The Mariahilfer Strasse is a fancy, nineteenth century shopping boulevard in Vienna. In the last decades it became very heavy with traffic. The City of Vienna decided to transform the street into an inviting, pedestrian friendly avenue.
Historically traffic in cities has always been diverse: streets had mixed uses and people moved around in various manners. During the course of the twentieth century cars became more and more dominant in city streets. Pedestrians had to deal with the noise, pollution and dangerous situations the cars created and eventually became a minority.
Like many cities around the world, Vienna is now facing a mobility transition: Slowly but surely people are getting out of their cars and are starting to walk, bike, or trolley around. In 1993 cars were responsible for 40% of the traffic in Vienna. In 2012 this number had dropped to 27%. The municipality would like to see this number go down to 20% in 2025. To achieve this, Vienna is drastically changing the road structure. Three out of the seven main roads are downgraded. The Mariahilfer Strasse is one of them.
The 1,6 km long Mariahilfer Strasse has been redesigned as a continuous shared space, divided into three zones. Pedestrians rule the inner zone of the street. Here people can stroll and linger freely. Local traffic, buses and suppliers are allowed in, but the street is blocked for cars passing through. Cross-town traffic has to take a detour. The two outer zones are designated ‘shared spaces’. Here, cars, bikes and pedestrians all use the same space, causing everybody to be more considerate.
Introducing a new traffic situation created a legal puzzle: what defines a traffic lane? Which parking regulations apply here? How to create safe intersections? It took two lawyers to figure everything out. We discussed all these questions in a detailed way, finding tailor made solutions for every complicated situation. For instance, we had to make an interruption in the shared space at the buss-lane crossing. Here it would not be safe to prioritize pedestrians.
It took some time for the people of Vienna to get used to the idea of shared space: Viennese are fond of driving and did not want to give up the convenience of speeding through the Mariahilfer Strasse. Shopkeepers were afraid business would slow down with driving and parking less easy. There even was a referendum about the new design. Prior to the referendum, the City organized information meetings, together with the designers. We closed down the street for traffic one afternoon, so people could experience what that is like. People spontaneously organized picnics and games on the street; public life evolved as soon as it got the chance. We put a long table in the middle of the street with a print of our design. People could write comments and ideas on it. They varied from “I would like a big trampoline” to ‘Finally, shopping will be fun!” and “This will ruin the economy”. This event got a lot of people involved and gave us relevant input for the design. The outcome of the referendum was that 53% voted in favor of the transformation. Half a year after the completion of the renovation, research company SORA held a survey. They asked what people would vote, if the referendum would take place now. 71% of the respondents said that they were now in favor of the new lay out. Shopkeepers were also relatively positive. 38% said that business improved by the renovation. 46% did not notice any change and only 9% experienced a negative influence.
Today the Mariahilfer Strasse is paved from facade to facade on a single level. The street is divided into different zones by subtle lines in the pavement; a fast lane in the middle and slow lanes on the sides. Benches, water elements and planters are placed in the wide curbs. The pavement and the street furniture are made of granite from a local quarry, so the public space matches the buildings. The low branches were removed from the existing trees to make the street airy. The planters are filled with smaller, colorful trees, giving the city lounges a more intimate character. The public lounges create moments of tranquility within the bustling shopping street; a place where you can be without your credit card.
The transformation of the Mariahilfer Strasse has several positive effects on the city. Thanks to the dramatic reduction of traffic, there is less noise and pollution. Now, the street is inviting to walk and bike through, enhancing public health through exercise. Shopkeepers are very positive about the transformation. Business did not slow down: the laid back layout invites people to spend more time in the Mariahilfer Strasse, spending more money as a consequence. At the same time, people can hang out without consuming. The City Lounges offer an attractive and public alternative to the terraces belonging to cafés and restaurants.
Entrant office name: Bureau B+B Urbanism and Landscape Architecture
Role of the entrant in the project: Public space design
Other design firms involved: orso.pitro architects
Project location: Mariahilfer Strasse, Vienna, Austria
Design year: 2013-2014
Year Built: 2014-2015