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Car-free cities — Lessons from Vienna for Scotland’s cities

Published 21 October 2019 by Mark James and Matt McDonald

We welcomed Maria Vassilakou to Glasgow City Chambers on Thursday 10 October to deliver a talk on ‘Car-Free Cities’ to 80 Transform Scotland members and supporters. Maria’s talk reflected on her experiences as deputy mayor of the city of Vienna from 2010-2019 and how she contributed to the continued development of Vienna as the world’s most livable city. The presentation was followed by a Q&A which featured Councillor Anna Richardson from Glasgow City Council and Councillor Lesley Macinnes from The City of Edinburgh Council.


Vienna is experiencing rapid population growth of 25-30,000 per annum creating a dynamic and diverse community. However, Maria argued, urban growth is an opportunity to create a sustainable and livable city. For example, she stated it was imperative that the city retained 53% as green space. Strategic planning is at the heart of the vision with green space, climate protection and traffic management all given equal priority.  Vienna has shown that having a vision that covers all aspects of urban planning can help create a city which prioritises space for people over cars.

Some key elements to her approach included:

  • What’s good for children is good for everyone and makes Vienna a great place to live.
  • A multi-centre strategy means less pressure on one central area resulting in reduced congestion and decentralised economic activity.
  • Agriculture in the urban area is essential: keeping vineyards has been tough but a key to retaining the focus on developing the brownfield sites.

Vienna’s urban mobility plan

Maria told us how Vienna’s urban mobility plan is transforming transport in the city by:

  • Reducing the cost of the public transport card to €365, resulting in a doubling of the number of passes. You are never more than a three-minute walk to a public transport stop and just a three-minute wait. Now over one million people in a city of less than two million use a public transport pass.
  • Giving cyclists 1400 km of cycle routes to enjoy with approximately 50% segregation, resulting in 7% of all journeys by bike. Vienna introduced the first bike share scheme and £10m is currently spent on cycling each year.
  • Including e-mobility as a part of the plan; 1000 charging stations are carefully located to enable transition away from using public space for charging. However, Maria accepted some reservations over electric cars, arguing that they still take away space, which is a city’s most valuable resource.
  • Creating a walkability master plan that places “rethinking the street” at its heart, with 56% of journeys including walking. There are a total of 90 pedestrian zones in the city.

Green spaces and public spaces

Maria argued that great public places are created by people working together. They are places for people to slow down and places to share, and they enable social, gender and generational equity. For example, Vienna offers grants for innovative public space projects to transform areas previously used for car parking into “parklets”. Over 300 have been created so far.

Vienna continues to create green spaces with a maximum 300m to the next green space.

However, not everyone was behind the vision. To bring dissenters on board, the city introduced a car-free trial in one area. After nine months a referendum was held asking whether people want to return to the previous situation, and invariably the result was acceptance of the scheme.

Let the people transform the city

The populace can invest in their city. Citizens can invest from €50-10,000 in the 24 solar arrays around the city.

Overall Maria’s story was an inspiring agenda that given the political will and public backing could also be achieved in Scotland.

Panel Discussion:

The Q&A covered diverse topics from:

  • How to fund projects using funds from a range of different budgets.
  • Tackling inequality by making the city rather than the suburbs somewhere everyone wants to live.
  • The high proportion of segregated cycle lanes, illustrating the need for cross-borough cooperation.
  • How the history of Social Democratic politics has shaped housing and development in Vienna.

Phil Matthews rounded off with thanks and a presentation of a tweed bag with Scottish delicacies including Tunnocks wafers and Irn Bru.

After the talk concluded refreshments were served and further discussions continued.