Wisdom of Trams

As Street Cars Return to US Cities, Vienna Risks Letting Theirs Slip Away

In the United States, streetcars are making a comeback. In over 40 cities from Portland, Oregon to Cincinnati, Denver Houston, Charlotte, North Carolina, Pittsburg and Philadelphia, abandoned lines have been reactivated and in a number of cases, new systems begun.

“They serve to coalesce a neighborhood,” said Jim Greabner, chairman of the Public Transportation Association’s streetcar and vintage trolley committee. “That’s very evident in places like San Francisco, which never got rid of its system.”

Which is also, of course true of Vienna, which could be considered a model for its efficient and multi-layered public transportation system that has long been the envy of cities around the world.

Thus it seems particularly ironic that Vienna is dismantling parts of its streetcar system, thinking that a subway will do just as well.

The Viennese public clearly doesn’t agree.

When the Vienna Transit Authority (Wienerlinien) announced it would close down the 21 Tramline crossing the 2nd District from Schwedenplatz to Handelskai, it unleashed a public outcry. There were demonstrations, organized petitions and other citizen action. Still in mid March with the opening of the U2 subway extension, the line was shut down.

There had been indications that a compromise might be in the works – perhaps keeping the route open, at least as far as Praterstern – but by the end of June, the deal was off. By June 20, an agreement by the four leading parties – The Greens, the ÖVP, the FPÖ and the SPÖ, by far the dominant party – for a district-wide petition had been abandoned.

“Of course, the opinions of the voters are important to us,” District representative Gerhard Kubik said, “but we must look at the larger view.”  The service was considered a duplication of the new subway line, the argument went, and thus no longer needed.

“It is not defensible to continue to operate a tram line parallel with a subway line,” said Deputy Mayor Renate Brauner in a public statement, explaining that it was “fundamentally an economic decision” in the interests of business.

Which nobody actually believed. On being pressed, she admitted that there was actually no net savings; the money would simply be redirected to other uses.  The promised expanded bus lines were not comparable and residents cite a range of negative consequences, including loss of business to shops, cafes and restaurants along the route.

“This is completely predictable,” said Alex Kummer, a former resident of the neighborhood. “We saw this on Praterstrasse, when the U-Bahn went in there. They said it would be the making of the street, but it was just the opposite. As soon as you take people off the street and put them underground, the connection is lost. And whatever they say, busses are just not the same.”

Which brings us back to the students of city planning in the United States. Struggling in a world where cities had been abandoned, they have rediscovered the wisdom of an easy-on, easy-off transit system ambling through the neighborhoods as a way to revive the connections between people and the communities they live in.

Vienna has always known this; it seems a shame that they should be working so hard at forgetting it now.

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