What would it take to get you out of your car? My hometown of Vienna, Austria, is hoping that a rebate of up to 1,000 euros for individuals and families who buy a cargo bike will help convince a few hundred people to get out of the driver’s seat and into the saddle. 

Cargo bikes are bicycles or tricycles with platforms or boxes designed to transport kids and cargo. Vienna’s transportation manager Brigitte Hebein, of the Green Party, announced the subsidy earlier this month, promising households a rebate of up to €800 for conventional cargo bikes and up to €1,000 for electric cargo bikes. The city is planning to spend a total of €300,000 on the program, and already offers an incentive for businesses that buy electric cargo bikes (with a bonus for those that ditch cars altogether). A similar rebate in 2017 was especially popular among families with kids. 


Cargo bikes in Amsterdam and Copenhagen (Top: WorkCycles,CC BY 2.5; Bottom: News Øresund - Johan Wessman, CC VY 2.0)

Vienna’s new cargo bike incentive program is part of a larger push, begun in 1999, to reduce carbon emissions in the city through better urban design, clean energy use, energy efficiency, conservation and behavior change. 

In this context, transportation manager Hebein’s stated goal is to eliminate the city’s CO2 emissions from transportation by the year 2030. To get there, Vienna wants to achieve an 80 to 20 modal split within the next five years — in other words, by the year 2025, 80 percent of trips taken should be on public transit, by bike or on foot, and no more than 20 percent by car. (In 1993, the modal split was 60 to 40. By 2018, it was 71 to 29, though the percentage of drivers has been climbing again recently.) The city government is focused on expanding public transportation, creating more pedestrian-only zones and green space, redesigning roadways to slow speeds and reduce driving — and making non-driving options, like getting around by bike (and cargo bike) more attractive.  

Vienna has long had a robust network of streetcars, subways, buses, bike lanes and sidewalks, which contributes to the city’s world-class quality of life. But quick glance at the comments below news coverage of Hebein’s cargo bike program announcement are a good reminder that getting people — even those who live in bike/ped/transit-friendly communities like Vienna — to abandon the thought of owning a car will take big shifts in attitude and culture: “No way I’d put my kid in a cargo bike — way too dangerous!”, “Cargo bikes are great when the sun shines, but what about the rain and snow?”, and “€1,000 or more for a bike? Forget it, might as well buy a car” are the common themes. (Maybe it’s worth noting that the Viennese are notoriously cynical.)

For modal shifts to work and take hold over time, we know that communities have to provide a range of attractive, safe and convenient travel options other than driving — with the infrastructure to match. Vienna is on its way to doing that, and this cargo bike incentive program is one piece in the city’s broader strategy. 

As communities in Wisconsin and across the U.S. think about tackling climate change, Vienna’s approach could offer helpful lessons not only for how to cut transportation emissions, but also for how to make our cities and towns more liveable and attractive to people of all ages, income and ability levels. The quality of the city’s infrastructure and environmental protection efforts are one of the factors that consistently take Vienna to the top of varying global liveability rankings

But you don’t have to take a consulting firm’s word for it. My personal experience growing up in Vienna tells the same story. I grew up living largely without a car, and I loved the freedom this provided: I started taking the streetcar to school at age six, would ride my bike to the park, and would walk most anywhere else. The only reason I decided to get an Austrian driver’s license (a considerable investment, at about €1,500 for a year’s worth of lessons) was when I knew I’d be heading to the U.S. for college at age 19.

Whenever my friends and colleagues ask me what I miss most about living in Vienna, I say it’s the museums, the greenspace, and the cheap, frequent and constantly improving public transit. Maybe I’ll have to add seeing families taking their kids to school in cargo bikes to that list soon, too.