Advice from Warsaw, on its way to becoming a Clean City

Every few years I visit Warsaw, where I grew up and lived until moving to Vancouver 24 years ago. Warsaw and its surrounding communities comprise roughly the same size and population as Greater Vancouver.

Both cities underwent rapid population growth in the last couple of decades. Both invested heavily in infrastructure and public transit with mixed results. The average car commuter in Warsaw loses eight to nine hours a month stuck in traffic. That, according to the analysis done by U.K. firm Deloitte in 2015, translates into losing 70 per cent of an average monthly salary every year.

In my experience, Warsaw reached the low point around 2006. Traffic in the centre stalled, the air pollution and the noise were terrible. From that point on, though, things began to improve.

A decade later, the change for the better is noticeable. Warsaw invested in infrastructure in a way similar to Vancouver, widening some highways, building bridges, and expanding its basic metro system.

Warsaw, however, found solutions to some of its traffic problems that may seem peculiar from Vancouver’s perspective. Here are six things Warsaw has done. Lower Mainland, take note:

  1. Back a strong lobby for the non-motorized.

In 2004, a coalition of environmental, social, bicycle, and public transit activists in Warsaw acquired non-profit status under the name Zielone Mazowsze. ZM organizes street events, conducts public opinion studies, provides materials for media, and finances and publishes academic studies about public transit and accessibility.

One of ZM’s projects, Advocate for Non-motorized, is aimed at re-designing streets as a public space where cars, public transit, bicycles, and pedestrian traffic are considered of equal importance. Interestingly, this initiative is financed by the European Union and Norway through the program called Citizens for Democracy. Unequal mobility opportunities for those who don’t own cars, is seen as a democratic deficit.

In 2015, ZM pointed to 160 locations where street design created obstacles to bicycle and pedestrian traffic. In about half of the cases, the city amended the project or promptly fixed problems.

  1. Go big on bikes.

Investments in bike infrastructure consume between 0.3 and 2.3 per cent of Warsaw’s annual transportation budget, while about three per cent of commuters use bikes. The city considers it a good deal. Moving people on public transit would cost way more. The reduction of motorized traffic and pollution as well as increased health benefits are priceless. Warsaw is planning to add about 200 kilometres of bike lanes to its already existing 400-kilometre network.

Warsaw’s rental bike system includes 204 stations extending well beyond the city centre. Source:Rowerowa Warszawa

In 2012, Warsaw introduced a rental bike system. Within three years, it reached 350,000 registered users, providing over 3,000 bikes at 204 stations. This year, a few dozen electric bikes were introduced experimentally. The bike rental fees and income from the ads the bikes carry over the back wheel don’t cover all the costs. The balance is paid from the city’s transportation budget.

Self-serve bike repair station in Warsaw Poland. Photo: Chris Grabowski

Vancouver is just now putting in place the first, small pieces of its own bike rental system. In Warsaw, the quickly matured system is considered a public service, educational tool, and tourist attraction. It also helps create a critical mass of bikes on the streets, making biking in the city safer. To make biking more convenient, the city installed over 100 self-served bike repair stations around main biking routes.

  1. Grasp the Braess Paradox when building roads.

In 1968, German mathematician Dietrich Braess proposed a theory and an algorithm explaining why adding a new road or widening an existing one could result in increased congestion across the whole road network.

The roots of the Braess Paradox lie in psychology and fluid dynamics. More drivers switch to the improved route than it can actually handle. Even if Braess Paradox does not kick in, often a bottleneck further up the road cannot handle the additional traffic that comes with more road capacity. The jam then propagates like a shock wavethroughout the whole traffic network, affecting areas far from its origin. This shockwave effect is often noticeable in Vancouver. Usually soon after Lisa Christiansen proclaims on CBC ”traffic slow at the Cassiar Tunnel,” traffic slows down in Burnaby and Coquitlam as well.

Calmed street in Warsaw, Poland. Photo: Chris Grabowski

Stockholm and Vienna approached the congestion problem counter-intuitively by narrowing some arteries leading to the identified bottlenecks. The reclaimed space was used to create bike lanes and wider sidewalks. The fluidity of traffic improved. Warsaw joined this club in style. Two major streets were calmed. They connected with an already existing boulevard to create a four-kilometre long pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly zone in the centre of the city.

