Encouraging pedestrian travel to tramway stations through appropriate urban planning: an experience in Liberec (Czech Republic)

Nacima Baron, 2014

The Czech Republic: transport and urban planning in transition

In the Czech Republic, the modal split in the overall mobility of people has changed over the last few decades, and the importance of public transport has tended to decline. While in France the private car, which has long been dominant, is now being reconsidered, Czech public transport, which was very important during the Soviet era, is experiencing a marked decline. The Czechs, like other Central European peoples, have a devalued view of public transport and turned en masse to the private car as soon as it became available after the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Already in the era of the planned economy, Czechoslovakia’s use of public transport was more a necessity than a choice. The mass transport was uncomfortable and had a bad image, but people could live with it because there was no alternative. Heavy public transport networks such as streetcars and trolleys served the multi-family housing areas more or less imperfectly. Pedestrian access to stations was often poor. The only positive aspect was that housing was often clustered and the distance between the dwelling and the transit station was of the order of a few hundred meters.

The change of political regime brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the situation. The transition to a market economy and the sharp increase in purchasing power accompanied the decline of public transport. Poor access to public transport reinforced the other political and economic arguments for massive reliance on the car. And municipal officials in large Czech cities, planning new suburban areas, have very little interest in the issue of public transport accessibility.

1. tram-oriented urban planning at the district level

This paper examines the potential for active modes, walking and cycling, to be developed between the dense neighbourhoods of a medium-sized North Bohemian city and its tramway lines. This city, Liberec, counts today 100 000 inhabitants, it has a strong industrial tradition and benefits from an old tramway network (launched since 1900) which has several branches. With the arrival of the « all-car » era, roads were redeveloped and tramway lines were destroyed, but two lines were nevertheless preserved, and these provide 40% of public transport in the city. Two large apartment blocks have been built around these two lines (Yuri Gagarin and Vratislavice). A third multi-family district (Rochlice) is also under construction around a new streetcar line. These three points offer interesting characteristics for thinking about the renewal of active modes in the post-Soviet context. There are indeed favorable urban planning criteria, such as density and a certain level of mix - due to a concentration of shops and services near the station, which is itself conveniently located in the middle of the neighborhood.

On the ground, the surveys show pedestrian-friendly paths between buildings and streetcar stations that are separated from other modes of transport. There is also urban lighting designed for pedestrians, pedestrian crossings in the immediate vicinity of the station, and neighborhood maps along the routes indicating the location of the station (although they are old and in poor condition).

However, these neighborhoods are marked by the stigma of history and by the collectivist legacy. The functional mix is still limited to small daily services and shops. There are important gaps in the landscape treatment of the buildings and public space, little urban furniture, few supports for the legibility and aesthetics of the space. In addition, the car has proliferated and if, in the past, the surroundings of buildings were calm urban spaces, the nuisance and insecurity of pedestrians have increased. Nowadays, pedestrians in these public spaces are much more exposed to the risk of encountering motorized traffic, while cars occupy the old lanes and other pedestrian spaces, due to the lack of space provided for the former. These circumstances constitute a hindrance to walking in these urban areas.

It is for these reasons that these districts of collective housing risk to lose their attractiveness in the eyes of the inhabitants today. In this respect, the municipality of Liberec is considering a program of renovation, reconstruction of buildings and redevelopment of public spaces. There are risks that these programs are too limited to the urbanistic dimension and do not take into account active mobility. If public spaces are redesigned around a shopping center or a school, and if new parking spaces are created, while the access to the tramway station « remains as it is », it is likely that active and collective mobility will further decrease. A counter-example illustrates this approach. In the recently built Nová Ruda housing estate, apart from the density, we cannot see any consideration of the proximity of the tramway and the valorisation of the tramway service in the planning. The buildings and the entire neighborhood literally turn their backs on the streetcar station, even though it is very close. Instead, authorities should use renewal programs to stimulate demand for transit and not let all the customers leave for the car.

2. Ideal » pedestrian access to a streetcar station: between the ideal and the realities on the ground

There are two main groups of urban variables that encourage the use of public transport. The first group relates to the type of land use and the arrangement of urban functions. The second group relates to the conditions of pedestrian accessibility to tramway stations. For this second group of variables, the assumption is that «  if the tramway is to be attractive to its passengers, it must be accessible on foot from its neighbourhood by the shortest, safest and most comfortable route, and the most comprehensible and easy to orientate ». From this, the three elements of the field observation follow: the pedestrian network, road safety and comfort, and the aesthetics and legibility of pedestrian routes.

Proposed list of urban variables to be considered in the context of « transit-oriented urbanism ». (Source : Nacima Baron)