Road to progress in the Alps?

FAU researchers examine spatial development in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland

Will progress come to a region if roads are simply wide enough? Dr. Frieder Voll has studied common political conceptions on accessibility and spatial development in the Alpine region. The researcher from the Institute for Geography of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) has now been awarded the dissertation award 2012 of the Interakademische Kommission Alpenforschung (Interacademic Commission on Alpine Research ICAS) for his study.

‘Regional development is exploited for political ends in all countries,’ says Frieder Voll. The usual equation is: more roads make for economic success. In his doctoral thesis, Voll demonstrates that this assumption is too simplistic. Voll differentiates between the quality of a region’s accessibility, i.e. the availability of hospitals, public authorities and local supply, and its general location. The study is based on the assumption that a certain proximity to large cities and metropolitan areas is connected to a higher density of companies and better employment opportunities.

Using data from EURAC, the European Academy in Bozen/Bolzano, Frieder Voll created maps linking the accessibility of the Alpine region with the population density. Accessibility here refers to motorised private transport in terms of travel duration since mere distances are of little informational value in the Alps’ winding mountain roads and narrow valleys. The study also covers the political discussion on the expansion of the road network and accessibility in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The result: Accessibility alone does not allow for any conclusions about the positive development of a region. In contrast, other factors have to be taken into account as well.

Tourism, for instance, can benefit from limited accessibility. While attractive tourist regions close to urban centres are primarily frequented by day visitors and cable cars run to full capacity, restaurants and hotels remain empty. Limited accessibility, however, can prompt tourists to stay longer in one place and, as the example of St. Moritz demonstrates, it can even turn into a symbol for exclusiveness. Easy accessibility may become a driving force for the local economy but it can also slow down a the autonomous development of a region. With fast roads, cities and metropolitan areas tend to spread out creating suburbs that offer little except for housing space.

Voll defines the problem as follows: politicians misjudge the significance of accessibility. Underestimating accessibility can cause regions to be shut off – for instance because the nearest town is in such close proximity that local supply in regional areas is reduced or because only cities with more than 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants are deemed to have the potential to be included into development plans. ‘Austria mainly focuses on the aspect of supply, whereas discussions in Switzerland are currently examining whether there should be a stronger focus on cities,’ Dr. Frieder Voll states. With regard to politics, his advice is to be more cautious in using accessibility as sole criterion in the Alpine countries and to take further aspects into consideration. At the same time, regions literally have to decide which road to take in terms of future development, since wide roads create structures based on mobility which can become difficult when the fuel prices start to rise.