Jerom Theunissen Photography


August 17-19

Consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world, I wanted to visit Zurich to assess how the city's transport contributes to a high quality of life. In particular, I wanted to see how the so-called "Zürich model" enabled its public transportation system to achieve and maintain a high market share. This approach has been emulated by cities in various ways, especially when new tram systems were introduced.

City in Context

The city of Zürich is home to approximately 400,000 inhabitants, and lies at the center of a metropolitan area which is home to over 1.9 million. Zürich's tram system is iconic, and is joined by S-bahn regional trains and buses. Overall, public transport's mode split is approximately 40%, with walking and individual motorized transport accounting for 26% and 25% respectively. The city also boasts the title of the second most livable city in the world, as ranked by the Mercer Institute

Public transport is relatively cheap in Zurich, with a monthly pass costing about $750 a month, or $2.08 per day. Judging by the price, one would think that public transport is heavily subsidized, but fares cover about 60% of the cost. This is largely due the use of light rail, which has the benefits of high capacity, space-efficiency, inexpensive surface-based infrastructure, and comfort. High quality transport services provide a competitive alternative versus cars, by providing service to residential areas through zone buses, frequent departures, service throughout the day and night, extensive geographic coverage, and integrated public transport travel passes for seamless urban mobility in the region of Zurich.

In conjunction with consistent expansions of the city's public transport offering since the late 1970s, the city has also moved to reduce parking in the city center. By implementing stricter parking maximums in zoning regulations (rather than minimums in the US, which require provision of parking for different developments) Zurich recaptured its public spaces for use by people. Zurich's "historic compromise" of 1996 was that parking in the city center would remain at the 1990 level, and that any new parking space that is built would replace a surface parking that took up space in most squares in the city. Parking maximums vary based on depending on whether or not the location is well served by transit. Today, almost all these squares are free of parking and have been converted to vibrant or tranquil places for people to enjoy. Parking spaces are limited to 1 per 1,200 square meters. 

These incremental reforms over 40 years have had a significant impact on the city's built environment and quality of life. Door-to-door high quality transport services and restrictive measures to reduce the use of the private automobile has led to a largely car-free city. This has translated to less noise pollution, air quality issues, and traffic accidents. A rethinking of who streets are for has led to a large scale reclamation and repurposing of spaces for people. A study done by architectural firm Gehl Architects analyzed the city in relation to the use of its public space. Facades, footways, cycle lanes, crossings and carriageways were reevaluated holistically to reshape the city's built environment to be more people-friendly. Something clearly has gone well, being the second most livable city in the world.

Democratic Participation in Transport Projects

Zürich’s experience in direct-democracy citizen participation began back in 1962, with two cornerstone events of citizens' referenda in 1962 and 1973. The first referendum concerned the Tiefbahn, a proposed upgrade to main tram routes by placing them underground in subways. Additionally, the new system entailed a complete redesign of network in the city center. This involved an underground ring fed by radial lines. However, critics pointed out that the peripheral locations of stops might have undesirable influences on trading patterns and city development, and cross-city subways were added to address this issue. When the proposal came to a vote in 1962, it rejected by voters with 53,893 votes for and 34,307 against. Most opponents cited critiqued the project for how much money would be required to create a service that was essentially already there.

The second proposal was even more comprehensive, calling for a full scale underground metro line. The new U-Bahn was to be operationally independent of the tram system. The furthest reaches of the U-Bahn ran further into the suburbs than any tram of the period (or today) did. Tram lines running directly parallel to the U-Bahn were to be dismantled. Shorter tangential chords were proposed to reconnect sections that would otherwise have become isolated. The project also recommended some extensions to tram lines whose long-term survival was likely.

A key hindrance to the plan was the longer distance between stations. Although station to station journey times by U-Bahn would be shorter the tram, longer walks to the station for most users and long times getting to the subsurface platform reduced the attractiveness for users. Also, the plan changed routes from existing tram lines. As a result, the proposal was not popular because people often chose their place of residence based on the proximity of an attractive transport link to their workplace. If the route was replaced, it would be an inconvenience, no matter how fast and modern a new line may be. The final referendum outcome in 1973 was decisive: the U-Bahn was rejected in a regional referendum by 123,210 votes to 50,114. 

Instead of simply saying no, the citizens offered an alternative to improve mobility in the Zurich area. A "people’s initiative” was launched with the aim ofproviding 200 million CHF for projects to speed up trams and buses. This gave theimportant impulse that a majority of the population expressly agreed to a transportpolicy which gave priority to public transport. In 1979 the City Council instructed the municipal authorities to give public transportpriority in any conflicts of interest, supplemented with 2nd priority to pedestrians and cyclists. At the cantonal level, the 171 municipalities agreed to pursue compacting and concentration in areas with good acces to public transport. With these guidelines, the parliament opened the S-Bahn, the suburban railway, in 1990. Approved by referendum, theinvestment amounted round about 2 billion CHF. The main part of the regional S-Bahnproject was the construction of a four track through-station underground, combinedwith a new tunnel under the old city centre and the Zürichberg. This meant adoubling of capacity of the former bottleneck located by the central station andmade it possible to introduce new connections and diametrical lines within the city.Thanks to this, a 420 km network of railways has been established serving the wholeconurbation. 

