Vienna waits for you

Cross-posted at

I was recently invited to visit Austria by Advantage Austria as part of a delegation to learn about their Smart Grids and Smart Networks. But what I really wanted to see was the legendary city of Vienna, at whose gates the Ottomans were halted. Those defensive walls are no longer present, and it is their destruction and replacement which has shaped the Viennese transport network and development pattern.


Central Vienna
Central Vienna

Compare maps of Vienna and Minneapolis and you see some surprising similarities in shape at the same scale. To the north and east is the River (the Donau Canal (an offshoot of the main river) in Vienna, the Mississippi in Minneapolis). The Mississippi is mightier. In contrast to my anticipations, the Danube is far from romantic, and separated from the city by rail and highway. It is no Seine, or even a Thames, or even a Mississippi. It was straightened and re-organized as a flood control project.

Central Minneapolis
Central Minneapolis

The Innere Stadt was the early walled city (District 1). After a second ring of territories (Districts 2-8) were annexed in 1850, the walls were razed in 1857. The land housing the former defensive walls and plains became the Ringstrasse, and was lined with important public buildings. Think of District 1 as the CBD. There is far more commercial density in the Minneapolis CBD (defined by the area with tall buildings > 10 stories) than in the similar area of Vienna, which retains its Austro-Hungarian Empire height limits of about 7 stories. But there are far more stores, and people out and about in Vienna. There are several pedestrianized streets, lined with shops and active travelers. This is in part because of the mix of tourist attractions, cultural venues, residences and offices attracting visitors, residents, and workers. The pedestrian streets were served by an Underground system that has been steadily expanded to five lines since the mid 1970s (U1-U6, excluding U5).

The streets that were not pedestrianized often had trams. That does not mean it was a car-haters paradise however. There were many, many cars, even in the Innere Stadt. The drivers are aggressive. There are some cycle tracks as well, and this is better than Minneapolis, but not as developed as Copenhagen or the Netherlands. There is also a lot of on-street parking. There are not Singapore level prices for auto-ownership, and Vienna remains very German in its appreciation for auto-mobility.

Ringstrasse - 7 lanes for cars.
Ringstrasse – 7 lanes for cars.
Pedestrianized Streets
Pedestrianized Streets

Given the lack of a regular street pattern, a pedestrian wayfinding system would be useful, especially in the areas with lots of pedestrians. More pedestrian streets are being built. Apparently the local merchants complain about construction (understandable) and subsequent lack of access by car (not). Surely there are studies which show sales or rents are higher (or lower) on pedestrianized streets.

While on-street parking is not the worst outcome (it is better than more on-street lanes), it does take away scarce space from better uses. If I were the Emperor of Austria (or even the Mayor of Vienna), I would ban cars in the central areas, where they really are not much needed. Even in the absence of an outright ban, a congestion charge would probably be a net positive for the city. More woonerfs would be good. My term would likely be short.

The Linienwall formed the outer boundary of the second ring. It was replaced by roads. The western part of this is the Gürtel ring road that matches the Minneapolis Interstate ring (The Gürtel is B-221, though the better analog for the Twin Cities is to go from B-221 to B-1, as shown on the map). Railway terminals were built just outside this wall. (We stayed near Westbahnhof).

On-street parking in Vienna
On-street parking in Vienna
Westbahnhof Station
Westbahnhof Station

In particular, crossing the rings on foot is not a pleasant experience. Both ring roads have become traffic sewers (think Lyndale/Hennepin bottleneck, though probably not quite that bad for pedestrians). The railroad tracks also create barriers, with pedestrian bridges periodically, but by no means every block.

While the Innere Stadt is best described as Medieval, a much more orderly ring/radial plan emanates from the Ringstrasse, and while the grid is not perfectly squared as in the Midwest, it is more orderly than in the old city. Vienna respects its architects and planners more than any other city I have seen. Credit for the plan largely rests with Otto Wagner. Andy Nash has a nice history.

