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NovaTerra Connected Cities / february 2007 / 32

Covilhã: mobility in
a mountain town
Jorge Humberto and Gaspar Gonçalves, Universidade da Beira Interior (UBI), Portugal Steep gradients in Covilhã uptown.

Frank van der Hoeven, Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), Netherlands
Photos: Jorge Humberto and Gaspar Gonçalves

The activities of the Connected Cities network include showcase located on one of the hillsides of the highest mountain of continental
workshops. These are based on a give-and-take formula in which a Portugal. Around half the population live in Conceição, Santa Maria,
partner can invite other partners to illustrate an inspiring case study São Martinho and São Pedro, the four central parishes. The urban area
or present an issue or a problem and ask for advice. The ‘Mobility in of Covilhã has a low population density, only a third of the national
Covilhã’ showcase is a clear example of the latter. Showcases are average.
prepared in advance. In the case of Covilhã the local authority and The easiest way to describe Covilhã is to divide it into three parts: the
the university produced a lengthy paper and a comprehensive uptown, the downtown and the new town. The uptown includes the
presentation. Both documents provide insights in the main historic centre, old residential buildings, churches and services such
characteristics of the town and the mobility problems it faces. Low as banks, insurance companies, medical services, shops, the town hall,
density mountain town Covilhã, founded in 1186, is a large town of local government offices, police and fire brigade, the main university
35,000 inhabitants in the eastern midlands of Portugal. The town is buildings and day care centres. The downtown has the train station,

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NovaTerra Connected Cities / february 2007 / 33

local shops, prison, elementary and secondary schools, some financial

services, day care centres, municipal offices and residential areas.
The main land uses in the new town are residential developments,
shopping centres, the regional bus terminal, the sports complex, the
hospital and health centre and the new medical school. Almost all
the old textile industries in the town have been converted into
teaching facilities by the local university or have moved to the two
suburban industrial parks, to the north and south of the town.
The main traffic generators are the university facilities, town hall
facilities, the new shopping centres, the hospital and medical school
and the central business district in the uptown.

Covilhã faces three natural barriers: two creeks (Goldra and
Carpinteira) and a difference in altitude of 230 metres between the
uptown and the new town. The steep slopes and medieval layout
makes it a challenge to implement good mobility solutions. The
difference in altitude hampers movement through the town, especially
walking. The barrier caused by the two creeks doubles the distance of
the main access road to the uptown centre. The low population density
does not create the best conditions for public transport.

Covilhã’s road network is determined by its historical centre. The

streets are narrow and most permit only one-way traffic. Slopes of
over 8% are common. In the uptown some gradients are as steep as
13%. The main artery through the town is a busy national road, which
is used to access the national park and ski track on the mountain
passes above the town. An external ring to access the mountain is
planned, but will still partly make use of the existing road network.
The new town is bisected by a road that connects the town to the
two industrial parks to the north and south (the TCT road axis). Gradients to overcome by pedestrians.

modal split The bus is the main type of public transport in Covilhã and the
The private car plays an important role in the residents’ mobility. network covers about 65% of the urban area of Covilhã. The average
Private cars are used for about half of the trips to work and school. distance between bus stops is around 300m. The admissible walking
A quarter of the trips to work and school are made on foot, mainly in distance to the bus stops is limited by the steep gradients of most
the four central parishes. Buses account for about a sixth of the trips streets: the catchment area of the bus stops is 250 m, instead of the
to work and school, in line with other cities. In some areas, the share usual 400 m. The urban bus routes are almost all one-way loops with
of the bus in the modal split is double the average at one third. a low frequency, on average served by one bus per hour. There is no
Local people do not seem to experience many problems with trip space for dedicated bus lanes in most of the urban area. The
time; 90% of the journeys to work or to school take less then commercial speed is around 15 km/h. The public transport company is
30 minutes and 60% take less then fifteen minutes. Despite this, private and has a fleet of fourteen mostly old buses and the present
at peak traffic hours, traffic queues still form, but generally last no operator is not encouraged to invest in providing a better service.
more than five to ten minutes each. Occupancy rates are always lower than two-thirds and passengers
The town has well over 4,000 parking spaces for public use. rarely have to stand. New users experience considerable difficulty
The uptown is the only area where paid parking spaces outnumber using the system because very little information is available and
unpaid spaces and provision of off-street parking outstrips the there are only three ticket outlets.
amount of on-street parking space. Few residents in the historic Mobility problems Overall, Covilhã’s main mobility problems relate to
centre have access to a nearby legal parking space. Much of the the use of public transport, private car usage and walking. These
on-street parking space here is not well defined, which results in issues are characteristic for a small town in a rural area. The Covilhã
illegal or irregular parking. Parking in the downtown and in the new experts did not refer to problems with links to the cities and regions
town is plentiful, mostly free and on-street. in Portugal or Spain, let alone to cities and regions in the rest of Y

