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Covilhã: mobility in a mountain town
Jorge Humberto and Gaspar Gonçalves, Universidade da Beira Interior (UBI), Portugal 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 workshops. These are based on a give-and-take formula in which a partner can invite other partners to illustrate an inspiring case study or present an issue or a problem and ask for advice. The ‘Mobility in Covilhã’ showcase is a clear example of the latter. Showcases are prepared in advance. In the case of Covilhã the local authority and the university produced a lengthy paper and a comprehensive presentation. Both documents provide insights in the main characteristics of the town and the mobility problems it faces. Low density mountain town Covilhã, founded in 1186, is a large town of 35,000 inhabitants in the eastern midlands of Portugal. The town is located on one of the hillsides of the highest mountain of continental Portugal. Around half the population live in Conceição, Santa Maria, São Martinho and São Pedro, the four central parishes. The urban area of Covilhã has a low population density, only a third of the national average. The easiest way to describe Covilhã is to divide it into three parts: the uptown, the downtown and the new town. The uptown includes the historic centre, old residential buildings, churches and services such as banks, insurance companies, medical services, shops, the town hall, local government offices, police and fire brigade, the main university buildings and day care centres. The downtown has the train station,
Steep gradients in Covilhã uptown.
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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.
barriers 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 private car plays an important role in the residents’ mobility. Private cars are used for about half of the trips to work and school. A quarter of the trips to work and school are made on foot, mainly in the four central parishes. Buses account for about a sixth of the trips to work and school, in line with other cities. In some areas, the share of the bus in the modal split is double the average at one third. Local people do not seem to experience many problems with trip time; 90% of the journeys to work or to school take less then 30 minutes and 60% take less then fifteen minutes. Despite this, at peak traffic hours, traffic queues still form, but generally last no more than five to ten minutes each. The town has well over 4,000 parking spaces for public use. The uptown is the only area where paid parking spaces outnumber unpaid spaces and provision of off-street parking outstrips the amount of on-street parking space. Few residents in the historic centre have access to a nearby legal parking space. Much of the on-street parking space here is not well defined, which results in illegal or irregular parking. Parking in the downtown and in the new town is plentiful, mostly free and on-street.
The bus is the main type of public transport in Covilhã and the network covers about 65% of the urban area of Covilhã. The average distance between bus stops is around 300m. The admissible walking distance to the bus stops is limited by the steep gradients of most streets: the catchment area of the bus stops is 250 m, instead of the usual 400 m. The urban bus routes are almost all one-way loops with a low frequency, on average served by one bus per hour. There is no space for dedicated bus lanes in most of the urban area. The commercial speed is around 15 km/h. The public transport company is private and has a fleet of fourteen mostly old buses and the present operator is not encouraged to invest in providing a better service. Occupancy rates are always lower than two-thirds and passengers rarely have to stand. New users experience considerable difficulty using the system because very little information is available and there are only three ticket outlets. Mobility problems Overall, Covilhã’s main mobility problems relate to the use of public transport, private car usage and walking. These issues are characteristic for a small town in a rural area. The Covilhã experts did not refer to problems with links to the cities and regions in Portugal or Spain, let alone to cities and regions in the rest of
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Europe. So, at first sight, Covilhã’s mobility issues seem to be restricted to the town itself. These are outlined briefly below. Bus system The frequency of the bus service is low. The travel time is unnecessary long because of the loop configuration of the system. The buses are old and noisy, cause air pollution and use too much fuel. They also have difficulty manoeuvring in the narrow streets and road intersections. Private car use Access by car to the historic centre is limited by reduced manoeuvrability and illegal parking of private cars in the uptown obstructs public transport and pedestrians. Most off-street parking is privately owned and out of the local authority’s control; the noncentral areas contain many unused parking spaces. Two underground car parks in the town centre are privately owned. The revenues from on-street parking contribute to their financing (for the next 40 years). Walking The steep gradients between the downtown and the uptown make the town difficult to navigate by foot. The materials used to surface the pavements are slippery during wet weather and many pavements are often too narrow or cluttered with obstacles. Measures and facilities to provide adequate access to the town for people with reduced mobility are lacking, especially to the older public buildings.
desired future scenario As a next step the local authority and the university have drawn up a desired future scenario, aimed at improving the residents’ mobility. Although the scenario may be considered too ambitious and possibly unfeasible, its main objective, say the local experts, is to provoke a reaction from the other partners and elicit their opinions. The local experts wanted to know if the other partners have faced similar problems and been successful in implementing adequate 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 proportion of journeys by public transport needs to double. In the scenario the town will design a self-sustainable public transport concession that will ensure high quality standards. At the same time the local authority will apply financial incentives for the use of nonpolluting fuels. Other sustainable transport modes of transport are encouraged as well: electric bicycles (e-bikes) and walking. Residents will be encouraged to travel to and from the uptown to make the historical centre more attractive to live and shop, while the overall pedestrian accessibility of the uptown and the older public buildings will be upgraded. Parking facilities will be improved to make them more acceptable to residents and illegal curbed as a result. Paid on-street parking solutions will generate long-term revenue that will contribute to the financing of other mobility systems. The Covilhã experts already had some solutions in mind, steered the discussion of the scenario by asking several detailed questions: Is the desired modal split feasible? Can the quality of the bus service be 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? Can parking revenues or road pricing help to subsidise public transport? Could pedelecs or e-bikes provide solutions for the steep slopes of a mountain town like Covilhã? Could elevators and escalators improve the accessibility of the town centre? And finally: could park and ride systems be feasible and help to reduce traffic 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
Local authority will apply ﬁnancial incentives for the use of non-polluting fuels
innovative strategies for clean urban transport. These strategies
The speciﬁc conditions of the mountain town clearly require innovative strategies for clean urban transport
should ensure accessibility for all. In the case of Covilhã, the accessibility of the old town and the older public building is clearly an issue. The bus system appears to be antiquated and the feasibility of a European bus system of the future should be explored. The links with the outer parishes could be served by new mobility concepts for passengers that guarantee accessibility for all, such as paratransit. All the solutions should be subjected to an interactive planning process in which all the relevant stakeholders are represented. Once applied, the efficiency of the solutions should be monitored and if necessary adjusted to ensure the desired results. If Covilhã is serious about curbing use of the private car, it has to offer alternatives and apply restrictions on car access. workshop results In the end the workshop produced two solutions. In our experience, such solutions should not be taken too literally because they are developed in a limited time. It is more interesting is to see what their objective is; what do they try to solve?
The first solution tried to integrate the existing bus system into a park and ride scheme. The second solution focused on improving pedestrian access to the town centre, overcoming the steep gradients and height differences in the town. The first solution reflects the idea that we should not choose between the car and the bus. Finding a balanced way for several modes of transport to work together might provide solutions that are more sustainable. The second solution reflects the concern that the vitality of the historic town is under much pressure. The limited accessibility is believed to contribute to that problem. In the end we left Covilhã with the feeling that the town needs a spatial vision with an integrated innovative strategy for clean urban transport based on adequate data. The Connected Cities network combines enough knowledge and experience in this area and several partners expressed their willingness to help with this task. Connected Cities can offer the local authority an opportunity to work in smaller expert groups on specific solutions: the overall spatial vision, transport development, travel demand management, bus rapid transit systems and paratransit. Additionally, we could explore whether initiatives can be undertaken within the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), the European research programme. FP7 has just published its first calls for proposals and the issues Covilhã faces seem to match FP7’s focus. The challenge is clearly there and the opportunities are plentiful. It is time to act. Reactions to: email@example.com
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