In Vienna, you see trams everywhere, they were not dismantled post-World War II as in much of the west. Notably, the Aerial electric wires are now used for recharging battery powered e-buses. Payment is through tickets and validation (on the vehicle), or passes. Tickets are purchased at machines at subway stations — not at Tram stations. Officials there said they have 98% compliance. They thus use Proof of Payment, but don’t enforce much (I estimate 1/1000 trips gets a ticket check from the numbers some Viennese said, but this may be wrong). This speeds boarding radically. The majority of residents have seasonal transit passes.

Housing development rising in Aspern
Housing development rising in Aspern
Lonely, but well-equipped bus stop in Aspern New Town Development
Lonely, but well-equipped bus stop in Aspern New Town Development

The subway system is well used (there were thoughts of dismantling trams post-subway but that did not happen), mostly, though there is a new extension to a planned community we visited (Aspern), which had not yet opened, hence ridership on that line was very low. Presumably this will change over time, but after serving the built-up areas, the infrastructure here now seems to lead the development. Interestingly the station is served by buses which are also mostly empty. One would have thought they would wait on something which does have a high operating cost like buses, but apparently not.

Transit Management Center (for Subway lines)
Transit Management Center (for Subway lines)
The Danube, with Bridge.
The Danube, with Bridge.

Car2Go is popular, as are other carsharing services to lesser extent – but they seem to be station-based. (FYA: Local MSP transit app OMG Transit tells me where nearest Car2Go are in Austria, but not which bus/tram to catch. I believe the market will eventually develop one transportation app to rule them all, but not yet). Locally in Vienna, the App Qando does that. Also Austrian Railways are working on an inter-city ticketing app.)

Supermarkets in-town in Vienna Austria are much smaller than new in-town markets in US, and are of course more widely dispersed (with a smaller selection). This is a better urban model for small apartments with small refrigerators.

You cannot have European transit without European density. Vienna is 414 km2 at 4000 persons/km2 vs. Minneapolis 151 km2 at 2813 persons/km2. Vienna has 1.7 million people overall, while Minneapolis has a just over 400,000. Quantitatively the density of Minneapolis does not appear so much lower than Vienna, it must be remembered that Vienna is a city state in Austria, with large undeveloped areas reserved for park, so the density of the developed area is probably twice the overall density. Vienna’s area is larger than Minneapolis plus St. Paul, though notably smaller than say Hennepin County (1570 km2) with only 1.185 million people. Yet the Twin Cities metro area is larger than Vienna in population as well as area. It is just much more dispersed.

Traveler information at transit stops.
Traveler information at transit stops.
City Bike - Bikesharing in Vienna
City Bike – Bikesharing in Vienna

In short Vienna got the land use and the transit right, but failed to tame the auto and could do better with non-motorized travel. With gas prices around $6/gallon, auto use is certainly lower than the US (currently $3.50/gallon).

As it is a European City, the weather in Vienna is much nicer than Minneapolis on average.



[Flickr photos 1234567]

Lisa Schweitzer Part 5: Asset values

Lisa writes:

I’m almost done with my responses to David Levinson’s important contribution via CityLab on How to Make Mass Transit Funding Sustainable Once and For All.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

However, I’m going to say something that is going to make errrbody unhappy: transit’s assets are worth more as assets because we all know the taxpayer will buy them back if private sector managers allow things to go pear-shaped. If there is something that, over the course of its history, has been ‘too big to fail’, it is transit. From the municipal bail-outs of holding companies in the mid 20th century to the devastating strikes that occurred before then, disrupting transit service in the pre-auto world paid out well for both capital and labor. It was textbook Ralph Milliband. So we should think Uber-level values with a bail-out and buy-out guarantee–which is basically what just about all major infrastructure transfers to the private sector turn out to be given enough time, save for some examples in Asia.

So she is skeptical of private investment. I don’t blame her, I am not investing my retirement dollars in new rail infrastructure either. But there are many lessons here.

(1) An investment that produces a stable rate of return, even if low, is extremely valuable as a financial instrument for annuities and retirement plans. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan now owns a share of the Channel Tunnel among other infrastructure assets.

