Vienna: Do the Wires Ruin It?

Next time someone tells you that a light rail or streetcar or trolleybus would ruin the beautiful streetscape with their overhead wires, show them a picture of Vienna, where I am now.

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This isn’t a transit street.  Those objects hanging over the street are streetlights, and virtually every street has them. Note that there are no lightpoles — a good thing in some cases because the sidewalks can be very narrow.
Even more than most European cities, architecture and streetscape are a pretty essential part of which Vienna is famous for.  So if wires ruined a streetscape, you’d expect Vienna to be, well, ruined.
When you have these lights plus a streetcar with its power source, you get this look:
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In case it’s not completely clear, the wires carrying the lights are a meter or two above the heavier wire for the streetcar.  In a way, having two layers of wires seems a little more obstrusive than just having a whole lot of wires at one layer — e.g. under a switch in a trolleybus system.  But it’s not a huge difference, and the point is, Vienna is definitely getting by.  People even photograph the streetscape, and then eat in a restaurant, and then go spend money in the shops, as though they don’t even notice all those horrible wires.
How horrible are wires over a street, anyway?
UPDATE:  Mike makes an intriguing suggestion:

I think it depends a bit on the variety of architecture on the street. In cities like Vienna and Paris most of the wired streets have pretty uniform building heights, and the wires can look like they’re part of the general grid.

Places with less uniformity in height or street width start looking messier with wires because your eye is drawn to the breaks in space. There were places in Italy with medieval towers spaced differently to the grid where I noticed the cables were like untidy spider webs.

Yes, my impression is that street-faces of typical Viennese buildings are visually interesting at the top and bottom — i.e. roof-lines and street entrances — but pretty monotonous on all the floors in between — So maybe the wires are OK because when we look in that direction we’re not trying to read any other complexity, such as varieties in buiding height or style from one building to the next.  What do you think?  (UPDATE: More pictures here.)

10 Responses to Vienna: Do the Wires Ruin It?

  1. Mike August 23, 2009 at 7:35 pm #

    I think it depends a bit on the variety of architecture on the street. In cities like Vienna and Paris most of the wired streets have pretty uniform building heights, and the wires can look like they’re part of the general grid.
    Places with less uniformity in height or street width start looking messier with wires because your eye is drawn to the breaks in space. There were places in Italy with medieval towers spaced differently to the grid where I noticed the cables were like untidy spider webs.

  2. J.D. Hammond August 24, 2009 at 6:47 am #

    Wow, now I really want to go to Vienna.
    That’s all I had to say. I know it’s not a lot. Sorry. 😐

  3. Ed O. August 24, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    I think Mike’s explanation is a good one. A lot of European urban streets are uniformly lined with 5/6 storey buildings, so that tram wires, when viewed from street level, would tend to have buildings as background rather than blue sky. If the wiring is as thin, simple and minimal as possible, it would tend to disappear in these types of streetscapes rather than ruin them. Large street trees would also have the same effect of making the wires less visible. The difficult situations would be complex junctions at large intersections or open squares where a lot of care would need to be taken.
    In Melbourne, outside the city centre and major shopping streets, trams run in suburban areas characterised by one or two storey buildings, where tram wires are often seen against the blue sky, above the roof/parapet lines of surrounding buildings. It’s in the suburban areas where the spiders’ webs at intersections and junctions are particularly noticeable hanging in the sky, and where the biggest visual impacts are probably experienced.
    I’d say that instead of tram wires necessarily ruining European urban streetscapes, the streetscapes themselves can tolerate a bit of wiring without major visual impact provided that every effort is made to install the most simple and unobtrusive wiring systems.

  4. Louis Haywood August 24, 2009 at 4:56 pm #

    I think that the streetcar- and trollybus-wire culprit story is BS. Many, many of the greatest streetscapes in the world feature wires. Or, at least they feature streetcars. I live in New Orleans and I never hear anyone complaining about the streetcar wires on St. Charles, Carrollton, and Canal Street. It’s just not a part of conversation. I lived In Boston for four years, I never once heard of a complaint over Green Line wires, or of trolleybus wires in Cambridge and Waverly. I also never heard any gripes in Paris over Tramway wires, or RER wires, or TGV cantenaries. The complaint is nonsense, because the vehicles are such an aesthetic ASSET to the streetscape, it far outweighs the wires.

  5. Teresa August 25, 2009 at 10:31 am #

    Interesting, Jarrett. How long have these wires been in place, do you know? I can’t remember them from when I was there long long time ago, but then maybe as you pointed out, I just didn’t notice them, didn’t register them as a big obstruction.
    T.

  6. Tessa August 31, 2009 at 11:19 pm #

    As weird as it might sound, I love wires. I grew up in Vancouver and because of the trolleybuses there parts of the City are covered in a blanket of wires, and it has a way of feeling more urban, more intimite with something over top, and it also shows directly where the energy for your ride is coming from, rather than some distant gas station. I also like the look of them in the City and against buildings, the utilitarian feel of it all. Probably the same reason I love how Vancouver hasn’t buried its utilities through most of the downtown, and still runs power and telephone lines through alleyways on wooden polls. I find them beautiful.

  7. Max Headway September 1, 2009 at 5:22 am #

    I don’t mind overhead wires either. Seeing them in Seattle, WA reminded me of my early childhood in Auckland, New Zealand (where trolleybuses were discontinued in 1980).

  8. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org September 7, 2009 at 12:57 pm #

    I don’t know the history of streetlighting in Vienna, but given the general history of streetcars I expect they’ve been there for at least a century.
    Frankly, I only noticed the streetlights because I was thinking professionally about overhead wires. I bet they were there when you were there, and you didn’t register them at all. If I weren’t interested in urban infrastructure I wouldn’t have noticed them either.

  9. Carl August 15, 2010 at 8:01 am #

    There are two other factors about wires for streetcars. One is whether it is catenary – since that requires two cables, including often a thicker, heavier one to carry the straight cable which actually contacts the pantograph, as well as vertical connections between then. While catenary is helpful and maybe necessary for high speed operation, perhaps on a reserved right of way, it is not necessary for lower speed operation such as on city streets or historic districts. But in USA it seems that most new systems assume catenary. If we can mix the single cables as shown in Vienna, perhaps some of the opposition will go away.
    The second is how the cable is hung. Often in the USA we are using massive ugly heavy dedicated poles. If instead we allow for connection to buildings and to light poles, there can be much less hardware needed, and what hardware there is can be made more decorative.
    The place where this is really playing out is Washington DC. It would be most helpful if they could build a demonstration segment with lightweight wire and attractive poles and building connections, and maybe some of the emotional opposition would be tempered.

  10. Jonathan September 8, 2010 at 2:34 pm #

    I was in Vienna yesterday and returned to Linz which also has wires. In the normal run of things I don’t mind them. They only time they bother me is when I’m taking a photograph of a streetscape and wish the wires were not in the photo. That said the true is the same of lamposts in the UK. Of course these days if it’s really a problem I just photoshop them out. In fact I learnt that technique in a photoshop book that used a town in California with wires. The mayors office wanted to see what the place would like if they got rid of the electrical, telegraph and street lighting cables.