Zurich's dedication and commitment to sustainable transportation were made by strong legislation and regulations, largely dictated by the preferences of citizens. I think it is an excellent case in which direct democracy can lead to sustainable outcomes, especially if the voter base is well-informed about the issues on hand. In this manner, citizens and other stakeholders can work together on outcomes that maximize transport benefits in a sustainable way.

Innovative Transport in Suburban Areas - Glattalbahn

The Glattalbahn is a new public transport system serving Zurich’s rapidly urbanizing suburbs,  The Glattal is a rapidly growing set of suburban communities between Zurich and its international airport. These communities were originally separate villages, but have grown together as Zurich’s economy and airport expanded. The area’s development pattern consists of fairly dense mixed-use buildings located on the periphery of the “old” lower density Glattal villages. This development has no organizing structure; development in one village is unrelated to that in the next. As the region and transport demand grew, the roadway network reached capacity, negatively impacting both automobile and bus public transport.

The Glattalbahn route network, superimposed over existing regional rail lines.

The Glattalbahn stations use a consistent typeface, distinguishing itself from Zurich's tram network.

By the 1990s, it was recognised that the bus services in the Glattal region were suffering from both road congestion and vehicle overloading. It was therefore necessary to investigate the construction of a rapid transit system, spurred by four mayors within the larger Glattal area. They met with key stakeholders from the surrounding communities and proposed working together to solve the area’s transport problems. Importantly, they believed that the transport solution should be closely linked with coordinated land use planning to help tie together the area’s communities, improve quality of life and encourage sustainable economic development. During the 1990s, the Glattalbahn plan was developed in a broad community process. The process resulted in a plan for building a light rail transit line integrated with Zurich’s city tram network. The Glattalbahn was completed in stages; the first stage opened in December 2006, the second stage opened in December 2008, and the third opened in December 2010. The project cost amounted to 652-million Swiss Francs (approximately $602-million in 2008 dollars). The line has been very successful, exceeding its patronage estimates, encouraging significant development and generating highly positive ratings from customers and the community. To read more about the project, this article provides more detail about implementation from the VBG's perspective.

A station on the Glattalbahn tram line, surrounded by new medium-rise developments.

Façade to Façade Planning  

One aspect of this project that caught my eye was it's use of façade to façade planning. This entails that the Glattalbahn project covers the entire  street width including the adjoining roadway lanes, landscape strips and sidewalks. This kind of planning has the advantage of increasing the region’s urban character by creating a consistent identity. This was important because the Glattal had grown organically and  therefore communities had no common visual identity and often lacked connecting infrastructure such as bike lanes or sidewalks. Building the Glattalbahn gave the area a unique opportunity to build a common infrastructure to connect the area.  

By considering more than just the railway infrastructure, façade to façade approach provides planners with more flexibility in designingthe rail project and replacements for facilitiesremoved to construct the project. The functionality of the street, sidewalks, bicycle paths,public lighting, plazas, parking lots, building entrances,etc. had to be replaced but not in exactlythe same place. Additionally, this tpe of planning enables the project to create a high quality environmentfor the entire corridor, encouraging economic development and improving the Glattal's quality of life. 

Zürcher Verkehrsverbund

In 1990, Zürich's integrated transport system (ZVV) was established concurrently with the opening of the new S-bahn system. A single zone-based fare structure covering most of the S-bahn area and integrating all forms of public transport was implemented, including lake steamers, aerial cable cars, and funiculars. The ZVV does not have any vehicles of its own. The actual transportation is carried out in the ZVV network. 42 companies belong to the ZVV: eight transport companies with responsibility for local markets and 34 more transport companies and transport service providers. As is the case with the Verkehrsverbunds found in Germany, the case for total integration of public transport is to provide a credible alternative to the car. This site lists some key figures of the ZVV, and all the public transport companies that operate under the unified tariff scheme. This excellent paper details the evolution and spread of fully integrated regional publictransport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and traces similarities and differences amongst different verkehrsverbunds.

A map indicating the eight transport companies with responsibility for local markets within the Canton of Zurich. 

Parting Thoughts

In Zurich, promoting public transport and environment friendly traffic is not just talk, or a question ofpaying lip service. Zurich and its citizens have seen the benefits of investing in infrastructure (when needed) as well as in softermeasures such as traffic management, mobility management and public awareness over the years. The testing and success of these measure have led to a high acceptance for sustainable mobility within the population, as evidence by the transport projects are approved via referendum or brought forth from the people themselves. From what I saw in the city, this slow but steady march towards better mobility shows that Zurich is a model for any city wishing to turn its mobility scenario into one that improves quality of life and frees up public space in the city center. 

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