According to current studies, Vienna has one of the safest traffic records in the larger cities of Europe. This has been made possible by systematic efforts to improve safety for all its users, and in the last twenty-one years the accident rate involving injury has dropped by forty per cent whilst deaths have fallen by about eighty-five per cent. I know this because I have just read and translated it from the Vienna government website, specifically the section from the Magistratsabteilung 46, the department responsible for traffic and traffic safety in Vienna.
The MA 46 have six main functions: traffic organisation, traffic management and planning, roadworks, the coordination of assessment centres and garages for the Austrian MOT (the so called Pickerl), cycling and traffic safety. The safety division is also responsible for mobile speed sensors, all twenty of them, and these sensors “safely slow down the speeders of Vienna” (known locally as Raserinninen, Raser or shitbirds). Their apparent advantage is their mobility which makes them sound like they can get up and walk around. Of course, they are a primitive form of artificial intelligence, although they have yet to incorporate legs and the ability to speak, as far as I know.
The speed measuring machines play on psychology to some extent in that they are used to slow down drivers using a psychological nudge (our old friend behavioural economics at play once more). So how do they work? Well, essentially it is an electronic board on a stick, placed on a street to measure the speed of oncoming and out-going traffic. As you pass, it flashes your score although as we have subsequently learned, it can also measure other things moving at a certain speed along the street.
Although some penis-size-sensitive drivers will inevitably ignore the sensor, flashing up the speed as you pass can work as a reminder to slow down, and many cars do this (I have seen them). However, if the machine “nudges” some drivers to reduce speed and they also record everything that moves – masked men legging it down the street after burgling your house or that lady in the niqab in her motorised wheelchair – is it really a realistic picture of traffic behaviour? In any case, the speed sensors don’t just scream public admonition, they are also used to collect data to assess whether a particular street has a persistent problem or that any perceived problem simply exists in the head of an aggrieved Brit on the wrong end of Brexit (now rechristened the Vexit)
Installation and financing are the responsibility of the district which is where our council head re-enters the story (see The Cult of Liveability). And so a couple of days before the Tempoanzeige arrived, the assistant of the council leader called us to ask us where they should place it for best effect. I was tempted to say up my neighbour’s arse but in the end settled for just up the road from our house. This is how local government works in Vienna. Contact your local elected representatives and then they phone you on a Thursday afternoon to discuss strategy. I admit I found some comfort in this personal touch but I hoped they wouldn’t call me to discuss which colour to paint the public toilets.
The machine was installed in late spring for two weeks and within the first twenty-four hours it had ceased functioning. In total we had to phone the “hotline” four times to report a fault which meant, at best the sensor collected ten day’s worth of data. But we were vigilant because we knew this was our chance. It just seemed a shame that it was as reliable as a Brexit secretary.
We didn’t hear much from the council over the summer but this came as no surprise. There seems to be a rhythm to life to the city which allows for a cessation on decision making between the start of the school holidays and the first day of school in September. However, in July we received an email from the police informing us of the following results: number of cars measured – 13,000 with an average speed of 31 km/h
My first thought was, a thousand cars a day? This seemed improbable but it was the thirty-one average which proved equally mystifying. Raise concerns about speeding traffic and then the police come back with a figure essentially dismissing our fears. All I can say, it smelt bloody convenient.
Undeterred I started to crunch the numbers. To achieve an average of 31 km/h from thirteen thousand cars one would have to reasonably assume that the vast majority of vehicles had kept to the speed limit. Why? Because anyone who has driven a car will know that it is highly unlikely to drive under the limit (except perhaps on a motorway). Because this is what you are told in driving school (“keep up with the traffic”) and driving deliberately slow is a sure sign a policeman, if they spot you, will pull you over and ask if you have been to the Christmas market and had been mixing the Punsch with some Glühwine chasers
According to my calculation this meant that 97% of the traffic drove at 30 km/h (a total of 12,300 cars). But this left another 700. To reach the magic 31 average would mean they would all have to travel at 50 km/h. Given that we are talking about 700 cars (3% of vehicles) in a ten day period (the time the machine worked which I have already explained) would mean seventy cars a day were exceeding the speed limit by 67%. All this did was confirm what I knew all along. It was significant and there was a problem. The 3% figure may not sound like a lot but like all things it is relative. If you took 3% of the total number of vehicles thundering along the famous Tangente motorway in Vienna (one of Austria’s busiest roads) it would be nearly 5000 cars per day travelling at 140 km/h where the speed limit is eighty. And this would never be brushed aside as insignificant. So I emailed back the Chef Inspektor and explained my thinking. The response was textbook institutional buck passing: responsibility now rested with the MA 46 not the police, although they promised further “Kontrollen” (German for doing bugger all).
