Traffic Signals for Active Mobility

Traffic Signals for Active Mobility

Photo of people waiting to cross street in Vienna.

Many people waiting to cross this street in Vienna did not know they needed to push a button for the walk signal.

I’ve found, in my walks and rides through cities, that traffic signals really impact my route selection. I avoid intersections where I need to wait a long time or need to cross in multiple stages (the completely awful waiting on a traffic island with traffic speeding by on both sides). In other words, from my perspective at least, traffic signals have a huge impact on pedestrians and cyclists.

Photo of a cyclist green wave signal in Vienna.

A cyclist green wave traffic signal on Vienna’s Praterstrasse.

On the other hand, some cities are changing their traffic signals to improve walking and cycling. Methods include count-down timers, improved timing to reduce pedestrian wait times, using sensors to detect waiting pedestrians rather than forcing them to push a (beg) button and green-wave timing for cycles.

UPDATE: If you have ideas for using traffic signals to encourage walking and cycling, please add them to the comments below or the comments on my list of Traffic Signal Strategies for Encouraging Active Transport.

I thought it would be interesting to comprehensively document these techniques for using traffic signals to encourage (or at least, not discourage) walking and cycling. Therefore, in 2020 I prepared a research proposal for developing a set of best practices for using traffic signals to encourage walking and cycling. Here’s the abstract:

Traffic signals are a key element of urban transport. They allocate, in time, street space to users. Traffic signals were invented as part of the effort to make room for motor vehicles in the early 1900s. Traffic signal planning, arguably, incorporates an unconscious bias towards prioritising motor vehicle flow. Furthermore, traffic signal planning (e.g., timing, phasing, location) is complex, making it difficult for non-specialists to effectively participate in design decisions. Some cities are using traffic signals to increase walking (e.g., smart signals) and cycling (e.g., green waves), but many of these strategies and their detailed engineering are not widely known. The project’s objective is to identify, design and communicate strategies for using traffic signals to increase the use and safety of walking and cycling. Therefore, this project will bring together traffic signal planners with academics, NGOs and local residents, to survey existing methods, develop new strategies, and broadly communicate recommended best practices, for using traffic signals to encourage walking and cycling. Importantly, because autonomous vehicles will also need some process for allocating right-of-way at intersections, the project will consider how the best practice strategies can be implemented in both today’s traffic signals and tomorrow’s autonomous vehicle control software.

Cartoon asking what if intersection crossings were designed for pedestrians not vehicles?

Comic by Dhiru Thadani, Source: Strong Towns.

One of the proposal’s organising concepts was that we currently focus on allocating street space … we should think more systematically about allocating TIME. For example: Why, when most cities have the goal of encouraging walking and cycling, do they focus on timing their signals to encourage driving?

We also planned to develop and investigate new technologies and practices that could be applied to traffic signals to help encourage walking and cycling like using sensors to give early green phases when pedestrians or cyclists are waiting – but there is no opposing vehicle traffic.

Unfortunately the proposal was rejected by the funding agency, but I still think it would be an excellent research project. Contact me and I can send you more information and put you in contact with my excellent team of collaborators.

References

Wiener Grantig: New Bus-Tram Stop Signs

Wiener Grantig: New Bus-Tram Stop Signs

Photos of old and new bus stop signs in Vienna

Vienna’s old bus/tram stop sign on the left and new sign on the right.

UPDATE: 14 January 2021

Of course the Wiener Linien, the public transport company that makes Vienna the world’s most livable city, has very good reasons for the new signs. (I should have known given the overall excellent quality of the Wiener Linien public information.) I just saw a video about the Wiener Linien’s new signs on LinkedIn that describes their advantages:

  • Signs designed with strong involvement of accessibility community;
  • Barrier free (type size, contrast, audio information, big red post);
  • Video displays that provide route information, schedules, transfer points, walking distances, changeable with an accessible button;
  • Information consistent with the WienMobil Vienna multimodal trip planning app

As they say at the end of the video, the new signs provide more information, more comfort and are more barrier free. Again, the Wiener Linien shows why they are the leader in all things public transport. I can always see the old signs in the wonderful public transport museum Remise Vienna transport history museum.

