On Friday, I participated in a walking tour along Vienna’s highly debated Mariahilferstraße which was recently turned into a shared space and pedestrian area and will hopefully become a great street for pedestrians and cyclists if the citizens of Vienna’s adjacent 6th and 7th districts vote to make these changes permanent (more on the current referendum and its comprehensive citizen engagement process to follow in the upcoming days).
Here are some impressions from the walk that was lead by local district mayor Thomas Blimlinger and transportation journalist Harald Jahn who shared their broad knowledge on Austria’s largest and most important shopping street with us:
The two shared space areas are used by pedestrians, cyclists and cars at a maximum speed of 20 km/h. As the current changes are only temporary (depending on the outcome of the referendum), the street still looks like a street for cars and people therefore hesitate to leave the sidewalks due to the different level of the street and the sidewalks.
The recently opened exhibition features renderings and a model of the new Mariahilferstraße as well as information on the planning process, the citizen engagement efforts and best practices from cities around the world. Of course, it attracted a lot of interest during our walking tour.
The street has undergone a lot of huge changes in the past century – one of the biggest changes was abandoning the streetcar lines in favour of a subway line, despite the resistance of most shop owners due to the long distances between the subway stops. But the Viennese transportation authority refuses steadfastly to have subway and streetcar lines running parallel on the same street.
Moreover, there were also huge changes in terms of the mix of shops and amenities. For instance, while Mariahilferstraße was home to many large cinemas in the past, there’s only one small cinema left today. In contrast, many cafés, restaurants and ice cream parlours opened and there’s a lot of interest in adding further amenities as well as tables on the sidewalk in front of the cafés and restaurants once the street will hopefully be turned into a truly pedestrian area.
Today, 72% of shops are clothing stores, of which many are large international chains (e.g. there are three H&M stores on Mariahilferstraße as well as many other well-known retailers). As more and more retailers are eager to open a store there, high rents and other factors increase the pressure on other stores like this old household supply store which will be closing soon.
Despite some issues with the bus lane and other initial problems during the temporary trial period, people already use the pedestrian area extensively and hope that the street will be turned from a street for cars into a street for pedestrians, cyclists and especially children who gain new public space in a district that has the least green areas of all Viennese districts.
Just a snapshot: One of the many local businessmen who are in favour of the new pedestrian area. As you can see, he’s also an enthusiastic cargo bike rider!
And another snapshot: A bicycle taxi, Viennese style. It’s called Faxi, combining the words “Fahrrad” (bicycle) and “Taxi”.
It was particularly interesting to see how the street has (and hasn’t) changed based on old photographs. In particular, it is impressive to realize how the store mix has changed over time. I guess that there will be further changes once the street will become a truly pedestrian area which will also pose new challenges to local authorities, e.g. to prevent too much noise if many cafés want to have outdoor seating.
Mariahilferstraße Trivia: Due to different amounts of sunlight, the trees on the right (7th district) are usually higher than the trees on the left (6th district). This fact and the stories about many of the street’s historic buildings reminded me that it’s so important to also look up when all your attention is caught by the shops on the ground floor, especially in a city like Vienna that’s so gifted with beautiful architecture.
The official campaign by the City of Vienna uses excellent renderings to show people how the new Mariahilferstraße will look like. Places to sit down and features like free wifi will hopefully make the street a great place to stay.
So, it’s up to the citizens of the two districts adjacent to the Mariahilferstraße to decide on the street’s future, whether it will be turned back into a street for cars or become a street for people.