The summer passed and in early September we were told by the council of the impending meeting of the district traffic commission. A week later we were informed of the result. Based on their findings they saw no reason to do anything except, as we had already been told, ensure regular police controls and place another 30 km/h traffic sign on the street. Naturally, we were furious. So we emailed back and again explained the calculations concerning the average and asked for the minutes of the meeting to see what was discussed and how their decision was made. The reply came back informing us there were no minutes. So we asked for the report sent from the Magistrat (MA 46) which must have been the basis for the eventual decision of the traffic commission. All they sent back were the same figures as the police with the number of cars and the average. Twice more we requested the “real” paperwork and not just the numbers, but by the second time the council leader’s assistant had stopped replying to our mails. But one new figure was included which the police neglected to tell us: the “weighted” average speed figure of 37 km/h seemingly calculated to exclude anything which would artificially distort the stats (bikes, vigorous joggers, people on skateboards, that kind of thing) and thus meaning the number of cars exceeding the limit was actually much higher.
Joining the SPÖ was a flirtation with activism to some extent. Not only to see if membership brought any real benefits, but also to test the local guys to see if they could “fix” things. And in doing so I could then decide whether I could fully commit to the cause or I was simply wasting my time sitting in a pensioner’s recreation centre once a month listening to party members go on about the union negotiations (always a fix and a charade) whilst drinking warm beer from a can. In fact, the answer came more swiftly than I imagined as it was clear through my chats with the SPÖ, that their approach to traffic policy was more about petrol than people. Allowing motorists to drive to work is good for local business and jobs and they didin’t want to piss off the car lobby for my district (a district incidentally with the worst modal split of private car use versus public transport take up in Vienna).
And so I wrote back to the council leader expressing my exasperation, disappointment and continued frustration. And I included my party membership card telling him to return it when he sought fit to do something meaningful. Most probably a futile gesture but one that came with the warning that there were now three people in this house who could no longer vote red until the situation improved.
All in all, this whole sorry episode has confirmed two important lessons: first, life quality is a complicated beast and that underneath the shiny surface there are the little things which impact on local residents far from the shiny Christmas markets and the chocolate box temptations of the inner city. Second, my dalliance with the council has shown something which I have suspected for long time: attitudes to cars and driving, even in the number one city, are more factious than the current British parliament.
For example, a couple of weeks ago there was another story about the battle for parking places in some more downtown districts where businesses can use so called Anrainerplätz (resident parking) at the weekends (the Chamber of commerce are clapping their hands, the district chiefs cancelling the Christmas cards). Alternatively, there was the idea from the new Green party chief who once again raised the deeply contentious issue of a city Maut (congestion charge) with her quite valid claim that as thousands of commuters travel in to Vienna everyday from Lower Austria and beyond, these motorists should bear the cost (by cost I think she means environmental and social). But instead all we get are the petrol-headed twits and their political backers shouting something along the lines of an attack on hard-pressed motorists and personal freedom. Well, let me tell you guys, yes it is. But one person’s freedom will always overlap or contravene another person’s freedom to live without such a menace. And besides, why should the combustion engine be elevated above communities?
I have now realised trying to get the council to do something about the traffic is pointless (for now). I could writer another letter but they will probably ignore it. Call the police repeatedly? Don’t worry Mr Barratt we will make regular patrols. I am not usually one for a protracted fight and I have never seen myself as the neighbourhood vigilante. But the evident failure of my “activism” is jarring especially as I require a lot of energy and momentum to build before I choose to act. Yet, in truth, the experience has left me deflated and cynical (whereas before I was a bouncier version of Tigger) and it is tempting just to sigh a bit longer than usual, extend two fingers and then have a pint.
Redress is elusive but humanity has a strong desire to be in control or at least entertain the illusion of being in control. And so as an antidote to these frustrations I have turned my back on politics for the time being and instead embraced another form of refuse: yes, picking up litter (top three chart rundown: energy drink cans, cigarette packets and tissues). In doing so, I hope to reframe the notion of failure. But more crucially it is also an exercise in individual power. It costs me nothing except time but proves I can influence my environment in the tiniest of ways without the need to bed-down with the SPÖ dullards, write letters or raise the cavalry. I still see and hear the cars speeding outside my house but this simple act of personal liberation, if I can call it that, feels like what it is: a Stinkfinger to the council leader and his smirking, pointless face.
© 2018 RJ Barratt