Vienna: Life Without Loops

Vienna offers a really nice example of the perils of short downtown shuttles in general, and loops in particular.

If any city clearly needed a downtown loop transit service, it’s Vienna.  The city’s most important street is the Ringstrasse, a major processional street — much like a Parisian boulevard in feel — that makes an almost-complete loop around the old core of the city.  A boulevard along the river completes the circle.
On Google Earth, it jumps right out at you.  On this shot of central Vienna (click to enlarge) note the river cutting across the northeast corner of the image.  Where the river exits the image on the north, you can see a very wide street taking off to the southwest, then making a series of eastward and northward bends to come back to the river.  That’s it.   The loop is about one mile (1.4 km) in diameter.
Vienna ring google
If something really matters in Vienna, it’s on the Ringstrasse.  On this loop you’ll find the city government, a huge range of museums, the national libraries, the national parliament, the most important ministries, the major university, and a lot of prestigious corporate addresses.
Inside the Ringstrasse is the old inner city.  While it’s a prestigious address too, it’s also the city’s medieval core.  Its narrow, crooked streets make great pedestrian spaces but couldn’t support a big, high-traffic destination, even if you could get approval to build anything in such a historically sensitive place.  So while the center isn’t empty, the Ringstrasse does correspond to a ring-shaped pattern of major activity, with somewhat lower but still strong density in the middle.
I’ve worked in a lot of downtowns, and seen a lot of downtown shuttles; I’ve never seen a geography where a downtown loop was more obviously justified.  Everyone understands the Ringstrasse.  So much important stuff is on it.  Surely, whatever else you do, you should have a really frequent service just looping the Ringstrasse in both directions, so people can get from any major destination on it to any other.  But that’s not what they do.
Here’s the Vienna rail rapid transit network again, with the Ringstrasse-enclosed area shaded in yellow.

Vienna net loop shaded

Now look at the network again without the shading.  The red arrows remind you of the Ringstrasse streets.
Vienna net no arrows
There’s continuous subway under the whole thing, but it’s two different lines.  The green line comes in from way out the west, swings around the east side of the Ringstrasse and heads out again to the northwest.  The purple line, though incomplete, is obviously designed to grow into the same shape on the other side, with two eastern branches connected via the west side of the Ringstrasse loop. Meanwhile, two other lines (red and orange in this drawing) create a cross pattern inside the ring, providing another alternative for travel between opposite sides of it.
If you were focused on the Ringstrasse, you wouldn’t do it this way.  But what Vienna does meets perhaps 80% of the Ringstrasse circulation market with lines that need to run through the central city anyway.  That’s always the key: If you have a downtown circulation need, the first step should always be to figure out how to use services that are already there, rather than imagining new ones because those services can’t be exactly what you’d like.
Now what’s really interesting, and beyond my ability to draw for you right now, is that the streetcar system on the surface is doing a very similar pattern: there’s a continuous loop of streetcar trackage, but different lines cover the eastern and western sides of it, connecting with each other at the north and south ends just like the subway does.  I’m less sure I understand why there’s no continuous Ringstrasse streetcar, but I do think this a good example of how even a city that’s built on a loop, and whose most important street is a loop, doesn’t necessarily need transit that runs in loops.
Because even if our city is loop-shaped, our desire for travel is not.

8 Responses to Vienna: Life Without Loops

  1. Fidelius Krammel September 1, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    You can´t know this as a visitor, the circular tram lines, the famous lines 1 and 2 have actually been changed to radial/tangential lines only about 2 yrs ago. They now approach the city now from the periphery, follow part of Ringstrasse and leave it again for a Terminus in the outskirts.
    Funny, I came here through your comment an Portlands new bikeways! I´m a cycling advocate here in Vienna. I see Your in Berlin now already, too bad. It would have been interesting to meet up.
    Send You an email too.

  2. Max Headway September 1, 2009 at 8:06 pm #

    “If you have a downtown circulation need, the first step should always be to figure out how to use services that are already there”
    One example in Brisbane is the Spring Hill Loop (formerly route 323), which connects downtown with the neighbourhood immediately to its north. Never mind that the 321 departs from the same stop, cuts through Spring Hill, and runs to a major hospital! Within the downtown itself, several “City Gardens” routes run to outer suburbs, but have grossly inadequate service levels, whilst a free loop covers similar territory every 10 minutes on weekdays.

  3. Brent September 1, 2009 at 9:21 pm #

    Vienna’s network layout has an operational advantage for riders: many locations on the Ringstrasse can be accessed without a transfer (i.e. trips starting on the green or purple lines), and all trips (other than those using the brown line) can be made with at most one transfer. With a ring line, a greater proportion of trips would require a transfer.
    The Wikipedia article has a good geographic-based map that illustrates the ring function nicely, for those that prefer them over schematic diagrams.

  4. Brent September 1, 2009 at 9:23 pm #

    By the way, I have to wonder if some of the enthusiasm for downtown transit loops is coming from people that are more familiar with downtown highway loops and don’t realize that transit routes are inherently different from highways.

  5. Andy Nash September 2, 2009 at 12:06 am #

    The Ringstrasse was the location of Vienna’s city walls and the open space in front of them. Unlike many European cities that open space was fairly undeveloped – the army was quite powerful – and so when Vienna finally decided to tear down the walls in the late 1850s there was lots of room available for new construction. Almost all the buildings on the Ring were built within 30 years, at pretty much the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
    The U-2 line is interesting, and somewhat problematic, because it was originally an underground streetcar line that was converted to a metro. This means that stop spacing is not ideal and several stations have separate entrances for different directions of travel. But, generally speaking it’s a quite effective line. The recent extension makes it even better.
    Vienna’s a great city to visit and the public transport is quite excellent.

  6. Alon Levy September 2, 2009 at 1:59 am #

    For larger loops than the Ringstrasse, circular lines are often at their best when they facilitate transfers. Line 5 of the Moscow Metro, a ring 19.4 km in length, was built as a way of relieving the downtown transfer stations. I don’t know the history of Berlin’s Ringbahn and Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, but both work as circulators and as ways of getting people from suburb to suburb, and are their cities’ rail systems’ busiest lines.

  7. Daniel Sparing September 11, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    As Fidelius already mentioned, Vienna did have a circular tram line 1/2.
    (This numbering is pretty similar to the Berlin S-Bahn S41/42, and plenty of metro networks also have circle lines, as in Glasgow, London, Moscow or Beijing.)
    Many were questioning if it were a good idea to stop the ring tram, and, well, today the Ring Tram is back as a yellow tourist attraction with special fares.

  8. Nathanael September 15, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    *Tracks* structured in a loop seem to be often more useful than *routes* structured in a loop.
    Consider, for instance, the Chicago, um, Loop. There are no full looping services except on special occasions (when other lines are shut down); but the lines pass around or through the loop on their way to their distant destinations.
    The Circle Line in London is an interesting example, too; Circle services are the first to get cut if there are any operational problems, but the Metropolitan and District Lines continue to use the tracks so that you can make a full loop with at most one transfer.
    Melbourne found that looping the tracks benefited its suburban trains, and so did Sydney.
    I can probably think of effective one-way streetcar loop examples with a little thought, too. I think the crucial point is that downtown loops of track act as a sort of distributed “center station” for suburban lines, where one monumental center station would have been unbuildable, and the local circulator function is just gravy.