ORIGINAL POST

The Viennese have a reputation in Austria of being grumpy (“grantig” in German). They are also, justifiably in many cases given the city’s beautiful historic buildings, parks and public spaces, not particularly enamored with change.

After living here 13+ years maybe I’m finally becoming Viennese. I’m really grantig about the new signs being used to designate bus and tram stops (Haltestelle).

Screenshot from BusMeister game showing bus stop improvements

BusMeister game bus stop improvements panel.

The old signs are simple, low tech, instantly recognisable, useful (most have attached garbage cans as shown in the photo) and clear. Note how the old tram signs are oval and outlined in red while the bus signs are half-oval and outlined in blue. I was surprised that the game designers who created my BusMeister game actually knew this difference and incorporated the half-oval signs into the game. And, of course, the old low-tech signs are also consistent with Vienna’s historic feel.

The new signs just seem blocky (in contrast to the old signs’ simple elegance). Sure they include the real time display (which is on a separate pole at many stops with the old signs), they clearly show the stop name, and they use more up-to-date fonts, icons and corporate design. But, hey, I’ve become old fashioned.

There’s no question in my mind that the Wiener Linien (Vienna’s public transport company) is the finest public transport operator in the world, but I just wish they would keep the old signs!

Lokale Agenda Neubau Wien – Walk to (home) Work

Lokale Agenda Neubau Wien – Walk to (home) Work

Photo of Andrew Nash on Mariahilfestrasse Vienna

Andy and one of Vienna’s great pedestrian information maps on the corner of Mariahilfestrasse and Kaiserstrasse in Vienna.

This year I’ve been getting more involved in local transport planning politics – reminding me of my days as a leader in San Francisco’s environmental movement.

In October I had an idea for people to meet in the morning and take a walk together before work: Walk to (home) work. I submitted the idea to Agenda Neubau, a city district supported effort to encourage residents to get involved in neighbourhood planning (they provide some professional advisors, organisational resources and a small budget for projects), and it was accepted. We were even given a budget for small treats after the walks.

We had three walks before the latest Covid-19 lockdown meant we could not meet and walk together any longer. Now we are walking alone and sending photos to the Agenda Neubau. We’ll organise a group walk after the lockdown and have a nice breakfast together to make up for all the missed treats.

Here’s the Walk to (home) work project description on Agenda Neubau’s website. And here’s a link to the Walk to (home) work with Andy! post.

Tour Bus Confidential – Tourism in Vienna 2023

Tour Bus Confidential – Tourism in Vienna 2023

Presentation illustration showing mobile phone shopping

The Vienna Visitor Widget (VVW) would be the visitor’s one-stop tourism app: tickets, schedule, shopping and more.

I developed a proposal for improving management of tour buses in Vienna. They were looking for practical technology applications that could be used to help guide bus drivers through traffic and to parking spaces, etc. but, naturally, I took the idea further and developed a comprehensive approach to city tourism in the future. I presented the paper at the 2020 Austrian Pedestrian Association conference in October.

The main idea is that people will travel less in the future and consequently will seek more authentic and interesting experiences than standard bus tours. They will want to experience cities with the knowledge of well-informed locals and use the same (transport) infrastructure as locals as they visit tourist attractions.

Drawing of a whale shaped WC in front of Vienna's NHM

Whale shaped Wien Clean WC in front of Vienna’s NHM.

My thinking is heavily influenced by cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where riding through the city on a bike is a standard part of every tourist’s visit … even for those who wouldn’t think of riding a bike at home. The great thing is that cities can build infrastructure for residents, and it can become an attraction for tourists as it certainly is in Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

I wrote a (funny?) short story in memorandum format. The writer is from the Copenhagen tourist bureau who reports on the great things Vienna is doing for tourists. There’s a lot of information technology, much of it developed by a multi-city consortium led by Vienna, and improved walking and cycling facilities in Vienna’s future. The story is called Tour Bus Confidential – Vienna 2023 and the presentation Creating Sustainable Cities for Residents and Tourists. I also had a lot of fun making the drawings and imagining a better Vienna.

