Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
In an effort to cut vehicle emissions and boost public transportation, Austria’s capital will reward car-free travel with free access to museums and concerts.
Leave your car at home and we’ll let you visit a museum or theater for free. That’s the offer from the city of Vienna to those who travel on foot, bike, or public transit. Starting as a pilot project next month, Vienna’s “Culture Token” will track users’ movements—and their chosen mode of transit—across the city via an app. For each car-free kilometer the user travels, the app stores up credits. Once the user has stored up 20 kilograms of carbon savings—possible with about two weeks of car-free commuting—they get a token they can exchange for a ticket to various arts venues, including Vienna’s most respected concert hall, theater, and contemporary art venue.
There's no limit to the number of tokens that can be accrued by users, who will initially number 1,000 as a test for a possible wider roll-out in the autumn. But once each app account has gathered five tokens, each participant will have to use one before earning more.
Vienna isn’t alone in offering a diverse menu of sweeteners to entice people away from their cars. As CityLab has previously reported, free or reduced-price transit tickets have been offered to people doing such unlikely things as performing squats in Moscow (a Sochi Olympics-era promotion), and carrying avocados in Britain (a 2018 Virgin Trains deal that offered free trips-for-produce). Many of these schemes are intentionally short-lived, intended to encourage the idea of public transit as much as to push for a longer term modal shift.
Some projects, however, have more longevity. In the Indonesian city of Surabaya for example, a program that exchanges bus tickets for plastic collected from the streets is in its second year; it provides rides to as 16,000 passengers a week. This way, Surabayan commuters cut their travel costs while the city saves funds on refuse collection.
Vienna’s new ride-for-culture scheme doesn’t, it should be admitted, offer quite the same bonanza for users. Many of the city’s cultural activities are already state subsidized and fairly affordable, and its most famous—the renowned State Opera—isn’t part of the program. It’s also unclear just how large the expanded pool of users would be. Still, promoting greener mobility habits has clear advantages, even in a city that has been succeeding in growing its transit ridership. The scheme doesn’t just offer bonuses for people who avoid cars. It also makes the process of switching to lower-carbon modes more enjoyable—and more easily measured. All those kilos of CO2 are magically transformed into cultural satisfaction.