On board a suburban commuter train at Vienna Prater Station

After All: Wandering lost and nostalgic in the world’s most liveable city

Image credit: Dreamstime

Vitali fails to find the Danube in Vienna, despite the Austrian capital’s state-of-the-art public transport and its all-permeating spirit of no-hassle.

Like the alcoholic protagonist of V Yerofeev’s famous novella ‘Moscow-Petushki’ (‘Moscow Stations’) who, having wandered around central Moscow for years, could never find the Kremlin, I had been unable – no matter how hard I tried – to spot the Danube while in Vienna last December.

What’s more, unlike the hapless Yerofeev’s anti-hero, I was perfectly sober! Was the Danube, Europe’s main water artery, avoiding me? I don’t think so. The real reason for my failure was that the wide and spotlessly clean streets of Austria’s capital contained too many distractions to leave an inquisitive pedestrian much river-spotting time.

I was in Vienna for the Future of Transportation World Conference. There could be no better venue for that kind of gathering – and by that I do not mean the spectacular Vienna Messe Conference Centre, but the city itself – recognised by several reputable surveys as the world’s most liveable, with excellent public transport as one of the main criteria.

I take an interest in those surveys, probably because I used to live in a city that repeatedly topped the rankings: Melbourne, Australia. In all the surveys’ history, Melbourne was by far the most frequent winner of the world’s most liveable city title, with Vancouver and Seattle as runners up. Yet in recent years, much to everyone’s surprise, Vienna overtook them all.

To better understand how ‘liveability’ is defined, let’s have a quick survey of some of those annual surveys.

The most prestigious is probably the one conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which routinely assesses 140 cities for their stability (safety), healthcare, culture, education, environment and infrastructure, including transport. Between 2011 and 2015, Vienna was ranked second behind Melbourne, but in both 2018 and 2019 the Austrian capital came first.

For the sake of comparison, let us note that in the last year’s survey Paris took 25th place and London 48th. Damascus, the capital of war-torn Syria, came last for the seventh time in a row.

American HR and financial services firm Mercer releases its own highly regarded annual city ranking, with the main criteria being safety, education, health­care, culture, environment, public transport, access to goods and services, hygiene and economic stability. The Mercer Quality of Living Survey has ranked Vienna first for ten consecutive years.

Two other notable rankings – Monocle’s Quality of Life and Deutsche Bank Liveability – have also listed Vienna in their top five during the last several years.

How do you know that you reside in the world’s most liveable city? The Viennese would probably have their own answers, but looking back at my Melbourne experience, I could name the following: clean air, broad streets, plentiful shops, affordable and comfortable housing, excellent healthcare, no traffic jams, no visible poverty, little crime, no slums, no homeless people. Indeed, in all my years in Melbourne, I saw rough sleepers only once or twice, and they were clearly just sleeping off a boozy night.

How about heat waves, you may ask in the aftermath of the recent Australian bushfires? Well, unfortunately (or, maybe, fortunately for some), climate was not a defining criterion in any of the surveys.

Surely, to spot such long ​lasting indicators as wellbeing and crime levels, one has to reside in a city more or less permanently. There weren’t a lot of boxes therefore that I was able to tick off while in Vienna, with most of my time spent inside the spacious auditoriums and endless corridors of the conference centre. But I did manage to take some short walks – not in the tourist-ridden city centre but in the residential parts of Vienna Prater, not far from my hotel. And if inside the Messe the talk was mostly about the future of transport, about autonomous, electric and vertical-​flight vehicles, it was all peaceful and down-to-earth in the clean and quiet baroque-style streets and lanes. To me, the area, with its merrily chirping sparrows and bleak satin skies reminiscent of my Ukrainian childhood, felt nostalgically East European.  

Strolling unhurriedly under a timid, almost reluctant, snowfall, I saw groups of council workers in green uniforms mulching and wrapping up trees for winter, then sweeping the already thoroughly swept-up ground spotless. Trams and buses, mostly electric, rolled past – frequent, silent and half-empty. Near the entrance to the Metro station there stood a capacious wooden crate labelled ‘Lost Property’ in English. It must have been intended for the visitors, for it is surely unlikely the punctilious locals would lose anything in their beautiful Vienna, which has changed so much since 1980, when British TV presenter Alan Whicker labelled it “a city with a streak of gentle hopelessness”.  

Despite failing to find the Danube, I did discover (at the conference and beyond) that the city’s Wiener Linien public transport network operates five underground, 29 tram and 127 bus lines; that tickets can be bought every­where, including tobacconists (until November, Vienna was the last European capital that allowed smoking in restaurants and bars), and by smartphone, which made it possible to buy a ticket for another person (as a Vienna friend kindly did for me) through the online ticket shop. Well, if there’s a motto for a highly liveable city anywhere in the world, it should probably read 'No Hassle'!

The accessibility of the transport system is also among the world’s best, while blind and visually impaired people can get help from the special machines at stations and tram stops that offer tactile maps and voice output.

At the conference, I learned about PTV Optima’s real-time traffic-management software offering detailed forecasts for the entire Wiener Linien for up to one hour, helping operators and advance planners to save time and to reduce carbon emissions. To quote the firm’s brochure, “Vienna’s citizens benefit from a high quality of life. They spend less time stuck in traffic or searching for a less congested route.” What I liked most was the expression “Vienna’s citizens”, as if Vienna were indeed a separate country issuing its own highly coveted passports. I would have loved to have one! 

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