(2) Investing in new infrastructure is a lot riskier than investing in already built infrastructure (thus the early financiers of the Channel Tunnel got wiped out twice, similarly the Dulles Greenway and many other privately funded pieces of new infrastructure that were either more expensive than expected, or built too far in advance of demand – yet the physical thing remains, so the public risk is relatively low if the public sector is not already pwned by the private sector).

(3) The case of London is instructive, and suggests some of the risks of what we in the US call Public Private Partnerships and the UK call Private Finance Initiatives, but are really just contracts. The London Underground set up was, to be frank, insane and could only have been designed by overpriced lawyers (I read somewhere legal costs of setting up the contract was £500 before even operating, and that still did not deal with the contingency that actually occurred) without a clue as to how transportation systems work. There, all construction had to occur between 11 pm and 5 am, including set-up and break-down, and the system had to be open and operational for the morning commute. So the concession-holder spent a couple of hours setting up, performed a couple of hours of construction work, and then took a couple of hours of cleaning up. It would be much better to temporarily close the line, do all the work you need, and do it in a relatively short amount of time (months instead of years). Convert the streets above the line to (temporary?) Super-BRT exclusive busway routes with tons of buses to serve the displaced demand. Of course one should do this to only one line at a time. Christian Wolmar in Down the Tube has a great discussion.

(4) Strikes are a lot less effective than before once you no longer have a monopoly provider and a monopsonistic labor union operating with a single systemwide contract.

(5) Obviously unproductive assets should be retired. I have a few in mind, but I suspect most fixed assets (aside from selected intercity rail, commuter rail and streetcar lines) in US transit are redeemable, and all the modern buses are as well, as they can be redeployed.

(6) I am not sure what public space is anymore, but New York’s Penn Station was of course privately built (and destroyed), while Grand Central was privately built (and preserved – due to public intervention), while exploiting air rights to get some additional revenue for an otherwise dying company. In fact Grand Central is still privately owned.

Lisa Schweitzer Part 4: Capital Cost Recovery

Lisa Schweitzer continues her hermeneutic investigation of my CityLab post: How to Make Public Transit Sustainable Once and For All, this time focusing on capital cost recovery and land use issues.

What Levinson is trying to get at here simply concerns the “eyes bigger than market” problem that plenty of cities get into over things like stadium deals. If you actually live in a world where land taxes aren’t distorted (which I don’t, so there’s that), letting utilities buy and develop around train stations makes abundant sense. Here’s the part of the equation that I think really matters: if you require local jurisdictions to provide a portion of the capital and operating subsidies for service, they then have every incentive (instead of the incentive they have now), to alter their local zoning and approvals process ahead of timeso that development around station areas can actually occur.

She thinks she has spotted an inconsistency (or mic drop), but I am not clear what it is. (I think she means my moving from voters have the right to subsidize stuff they want vs. jurisdictions should only do something that pencils out).

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

There is a qualitative difference between capital and operating, between rail and bus (though that’s not the important one), between stocks and flows, and between new and old.

Capital investments are new stocks while operating expenditures are continuing flows. From a public policy perspective, continuing with existing commitments (which may be an implied social contract) may be more important than making investments that bring about new commitments. Thus new commitments (such as new rail lines which have irreversibly embedded immobile capital) should only be undertaken if we believe at the outset (admittedly a forecast, which have problems) that they have cost recovery.

It is one thing to run a bus with some small subsidy for some indeterminate period of time.  That decision is reversible if it doesn’t work out. It is another to build a large capital investment with no prospect of cost recovery for a long period of time. The bus, being mobile capital, can always be rerouted, or reallocated to another service.

The large right-of-way (usually rail, but also a BRT right-of-way) cannot – and in a world with bond financing rather than pay-as-you-go infrastructure, imposes involuntary costs (capital repayment) obligations on future generations. This appeals to rail fans as a sign of “commitment” (ignoring the streetcars went away), but it is an inflexibility and unadaptability that means the “burden of proof” for making such a decision is higher.

I agree that requiring locals pay for their infrastructure might induce them to have socially better land use controls, since they may need the revenue that the higher accessibility may have created with more intense development to support the infrastructure that created the higher accessibility in the first place.

