionises how people travel around urban areas in more sustainable, safer and increasingly efficient ways. With the emergence of cleaner vehicles, ride-sharing schemes and artificial intelligence in traffic systems, a new era in smart mobility is dawning. Ina Homeier, the Head of Vienna’s Smart City Unit, has an insider’s view of how the capital of Austria is developing means of mobility to help people travel easily and sustainably.

Sustainability and the city

Smart mobility is playing an important role in transforming Vienna into a climate-neutral city. The Baroque metropolis is already taking steps to ensure that vehicles on its roads are as sustainable as possible, starting from its municipal fleets, which include garbage trucks, road sweepers and emergency vehicles.

The city has rolled out Austria’s first e-waste vehicles, which produce no emissions and generate less noise than their internal combustion engine-driven counterparts, Homeier says. All municipal vehicles will be electric from 2025 as part of the city’s efforts to achieve climate-neutrality.

But sustainable mobility is not simply about making vehicles cleaner. It’s also about driving behavioural change among people and encouraging them to travel around the city in more environmentally-friendly ways. To increase the use of public transport, Vienna has developed an extensive and affordable system in which an annual pass for public transport costs only €365 (US$372) – €1 a day, Homeier says.

Public transport is just one of many contributors to cleaner transportation. To further advance sustainability in transport, the city also focuses on “link[ing] public transport even better with rental offers for further mobility,” Homeier adds.

In 2019, one in every three trips taken in Vienna was made on foot or by bicycle, an achievement made possible by a bike-sharing system that has been operating for more than 15 years and which has gradually established itself as a primary mode of transportation, Homeier says.

Not only are the bicycles used by the system, known as WienMobil, equipped with seven gears and electronic frame locks, but they can also be located by GPS, making it easier for residents to find and return them. And cycling is not just an individual experience – it’s an experience for families, too, as some bikes come with child seats, allowing parents to ferry their young one to and from school easily and cleanly.

But what of those who need to deliver bulky items? Lugging a shelf from Ikea on a bike or a public bus is no easy feat. Cargo bikes are the answer, says Homeier. For major shopping trips, people can borrow Grätzlfahrrad cargo bikes that can carry up to 350kg of goods. Cost isn’t a problem either: due to high demand, the city will be funding individuals who wish to purchase cargo bikes to the tune of €1,000 each.

During the pandemic, much shopping has shifted online, and the rise of e-commerce has had an impact on the environment. With more delivery trucks going house to house to deliver parcels, carbon emissions from the sector are on the rise. But Vienna has a solution: Remihub, an initiative that reduces reliance on delivery trucks.

Remihub repurposes buses or tram garages in the city that are unused during the day as temporary delivery hubs. As major parcel distribution hubs are often located outside the city, parcels must travel long distances to reach people’s doorsteps, requiring trucks and vans that typically run on fossil fuels. But if parcels can be dropped off at various delivery hubs within the city, local delivery workers can easily complete last-mile deliveries using cargo bikes or electric vehicles.

People power

The city is reimagining a future of transportation that revolves around its communities. “Vienna puts people first,” Homeier says. And it’s not just about rolling out the latest, smartest technology, but also about how intelligent transport can improve the city’s liveability, she adds.

This means that communications relating to new mobility solutions must be centred on how people experience the city. To bring more people on board the smart mobility revolution, Vienna’s mobility agency created a campaign that likens urban travel to a journey of discovery. “The city wants to offer its citizens new ways to use public spaces,” Homeier says.

To encourage more people to walk and cycle, the Smart City Unit promotes walking, biking and hiking tours that feature quaint, historic villages and nature trails – ways of discovering the city that lose their appeal with driving.

In summer 2020, Vienna developed 18 “cool streets” to make walking a more pleasant experience for pedestrians. The city added more greenery, fountains and spray showers to the streets, which also became car-free for four weeks, providing people with an escape from stuffy apartments and workplaces while making walking more enjoyable.

Smart traffic lights are also deployed to make roads more pedestrian-friendly, Homeier says. Using cameras, they detect approaching pedestrians and predict where they’re going. Once pedestrians are about to cross a road, the traffic lights automatically switch to green, meaning that pedestrians don’t have to spend long waiting at traffic lights and making walking less interrupted.

Vienna has not overlooked its young people, either – the generation that can truly unlock the city’s potential for transitioning to sustainable mobility in the future. In a survey conducted by Vienna’s mobility agency, the statement “Kids should walk more” attracted the highest number of positive responses. But roads aren’t the safest place for children, so the city has implemented “school streets” to make certain roads safer for children to walk on.

On schooldays, vehicles are barred from entering school streets 30 minutes before and after the end of classes. Instead of placing the burden wholly on children to know their way around roads safely, the agency focuses on making the roads friendly for them.

Access all areas

No matter how extensive public transport networks and ride-sharing schemes may be, cities must ensure that people can access all of them easily. Ensuring that everyone has access to full mobility around the city without owning a car is a key principle that guides Vienna’s mobility strategies, Homeier says.

Vienna is taking steps to make mobility even more integrated. Through the WienMobil mobile application, users can access different modes of transportation on a single platform, she says. The app features a route planner that helps users find the quickest route between places not just via public transport, but also via bike and footpaths.

Users can also use the app as a one-stop platform to book tickets for public transport and other services, such as car-sharing and bike-sharing schemes, making it more convenient than using multiple mobility apps.

Mobility is a deeply embedded social need, but providing physical infrastructure such as cycle paths and developing cleaner vehicles only goes so far when it comes to kicking the car ownership habit. By combining technology with citizen-centric engagement, Vienna has become emblematic of the possibilities of smart mobility transformation.