Vienna Cafes – Wiener Kaffeehäuser

Vienna Cafes – Wiener Kaffeehäuser

Photo of Cafe Sperl Vienna

Vienna is famous for its cafes and coffeehouse culture. Like many cities that developed rapidly in the late 1800s apartments in Vienna were small and people needed space. Cafes provided meals, places to meet, places to read newspapers and to be “at home”. Many cities lost this cafe culture over the years, but, as with many things in Vienna, cafes lived long enough to come back into fashion.

Traditional Viennese cafes are really more like small neighbourhood restaurants that serve (many types) coffee but also warm meals. Only recently modern cafes have been opening that focus especially on coffee quality (the actual coffee in some Viennese coffeehouses is terrible!) and a limited menu. These modern cafes resemble Starbucks, which, one must admit, brought coffeehouse culture back into fashion, at least the part about being a place to hang out.

The cafes I list below are ones I have visited and enjoyed. Everyone in Vienna has their own favourites. Cafes are listed in three groups: grand Ringstrasse cafes, historic neighbourhood cafes, and modern cafes. My key criteria are good people (although be warned, proper manners for a Viennese coffeehouse waiter borders on rudeness to customers), good food – often homemade, fair prices, history and being part of the neighbourhood.

Grand Ringstrasse Cafes

The Ringstrasse is a boulevard built on the site of Vienna’s former walls in the 1860s. It’s one of the pioneering projects in modern city planning and if you are interested in learning more about it see my Ringstrasse Walking Tour.

In the late 1800s the Ringstrasse became the place to go in Vienna. People walking, people in fine carriages, in short, people seeing and being seen. There were palaces and important businesses, cultural institutions like the State Opera and Theater, and government buildings like the national Parliament and Vienna city hall. And, of course cafes. These cafes – because they were stages for their guests – were large, elegant and bright. At their peak there were over 30 grand cafes on the Ringstrasse. Today there are only a handful but they are well worth visiting to experience this age.

All these cafes serve traditional Viennese food, have special lunch menus, make their own cakes and pastries, have long opening hours, and waiters in tuxedos. Don’t forget to make reservations – even for breakfast!

  • Cafe Pruckel – Ringstrasse at Dr. Karl Lueger Platz. Bright, large rooms, modern, great cultural program. Arty crowd. U-3 Stubenring.
  • Cafe Schwartzenburg – Ringstrasse at Schwartzenbergplatz. Traditional wood, several medium-sized rooms, nice outdoor seating. People on business lunches.
  • Cafe Landmann – Ringstrasse at Burgtheater. Traditional wood, several medium-sized rooms, nice outdoor seating, Was Freud’s regular cafe. High society.
  • Cafe Eiles – Josefstaederstrasse at Landesgerichtestrasse. OK, not actually on the Ringstrasse, but a grand cafe from the same age in the Ringstrasse redevelopment area. Large room with high ceilings, tastefully renovated in recent years. Mixed crowd including government workers. My regular cafe when we were moving here.
Photo of Cafe Pruckel Vienna

Traditional Cafes

These are neighbourhood cafes many of which are from the golden age of cafes. Of course there are hundreds of cafes in Viennese neighbourhoods, that’s the idea after all – a cafe for everyone, so these are only a few I happen to know, but they are all great.

  • Cafe Sperl – Gumpendorferstrasse. In all the guidebooks but still with local flair. Historic. Great cakes.
  • Cafe Goldegg – Goldeggerstrasse – Argentinerstrasse; U-1 Hauptbahnhof; traditional, small, homemade food, good beer.
  • Cafe Ritter – Mariahilfestrasse – Amerlingstrasse; U-3 Neubaugasse; airy, small, homemade food.
  • Cafe Braunerhof – Stallburggasse (city centre); small, historic, very traditional.
Photo of Vienna cafe interior

Modern Cafes

Modern cafes are places that serve the same functions as the original Viennese cafes (an extended living room) but in a modern setting and/or with a more modern take on food and drink (e.g., high quality coffee). Of course the grand and traditional cafes are also serving modern food and drink today, but their history makes them special.

  • Cafe Florianihof; Florianigasse 1080; Bright, clean, airy, Illy coffee, quality food.
  • Cafe Hummel; Josefstaederstrasse; Nice mix of traditional and modern; nice people, light, good food, local hang-out.
Photo of Cafe Florianihof Vienna