Podcast #66 – Riding the Green Line with David Levinson |

I appear on the podcast with Bill Lindeke.


green line 3The podcast this week is a conversation with David Levinson, a professor in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Minnesota [ed. Twin Cities, not Duluth]  . David is also a co-founder and regular writer here at, and his work focuses on transportation networks and measurements efficiency for different road and transit systems.

We sat down last week in a very special place… in a pair of seats on the rear car of a brand new Green Line train.

We hit record right when we got on the train at Saint Paul’s Union Depot and hit stop as we exited in the new Interchange station by Target Field in Minneapolis. So not only did we have a great conversation all about David’s research, the pros and cons of the Green Line, and the future of transportation in the Twin Cities, but this podcast also has scientific value as a temporal measure of our trip.

Plus we got to have a random conversation with the pleasant fellow in front of us in the LRT car, who had taken Twin Cities’ “transit system” all the way from Apple Valley. At one point he asks us, “Have either of you two ever been to a city with a good public transit system?” So there’s that.

The link to the audio is here! Thanks for listening.

Lisa Schweitzer Part 3: Farecards

Lisa continues her deconstruction of my CityLab post in Part 3, discussing Farecards and technology.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

She writes:

Most transit companies already do require smart card use, and I’m not sure what seasonal passes get anybody, even providers,that monthly or weekly passes don’t, except if you buy for longer periods of time, the transit company gets to use your money longer than if you buy week-by-week. The only thing I think might matter here are school-year passes that, if you purchase them in August, you can a better deal than if you buy month-by-month, and you don’t necessarily want a full yearly pass. It probably makes more sense, for example, for me to buy a pass like that than my yearly pass because I don’t commute much in the summer. Unless I am missing something, this is a minor point.

I dispute her point in the absence of evidence. Most transit agencies have smart cards, and some heavy rail systems require them (BART, DC Metro, MTA). My sense of most bus agencies is they don’t require them – Twin Cities MetroTransit certainly doesn’t, hence the time saving advantages of having them. Boarding times are reduced from 6 seconds to 2 seconds per customer with smart cards if I remember a recent term paper correctly.

I would go further and say we should have pre-payment via stop-based farecard reader, i.e. all significant bus stops should have arterial BRT like payment.  (This should be coupled with a reduction in the number of bus stops). Pre-payment is faster of course.

The advantage of seasonal or annual unlimited passes vs. unlimited weekly passes is seemingly minor (reduced transaction costs for the agency, but more importantly reduced mental transactions cost for customers). However, it is an important psychological difference. This gets back to my Club Transit post, where users should be thought of as members rather than one-off riders. Sure some riders (students, faculty) might save a little bit with seasonal vs. annual passes, but what you want (as an agency) is continuous automatic billing, not having to go through a weekly/monthly/annual process to sign up members.

I fully agree that there should be “one card to rule them all”, and further my membership in MetroTransit should be reciprocal at other agencies. But I suspect most people who use transit only use transit in one or two cities per year, so this would be relatively minor. The embarrassment of certain California metro areas not being able to standardize on fare cards across agencies is not widely replicated (fortunately), and obviously there should be intra-metropolitan inter-operability even if inter-metropolitan inter-operability is still a dream. Again this is a case where contracting out (to Visa or Mastercard, e.g.) might be valuable.



Lisa Schweitzer Part 2: Competitive tendering

Lisa continues discussing my CityLab post How to Make Mass Transit Sustainable Once and For All.

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

In “Part 2. David Levinson’s CityLab discussion on transit: Competitive tendering,” she takes issue with whether Competitive Tendering was causal in increasing London transit ridership. Well, as we all know, nothing is provable (though many things are falsifiable), so we cannot prove causality. We can infer causality if we have a plausible causal mechanism and an appropriate time sequence. Clearly there is a time sequence. What is the causal mechanism? Competitive firms provide better quality of service than did the previous arrangement because they are rewarded for providing better service. Competitive firms have lower costs than long-entrenched public sector agencies.

Does this explain everything? Of course not (population increases, the congestion charge, increased total bus service, fuel prices, construction on the Underground also play a part).

