Zurich, the World's Best Transit City

Transportation expert Norman Garrick reports on the amazingly effective transit system of Zurich, Switzerland. Garrick says the system is one of the factors that makes Zurich one of the most livable cities in the world.

This fall I am living in Zurich, Switzerland as part of my sabbatical year research. I am in Zurich because I have long been impressed by its transit system and wanted to spend some time trying out the system as a resident – kicking the tires so to speak and seeing how the system stands up to close scrutiny. I had always had the impression that the transit in Zurich must be one of the best in the world, if not the best. What I am finding after two weeks is that transit here is even better than advertised.

Previously, as a tourist all I was interested in doing was traveling to the city center. Now I have the challenge of commuting every day to my office at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (the ETH). Currently I live in a small bedroom community just outside Zurich called Urdorf, a sleepy little place, which is nevertheless well served by transit, including the two stops on the commuter rail line out of Zurich and at least two bus lines.

The campus of the ETH where I am working is the less fashionable location - where they put engineers, architects and science types on a hill (the Honggerberg) surrounded by green fields outside of the city center. Yes, I do ask myself what exactly were they thinking in the 1960s when they built this seemingly isolated campus that could well have been designed by Le Corbusier himself. But is interesting to note that if there are people driving to the campus I have yet to encounter them. I have actually gone searching for the secret parking lot but have not found it as yet. The campus is actually served by four bus lines with buses, filled with people, passing every 3 minutes or so much of the day.

The thing that sets Zurich apart is not just the frequency of the individual bus lines, but the density and interconnectedness of the overall network of buses, trams, commuter rail, funicular railroads and ferries on Lake Zurich. So each morning I have to decide what is the best way to get to the ETH from Urdorf. With my American mind-set I had the idea that to get from one edge place to the other I would have to go through the center of town. I quickly learned that in Zurich it does not work from like that – trips between any two places are much more direct.

So the choice of taking the S9 suburban train to the No. 80 bus, or the No. 308 bus to the No. 13 tram to the No. 80 Bus, is partly a function of how I feel that morning. Do I want to stop by the bakery first, or do I feel like a brisk stroll or am I feeling lazy.

So one lesson that I am learning in Zurich is that an important element in getting 60% of the people in a very wealthy city to use transit is by making an extremely flexible system that is convenient for travel to almost any point in the city, the surrounding communities and even into the nearby Alps. The coordinated and integrated system here makes the American transit obsession with the one-seat ride seem downright silly and totally impractical for serving any but the idealized radial city that probably exist only in the mind of the planner.

A bus-only lane in Zurich. Photo: Eurist e.V.

The other surprising lesson I am learning is that the out of pocket cost for transit in Zurich can be surprisingly low. I quickly discovered the advantages of buying a monthly pass costing less than $3 a day that gives me full access to all transit in the city (except maybe the museum tram with the uniformed conductors – I have not figured that one out yet). As a tourist I was buying a more expensive day pass, which cost $12 per day.

So who pays the freight for this incredible system? Well, surprisingly almost 50% of the cost is from the fare box – this is much higher than most transit systems in the United States. What is clear is that the benefits to the city are immense. The city is remarkably free of cars and all that goes with it – the noise, the pollution, the traffic accidents, the big roads and parking lots. In fact, since Zurich started a program of constantly upgrading their transit system in the late 1970s they have been able to reduce parking in the city center, curtail the building of highways and have actually converted an increasing amount of street space to transit use and public space for people.

The real story of Zurich is not just about the current state of transit in the city but also a 40-year history of constant upgrades to transit and a lessening of the impact of cars on the city over that time and the concomitant flowering of the city as one of the most livable in the world. It is a story that should be better known in the USA, if only to contradict the idea that in order to thrive cities need to turn themselves into machines for moving traffic. In Zurich they have slowly and steadily worked over the last 40 years to do the exact opposite, while making the city more livable in the process.

Norman Garrick, PhD is an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. He is also a board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.



Zurich's Public Transport

You're right about Zurich's public transport being the best in the world. Alain deBotton puts it very well,

"In Switzerland's largest city, the urge to own a car and avoid sharing a bus or train with stranger loses some of the urgency it may have in Los Angeles or London, thanks to Zürich's superlative tram network - clean, safe, warm and edifying in its punctuality and technical prowess. There is little reason to travel alone when, for only a few francs, an efficient, stately tramway will transport one across the city at a level of comfort an emperor would have envied."

That's exactly how I felt when living in Zurich and working at the ETH (yes, in Hoenggerberg!). More on the history of Zurich's system in my TRB paper Implementing Zurich's Transit Priority Program (http://www.andynash.com/nash-publications/Nash2003-ZRH-PTpriority-TRR-18...).

Andy Nash, Vienna

Urban and interurban rail success story

You didn't mention that it's also a lot easier for wealthy individuals to choose public transit over a vehicle when for a single annual price, they can purchase a ticket that allows unlimited use of rails and transit anywhere throughout the (small) country. And the efficiencies of the Swiss national rail system are as impressive as those of Zurich's. Transfers are perfectly timed on quarter hour intervals nation-wide to allow seamless transfers at the major city stations.

