Julien de Labaca is a graduate of the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, the Institut d’Urbanisme et Paris and the University of Rennes Haute Bretagne. He has spent 10 years in public authorities or advising them on their mobility strateg before setting up a practice.
This year, Porto won the “Europe’s Leading City Break Destination” award yet again. The city break is this way of traveling over a short period (from two to five days) in urban destinations. Large European cities are the common destinations for a city break and Porto has a morphology that lends itself rather well: just the right size and population (220,000 inhabitants), a concentrated historic center, a beautiful river (Douro) and coastline, and also the famous Unesco classification. More than 10 million overnight stays were recorded in 2019.
In August 2021, when a compact crowd gathered on the banks of the Douro, I wanted to understand how the municipality acted to manage the movements of its “city breakers”. On site, I discovered some rather interesting innovations, and I was able to test experiments that had barely been launched. This is my story.
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Leverage intelligently on your existing network
There are tourist towns that are still convinced, wrongly, that to meet the needs of visitor it is simply just enough to create shuttles and leave buses running in their streets. And then there are the other cities that seem to be making an active difference… like Porto. It must be said that the city has a head-start: it already has a dense and rather efficient public transport network, of which the metro and buses are the biggest people-movers. Before the start of the epidemic, it transported more than 70 million people each year.
It is surely for this reason that the municipality decided to bet on public transportation. Porto focused on certain methods of transport, including the wonderful Funicular dos Guindais (an excellent way to climb from the lower town to the “barrio alto”) and the Electrico, the well-known yellow tram. The municipality has made it one of its emblems and offers 3 loops that serve the center but also the banks of the Douro. For tourists, it is a way of discovering the city that is both economical (3.5 €) and ecological.
Beyond historical symbols such as the tram, the municipality and its operators have also been able to bet cleverly on other lines of the bus network, like the 500 (which I wrote about here a few months ago). This links Praça da Liberdade to the beaches of Matosinhos along the Douro, and has become an important part of public transport for the city’s many tourists. A double-decker bus – a rare sight in the 21st century – allows the line to be capacious, visible but also an attraction for tourists who enjoy a view « from above” over the city!
Obviously, the city is also open to private initiatives: tourist bus companies, tuk-tuk, and more recently free-floating scooter startups roam the streets, but their presence is highly regulated, whether concerning the types of authorized vehicles, or their physical access to the city center.
Inform, without fuss
We must never forget that better informing tourists ultimately means better informing all users of its network. The city of Porto has understood this very well. For several years, Porto has been making a series of innovations marked by pragmatism and efficiency. In 2014, it launched a vast program to generalize wifi on board its buses, it was also a way of creating a vast network of hotspots in the city, so that tourists never find themselves without a network and therefore information. Five years later, convinced by the connection figures, local elected officials decided to invest more into the system.
In 2017, the STCP announced the integration of all of its lines into the Google Maps app , it was also a way of offering visitors a simpler way to calculate their routes.It is also very likely that even the Portuans now prefer to use Google Maps than the local app, which many stated was rather poorly designed!
Today, the municipality does not seem to be held back by the health context, since this year (2021) it launched a new, rather unprecedented initiative: Explore Porto. Funded as part of a European program shared with the city of Helsinki, Explore Porto is a website that brings together information on transport (bus, metro, scooters) and points of interest in the city. Residents and visitors can connect directly to the Explore Porto site, or scan QRcodes displayed via beacons on 1,000 points of interest (POI) in the city, in order to access information on their location. This project is new, and very interesting in many ways.
The website highlights the geography of the city it is first of all a map of the territory (on an OpenStreetMap background) offering points of interest and mobility offers. Also because it puts forward the notion of points of interest before that of routes… a way of remembering what many route planners have forgotten: we don’t move just to get around! Also because the thousand POIs were chosen by the municipality, which itself produced the associated content. It is therefore a principle of editorialization and an enlightened choice of the public authorities, as an alternative to sites like Tripadvisor.
Finally, because it’s a great way to link the digital (the website) and the physical (the QR codes placed all over the city). Explore Porto is therefore once again innovation in what is simpler and more pragmatic (using basic technologies such as the QR Code) to promote more sustainable mobility in tourist practices.
Facilitate access, with pragmatism
Three weeks ago, the municipality and the operator STCP announced with great fanfare the deployment of open payment (payment by mobile phone and credit card) on the public transport network, in collaboration with Visa. Other large European metropolises have already deployed this device, and for some a long time ago (read our article on Open Payment in London)! It is in any case particularly interesting for the subject of movements of tourists. Because, once again, Porto has fully integrated this logic into its deployment strategy.
Open Payment was first tested on the 500 line. It was the first to benefit from the latest innovations launched by the operator. And now, between specific rolling stock, free wifi, and open payment, it is also becoming a “symbol” on the scale of the STCP network. In addition to the 500 line, the Violette (E) line of Metro Do Porto (and downtown stations) also benefits from the experiment. Equipping line E as a priority is no accident: it is this which connects the airport to the city center.
Once again, the idea is to make life easier for tourists and make them prefer a more virtuous mode of travel, compared to taxis and other VTCs, which offer very aggressive prices to connect Porto.
Beyond the evolution of payment support, pricing is also innovating. Each validation is billed at €2, a rate which allows the user to travel for a maximum of 1h15, regardless of the number of connections in one of the stations mentioned or in double-decker buses. Then, in a similar way to what can be observed in London, a capping device was set up. Thus, if the user makes 4 or more journeys during the day, the most advantageous price applies, up to a maximum limit of € 7.00, equivalent to the price of the “Andante day ticket”.
Beyond open payment itself, capping is also a way of simplifying the price proposition for visitors, of reassuring them, and of promoting greater use of alternative transport offers, with a very advantageous price.
Could Porto be the exemplary city in the management of tourist travel? The answer isn’t quite clear: the city still has many blind spots to deal with. Cycling is almost absent from the municipal strategy (in terms of service and infrastructure) and intermodality still has great room for improvement. But the main thing is that the city has understood one essential thing: it is about considering visitors as a category of full-fledged users – no more and no less – in the management of the mobility offer.
This article originally appeared here on Julien’s site, and has been translated from French.