Does it explain something? Probably. Can I show this statistically? Not right now since London is only one city and I don’t have route-by-route breakdowns of ridership and service quality before and after competitive tendering.

However London, even under “Red Ken” did not seriously consider undoing bus competition. They did undo the poorly conceived rail competition, so undoing policy was on the table. So I infer that it is working and one of the causes of ridership increases.

To be clear, the evidence is that differently structured (more monopolistic) franchises awarded in other UK cities did not see similar ridership increases, so the answer is quite complicated about how to configure to maximize consumer welfare, and experimentation is probably required. Just giving the system away is certainly not the answer. Having the franchises be of a limited duration (5-7 years, e.g.) is better than a 20-30 year franchise. This is feasible for buses where the capital is the ultimate in mobile capital. It would be much harder for a traditional utility where the infrastructure is expensive, embedded in the ground, and long-lived.


Some even more wonky papers on London Buses:



Portland street fee: Is the obscure formula that determines what you pay ‘imperfect,’ or plain unfair?

Andrew Theen of The Oregonian writes about transportation utility fees, asking: Portland street fee: Is the obscure formula that determines what you pay ‘imperfect,’ or plain unfair?

I defend them:

Despite the criticism thrown at the street fee plan, David Levinson, a professor of transportation at the University of Minnesota, said many transit observers nationally view street fees as progressive and innovative.

Many cities use property tax revenues or a sales tax to raise money for roads, Levinson said, and the latter is particularly regressive. A street fee, Levinson said, is “at least nominally proportional” to use.

Further, Levinson’s research has found that many cities customize their street fees, adding exemptions for residents who don’t own cars, or charging heavier vehicles for causing more wear and tear.

More precise measurements exist to track how much individual drivers use the roads – think GPS – but transportation experts note such tools would be a tough sell politically due to privacy concerns.

Kelly Clifton and Brian Taylor are also cited. The key I think is the alternative. Even ITE Trip Generation rates, as bad as they are, are better than property taxes as a basis for local transportation funding. They can of course be better.

Robert Poole on Mass Transit Financial Stability.

In the latest edition of Reason’s Surface Transportation News (#128), Robert Poole discusses my CityLab post: How to Make Mass Transit Sustainable Once and For All, as well as some other ideas that are also worth a look.

“… CityLab published a comprehensive piece by David Levinson of the University of Minnesota: “How to Make Mass Transit Financially Sustainable Once and for All.” To introduce the subject, he makes a good case that over the last 40 years or so, transit has been in a state of crisis that we have mostly refused to recognize. “Current strategies have not placed transit on a financially sustainable path,” he writes—and he’s correct. As a long-time transportation researcher, Levinson has thought a lot about this problem, concluding that “transit should be successful and cover its costs,” but to do that it needs to be reconceptualized as a kind of public utility. The rest of the piece sets forth and briefly explains seven key aspects of this model:

  1. Reduce costs by competitive tendering of bus service as done in London;
  2. Increase fares, so that the average farebox recovery eventually exceeds 100% of operating costs (with transit vouchers for the poor);
  3. Require the use of a smart card and encourage seasonal passes;
  4. Cancel money-losing routes unless someone is willing to subsidize them;
  5. Recover future capital costs via land value capture (see NCHRP synthesis 459, “Using the Economic Value Created by Transportation to Fund Transportation”);
  6. Raise capital in bond and equity markets, like other utilities do; and,
  7. Fund transit locally, since its benefits are local.

These are very provocative ideas, and I think they are worth serious consideration, as transit faces the likelihood of declining federal support and massive fleet replacement and infrastructure refurbishment costs in coming decades. And I find it encouraging that Levinson’s piece is part of the CityLab “Future of Transportation” series funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.”


Funding the future of transportation (audio)

The audio is now available for the MPR Daily Circuit Friday Roundtable:

The Daily Circuit 9:06 AM · Jun 20, 2014

LISTEN Story audio

50min 42sec

The Green Line is up and running, but building a rail line and maintaining it are separate battles. How will we pay for the existing mass transit choices, create new options and not go broke? Our three Roundtablers offer their proposals for funding transportation.