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Zurich Transit

This article helps confirm what I have learned about the high quality of the Zurich transit system and its seamless integration of various modes and operating systems, along with highly sophisticated traffic engineering. I hope to visit Zurich in 2012 to better understand some of the city's transit "best practices" for their applicability in helping meet Seattle's transit challenges.

Seattle DOT

The Transit Experience in Zurich

You are right in pointing out that many factors contribute to high transit ridership and that the intercity rail system in Switzerland is very good. In this article I wanted to highlight my personal experience as a rider of transit in Zurich. As a rider I can attest to the sophistication of a system that is in my view peerless in Europe. The system is unmatched even by other Swiss cities - for example, transit experience in Geneva pales in comparison to Zurich and the ridership is correspondingly lower. The other two big(gish) German speaking cities in Switzerland, Berne and Basel, are comparable to Zurich, but perhaps not quite with such verve.

It helps to know a city's history

It helps Zurich, that it was established long before the automobile, and that it is a haven of international banking wealth.

It would be extremely unwise to expect younger cities based on land intensive manufacturing and primary product processing, like many US cities, to try and match Zurich's public transport mobility.

Understanding the History of Cities

Recently I found a c1910 tram map of Zurich. The tram network was extensive but not notably so, scores of American cities had tram networks at that time that were the equal of Zurich`s. What is interesting is what has happened since, the tram network was dismantled in most American cities but it was maintained in Zurich. And since the 1970s they have worked to enhance the network in Zurich to such an extent that is now vastly superior to the 1910 system. The history of these very different experiences between the US and Zurich is very instructive. It would indeed be unwise not to learn from this history.

We can't all be Zurich - or Manhattan either

Sure, Zurich still is what it was - international funds flowing into its banks. Meanwhile, dozens of US cities are easily the world's most productive manufacturing centres, and also have easily the most democratic society-wide rates of property ownership in the world.
Patrick Troy, Australian Uni Professor, has a term in his book "The Perils of Urban Consolidation" - he uses the term "physical determinism" to describe the belief that an urban form and transport system can be imposed and the rest of the world economy and society will work out around that, rather than the urban form and transport system evolving according to decades and centuries of economic and socio-economic development.

We can all be moving via transport networks, though.

the belief that an urban form and transport system can be imposed and the rest of the world economy and society will work out around that, rather than the urban form and transport system evolving according to decades and centuries of economic and socio-economic development.

Ah. So we shouldn't have defined transportation networks or physical building form. Some apologists will say anything, I guess, to hold the cognitive dissonance at bay.



Cognitive dissonance versus insight

".....Some apologists will say anything, I guess, to hold the cognitive dissonance at bay....."

Excellent assessment of the whole smart growth advocacy racket today, Dano.

While public planning is usually distorted in the favour of some special interest group, I suggest that the distortions were less in the past, when planners actually tended to follow market demand to a greater extent - shock, horror, smelling salts......!

You really should read Patrick Troy's book: here's another quote for you:

"....At its heart the effect of the policy of consolidation is to defend and further entrench central city interests. It fails to recognise the multi-centred functioning of the existing cities. The policy relies on the alleged benefits of a highly centralised fixed rail public transport system without acknowledging to whom the benefits accrue at whose cost.

Because the rich can always obtain as much space as they want and can travel freely about the city, the consolidation policy is effectively targeted at lower income groups. Rather than increase choice for those with the least resources the policy has the effect of reducing it. The rich are also better able to migrate to other centres and use the protection of covenants and other legal devices. The only groups which have to endure the reduction in living space and housing standards are those on the lowest incomes....."

Troy goes on providing insight after insight:

"....One of the consequences of the introduction of tight planning and development controls is an increase in land prices. The consolidation policy presupposes even greater limitations being placed on the supply of urban land. This will lead to even greater inflation in land prices and ultimately, housing prices. In none of the current consolidation programs or policies is this addressed yet as Evans (1988) points out, In England where there is a strong determination to preserve the countryside and to consolidate urban development, the ratio of urban to rural land price is very high. His solution is to reduce planning and development control to let the market increase supply and reduce prices......."

Confirmation bias.

Troy goes on providing insight after insight:

One man's "insight" is another's vapid talking point. Or already-refuted talking point. The selection bias keeps the cognitive dissonance at bay, it seems.



Patrick Troy is a genius.

While disliking dirt cheap arguments, I must say I seldom encounter anyone with as "closed" a mind on this subject, as Dano at Planetizen. Patrick Troy, to Dano, is truly as pearls to swine.

Everyone who claims an interest in urban planning should read Troy's book for themselves and make up their own minds.

Projection and other psychologies.

This thread contains several classic examples of expressions of psychological distress.

Just because someone agrees with your ideology doesn't make them a 'genius', it indicates confirmation bias. And if you are sad that several folks repeatedly note your arguments are repeatedly...erm...lacking, that doesn't mean that others are closed-minded. It just means that the stuff you believe might not actually work here on the ground, and cognitive dissonance clouds input (and makes one mischaracterize what was written). Next thing you know, I'll be a 'collectivist' if the pattern holds.

Jus' sayin'.



I am happy to leave it with the audience

Someone on here is actually constructing an argument backed up by observable data and references, and the other person is doing all the sneering and smearing. I am quite happy to leave it with the audience at this stage, to be convinced - or not.

What about Hong Kong?

Is this a quantitative analysis or qualitative analysis of the world best transit system? I am just curious!

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