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NovaTerra Connected Cities / february 2007 / 34

Europe. So, at first sight, Covilhã’s mobility issues seem to be desired future scenario
restricted to the town itself. These are outlined briefly below. As a next step the local authority and the university have drawn
up a desired future scenario, aimed at improving the residents’
Bus system mobility. Although the scenario may be considered too ambitious and
The frequency of the bus service is low. The travel time is possibly unfeasible, its main objective, say the local experts, is to
unnecessary long because of the loop configuration of the system. provoke a reaction from the other partners and elicit their opinions.
The buses are old and noisy, cause air pollution and use too much The local experts wanted to know if the other partners have faced
fuel. They also have difficulty manoeuvring in the narrow streets and similar problems and been successful in implementing adequate
road intersections. solutions. The ambition of the desired scenario is to cut the share of
the private car in the modal split by half. To achieve this the
Private car use proportion of journeys by public transport needs to double. In the
Access by car to the historic centre is limited by reduced scenario the town will design a self-sustainable public transport
manoeuvrability and illegal parking of private cars in the uptown concession that will ensure high quality standards. At the same time
obstructs public transport and pedestrians. Most off-street parking is the local authority will apply financial incentives for the use of non-
privately owned and out of the local authority’s control; the non- polluting fuels. Other sustainable transport modes of transport are
central areas contain many unused parking spaces. Two underground encouraged as well: electric bicycles (e-bikes) and walking. Residents
car parks in the town centre are privately owned. The revenues from will be encouraged to travel to and from the uptown to make the
on-street parking contribute to their financing (for the next 40 years). historical centre more attractive to live and shop, while the overall
pedestrian accessibility of the uptown and the older public buildings
Walking will be upgraded. Parking facilities will be improved to make them
The steep gradients between the downtown and the uptown more acceptable to residents and illegal curbed as a result.
make the town difficult to navigate by foot. The materials used to Paid on-street parking solutions will generate long-term revenue
surface the pavements are slippery during wet weather and many that will contribute to the financing of other mobility systems.
pavements are often too narrow or cluttered with obstacles. The Covilhã experts already had some solutions in mind, steered the
Measures and facilities to provide adequate access to the town for discussion of the scenario by asking several detailed questions: Is the
people with reduced mobility are lacking, especially to the older desired modal split feasible? Can the quality of the bus service be
public buildings. enhanced by moving towards mini- or midi-buses? If alternative fuels
are to be applied, what would be better: hydrogen fuel cells or
electricity? Is it feasible for buses to include spaces for bikes?
Local authority will apply Can parking revenues or road pricing help to subsidise public

financial incentives for transport? Could pedelecs or e-bikes provide solutions for the steep
slopes of a mountain town like Covilhã? Could elevators and

the use of non-polluting escalators improve the accessibility of the town centre? And finally:
could park and ride systems be feasible and help to reduce traffic
fuels problems in the town centre? Ensuring sustainable urban mobility
During the workshop the experts from the other partners formulated
opinions based on Covilhã’s scenario. The general feeling among the
Connected Cities network was that mobility should be used as a way
to influence or steer urban or regional developments. Without a clear
idea where the town wants to go, it is difficult to tell if a solution is
right or wrong, even if the solution is generally considered
sustainable. Covilhã has to develop a spatial vision before it can
address the mobility questions it has raised. The local authority
should undertake detailed traffic studies the get a better idea of the
main origins and destinations in the town. More insight into the use
of public transport and walking patterns is necessary as well. The
differences between the uptown, downtown and new town seem so
large that Covilhã probably needs tailor-made solutions for each of
the areas, with particular attention to the relations between them.