In Warsaw, one of the beneficiaries was business. According to Lukasz Puchalski, who is responsible for the city’s road and street planning, one of Warsaw’s calmed streets experienced a commercial renaissance of sorts, contrary to the merchants’ worries.

  1. Connect with the suburbs.

Imagine something looking like a beefed-up streetcar running every half-hour from downtown Vancouver to Abbotsford, White Rock, Maple Ridge, Tsawwassen and Horseshoe Bay. In addition to two subway lines, Warsaw has five city train lines that connect the centre with remote suburbs. Four of them share rails with regular inter-city trains. While only about five per cent of commuters use them, without this alternative, most of them would use cars and add to the congestion.

A park-and-ride parkade in the Warsaw region. Source: Zarzad Transportu Miejskiego

A natural supplement to suburban lines is park-and-ride infrastructure. Warsaw has invested in 14 safe parkades for cars and bikes that are accessible with a daily, weekly or monthly transit pass. To help with the smooth transition between different types of transport, the city installed hundreds of bike racks in proximity to streetcar, bus stops, and metro stations.

Warsaw also tries to make it easier for cyclists to transport bikes on public transit, provided there is space available, but has not gone as far as Copenhagen where taxis are required to carry bike racks.

Copenhagen, Denmark, outdoes Warsaw and Vancouver by requiring taxis to have bike racks. Source:

Now the attention of Warsaw’s city planners is shifting toward connecting already existing elements of biking and walking infrastructure into a more integrated and safer system. When people decide how they are going to move between points A and B, the quality of experience and safety play as important a role as does distance. If there are difficulties to cross, crowded intersections on the route, commuters are more likely to leave their bikes at home and use cars because wrapped into a metric tonne of metal and plastic they no longer feel like a soft target for other motorists.

Unfortunately, I sometimes feel this vulnerability at home in Vancouver. A Skytrain station is just two kilometres from where I live, but there are no connected bike lanes or safe sidewalks, and car traffic is crazy. So I end up in a car by myself, adding to that traffic.

  1. Give cars their due.

There need be no real conflict between various modes of traffic. Every person on a bike or on public transit leaves more space on the road for these who want or have to use a car. Karolina Krajewska, a spokeswoman for Zielone Mazowsze, talks about a quest for a perfect synergy of all kinds of traffic. Diverse traffic systems where public transit, cars, bikes, and pedestrians have equal status, like diverse ecosystems, are more stable and flexible. Bike lanes and sidewalks are by far the least expensive traffic infrastructure, and logic dictates they should be utilised to maximum before investments supporting car traffic are even considered.

But there are other benefits from creating a culture of balanced use for public spaces. In Copenhagen, where more than 40 per cent of commuters use bikes, levels of air pollution and obesity are low. Health care savings likely pay for all the bike lanes and more.

  1. Figure out a way to pay for it, then spend.

It seems that many European cities and regions follow the ideas of the early 20th century U.S. economist Simon Patten, now mostly forgotten in North America. Patten said that infrastructure is a factor of production but should not be consider a means to make direct profit. Instead, investments in infrastructure lower the cost of living and doing business and that in turn makes the economy more flexible and competitive.

In reality, all traffic is subsidised. In Warsaw, for instance, half of the money for public transport comes from passes and transfers from federal government and the E.U. The other half is paid from the city’s budget. Maintenance and construction of roads used by public and private vehicles alike only pays for itself one-third of the time.

Warsaw is building a system of interlinking transport options that allow people to use their cars less even when they live far from the city centre.

Investing in traffic infrastructure is tricky. For instance, massive capital investments in stretches of highways may bring only limited localized benefits while dispersed, low-cost, and small improvements may increase fluidity of the whole system. Geography and local culture play a big role. The French are good at streetcars. Some South American cities have invested astutely in rapid buses and trolleys. Northern Europeans focus a lot on bikes. One thing is certain: Not investing in traffic improvements is not saving taxpayers any money. Much more money is lost when a taxpayer sits in a car, stuck in a traffic jam, watching hours of her life pass by.

When the Cold War ended 25 years ago, Vancouver had a monumental head start on Warsaw. Five years earlier, Expo ’86 had proudly showed off the region’s first Skytrain line, and the shores of False Creek were slated for building a modern, dense city within a city. Somehow, though, in the past three decades Warsaw and its region has managed to overtake the Lower Mainland in achieving a more balanced, efficient, and green transportation system. Time to get moving.