Thursday, 31 July 2014

Innsbruck, Austria - Sophistication in the Alps

After Vienna, I travelled three hours by train to the smaller city of Innsbruck in the Austrian Alps. I enjoyed two melanges on the train, the traditional Viennese coffee that is the regular cup of expresso with a milk foam of sorts poured on top. I had been warned that this was a specifically Viennese drink and would be cut off from it in most other places even within Austria. I went for the second cup and arrived in Innsbruck a bit more jittery and sweaty than normal.

Train-travel sophistication. A cup of melange at 240km/h:

A city of some 120,000 people, Innsbruck is the smallest city since Arras, France I have stayed in - a pleasant change from the big cities of the past few weeks.

The city sits in a very low valley at an altitude of some 500m. The mountain ranges on all sides aren't particularly tall by Canadian Rocky standards, however they have almost twice the prominence (look bigger) than the mountains around Canmore, Alberta because the valley is so much lower. They are quite striking - but often shrouded by cloud.

Think of Innsbruck as much like Canmore, but with no pick-up trucks, no million dollar McMansions and a public transit system that rivals Vancouver:

A problem soon emerges: due to the size of the city, I vastly underestimated the ease of finding a hostel without a reservation. A few tries at ones near the central station were greeted with laughter, not a good sign for the wayward  traveller. I walked nearly 30 minutes to the edge of the city to find a hostel that was full as well. I met two Spainards in the same situation and between the the three of us we convinced the staff to allow us to convert the luggage room into a temporary dorm for a paltry (or expensive depending on how you look at it) 12€ / night. Problem solved!

The view from the hostel makes it all worth it:

After a good nights rest - a debatable fact due to being forced to eat dinner with my new Spanish friends at the "regular" 11pm followed by a lengthy argument about which type of bears are the best with some Koreans (hint stop what you are doing and google Korean Bears, they are the best) - I was ready to tackle the mountains the following morning.

This being the Alps, most of my choices allowed easy cable car access to aid my decent. Again, Europe doesn't know how to do anything without sophistication.

I chose to tackle the Hafelekarspitze, a 2,300m mountain to the north highly visible from Innbruck.

Here it is from the bottom. You may just be able to make out a small white chalet three-quarters of the way up the mountain, that is a cable car stop:

Access to the base of the climb is granted from the centre of the city by an underground funicular railway - specially designed to handle steep slopes - that is an impressive work of engineering and architecture for a city the size of Red Deer. Red Deer barely knows what a bike-lane is, let alone a tram and funicular- filled rapid transit utopia like Innsbruck. Perhaps I'll finish slamming Red Deer in a future post.

A brisk four hour walk led me to the top just as the clouds and mists parted:


To the north:

An excellent coffee at the summit cafe (see sophistication) and I was down by a very expensive cable car ride of 19€. No discount for the 1,400m I climbed to get here unfortunately:

Innsbruck is quite sleepy as one would expect. I used the tram to get around, a brilliant idea in every city. I have seen few that are better setup than Innsbruck's due to it's simplicity.

Take the stations for starters. Simple, effective and cheap. Nothing more than a next stop time display, seats and a ticket machine. The design shares the stop with buses and is the only part of the network that prohibits cars from driving on the tracks:

It's the small details that set it apart. One thing is the off-board ticket machines. 1.60€ for a 90-minute ticket while 2€ if you buy from the driver on-board. It encourages efficiency and makes all but the most clueless tourists buy from the machine instead of the driver, allowing her to continue driving, speeding the journey up dramatically. Think how much faster taking the bus in Calgary would be if everyone could board at any door, and the ticket prices encourage you to buy off the vehicle allowing the driver to proceed to the next stop very quickly instead of hand out transfers. Currently there is no discount of buying off vehicle in Calgary, nor is all door boarding allowed, creating unnecessary long queues to jam into the single door on front and each pay the driver individually. 

The trams are about half the size of a three-car LRT in Calgary, but hold substantially more people than even an articulated bus. The have next stop information displays, live maps and notifications on which side the tram's doors will open at the next station. A view inside the tram:

The 30 minute walk from the central station to the hostel takes 7 minutes on the tram - and the vehicle never exceeds 30 - 40 km/h. It is able to achieve this by using these low cost, efficiency improvements everywhere it can, rather than the traditional and expensive way of separating the transit line from everything else. It is also quiet enough that it runs down narrow residential streets and navigates tight turns of the inner city as easy as any bus, giving it much better access to where people actually live than a station built in a freeway median like many in Calgary.

The tram arrived every 5-10 minutes throughout the day and evening, providing rapid transit to this tiny city. As if that wasn't enough night service is provided. Here is a excerpt from the transit company's website:

"Round-the-clock operations for you:

For all those who are on the move through the night or who have late work shifts, there is an IVB night service. The Nightliner, the ASTI telephone group taxi and the Women’s Nighttime Taxi bring you home quickly, safely and inexpensively, no matter what the hour."

Imagine any transit organization that puts that much effort and focus on individuals of all demographics and needs; not just the regular 9-5 crowd.

Sophistication. In a city the size of Red Deer. Amazing.

Now I won't have to slam Red Deer in a future post. 

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