The specific conditions of the mountain town clearly require

Covilhã downtown. innovative strategies for clean urban transport. These strategies

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Nova Terra on the EU
Content 3 6 11
supported project
‘Connected Cities’,
February 2007.

Nirov, The Hague,
The Netherlands

Editorial Board
Jan Hein Boersma
Evelien Brandes
Huib Haccou
Frank van der Hoeven
(issue editor)
Derek Middleton
(English editing)
Anne Schram
Michiel Smit (editor in chief)
Athanasios Ziliaskopoulos
(guest editor)
17 22 27 32
Graphic design
Studio Bau Winkel

Gewa, Arendonk, Belgium

Nirov, Michiel Smit,
Postbox 30833, 2500 GV Covilhã newtown.
The Hague, The Netherlands,

The specific conditions of
Office support:
The first solution tried to integrate the existing bus system into a

the mountain town

Helen Kokshoorn, park and ride scheme. The second solution focused on improving

clearly require innovative

pedestrian access to the town centre, overcoming the steep gradients
1570-0402 and height differences in the town. The first solution reflects the idea

strategies for clean urban

that we should not choose between the car and the bus. Finding a
balanced way for several modes of transport to work together might

Editorial tramways in france – born

transport provide solutions that are more sustainable. The second solution
reflects the concern that the vitality of the historic town is under
3 editorial cohesion again for urbanism much pressure. The limited accessibility is believed to contribute to
Frank van der Hoeven Sophie Labbouz and Youssef Diab should ensure accessibility for all. In the case of Covilhã, the that problem.
accessibility of the old town and the older public building is clearly
Project part-financed
by the European Union Public transport and regional urban landscapes The potential of cybercars an issue. The bus system appears to be antiquated and the feasibility In the end we left Covilhã with the feeling that the town needs a
6 connected edges towards a new mobility
27 of a European bus system of the future should be explored. The links spatial vision with an integrated innovative strategy for clean urban
Henrik Sander and Michael Koch concept for cities with the outer parishes could be served by new mobility concepts for transport based on adequate data. The Connected Cities network
Antonio Cunha, J. Varandas, Jorge Dias, Rui Rocha and Stefan van der Spek passengers that guarantee accessibility for all, such as paratransit. combines enough knowledge and experience in this area and several
A spatial survey for Stedenbaan 2010–2020 All the solutions should be subjected to an interactive planning partners expressed their willingness to help with this task.

The content of this

The South Wing of the Randstad covilhã: mobility in a
32 process in which all the relevant stakeholders are represented. Once Connected Cities can offer the local authority an opportunity to work
publication reflects the 11 space and line mountain town applied, the efficiency of the solutions should be monitored and if in smaller expert groups on specific solutions: the overall spatial
views of the authors. Atelier Zuidvleugel Jorge Humberto, Gaspar Gonçalves and Frank van der Hoeven necessary adjusted to ensure the desired results. If Covilhã is serious vision, transport development, travel demand management, bus
The Managing Authority
is not liable for any use
about curbing use of the private car, it has to offer alternatives and rapid transit systems and paratransit. Additionally, we could explore
that may be made of the 17 high speed investments apply restrictions on car access. whether initiatives can be undertaken within the Seventh Framework
information contained
Detlef Golletz, Egon Walesch, Gösta Weber and Celine Chambron Programme (FP7), the European research programme. FP7 has just
workshop results published its first calls for proposals and the issues Covilhã faces
In the end the workshop produced two solutions. In our seem to match FP7’s focus. The challenge is clearly there and the
Cover photo: Atocha station, Madrid (photo: Frank van der Hoeven, Rotterdam) experience, such solutions should not be taken too literally because opportunities are plentiful. It is time to act.
they are developed in a limited time. It is more interesting is to see
what their objective is; what do they try to solve? Reactions to: Y

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