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Zurich: Where People Are Welcome and Cars Are Not

When it comes to smart transportation options and city planning, Zurich can credibly claim to be the global champ. This Swiss city has enacted a number of policies and practices that have produced streets where people come first. Getting around and simply experiencing the city is a pleasure.

How did they do it? In a 1996 city decree referred to as "a historic compromise," Zurich decided to cap the number of parking spaces. From then on, when new parking spaces were built anywhere in Zurich, an equivalent number of spaces had to be eliminated elsewhere within the city limits. Many of the new spaces that have been built since then come in the form of underground garages, which allow for more car-free areas, plazas, and shared-space streets.

Zurich also has an intricate system of more than 4,500 sensors that monitor the number of cars entering the city. When that number exceeds the level Zurich's streets can comfortably accommodate, all cars are halted on highways and main roads into the city until congestion is relieved. Thus, there is never significant traffic back-up in the city itself.

It's tough to top the city's transit options. Zurich has a network of comfortable commuter trains and buses, plus the magnificent gem of the city: its 15-line tram system. Trams run everywhere frequently and are easy to hop on and off. The coordination of the lines is a wonder to behold. And it's the preferred way to travel in the city center -- business men in suits traveling to the richest banks in the world ride next to moms and skateboarders.

That's only the beginning of some of the great things going on in Zurich. Bike mode share is now 6 percent and climbing. People flock to the amazing parks and rivers that have been cleaned up. Car-free and car-lite streets are filled with restaurants and people at all times of day. If you can never get to Zurich yourself, I hope you'll be able to experience a bit of what it's like via this Streetfilm.

Note: All stats in the video are from the Mobility and Transport Microcencus of 2010 by the Federal Government of Switzerland. The survey on travel behavior has been conducted every five years since 1974.

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  • JK

    Very cool, but Zurich at 0.383m people is even smaller than Portland! Is the message here that other cities can be as cool as Zurich, or that cities shouldn't be bigger than half a million people? How much of what they're doing is scalable to 8.3m NYC, which is at the center of a 23m metro area?

  • Mr. Tram

    But the entire metropolitan area is nearly 2 million.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There are a few things about Zurich that I often like to contrast with the streetcar system in San Francisco. In Zurich, you step off the tram onto the sidewalk. In San Francisco, you step off on a platform, and walk half a block out of your way, down the platform, hit the beg button, cross a few lanes of traffic, and then you're on a sidewalk. I'm referring to the T-Third here of course. Secondly in Zurich everyone just walks right across the road in front of the streetcar. There's none of this pedestrian signal silliness. You can see this in the video at Bahnhofstrasse, or at Paradeplatz where the tram platform is in the middle of a three-way intersection with no signals or crosswalks, that's also at-grade with no curbs. Contrast with SF Muni streetcar stop at Folsom and Embarcadero, where pedestrians must wait through an extremely long signal cycle (without transit priority!), and never get the signal unless they've used the beg button.

    Another thing that stands out when you visit Zurich is the green signal cycle for cars is extremely short. Sometimes the green+yellow phase begins immediately, allowing enough time for only one car to enter the intersection. This is part of their peak-hour congestion control software that's described in the video. It's a remarkable contrast to the minutes-long signal cycles we have in San Francisco.

  • Kevin Love

    "When it comes to smart transportation options and city planning, Zurich can credibly claim to be the global champ."

    In my opinion, Groningen is still best!


  • Clarence

    Haha. There are many great cities. Groningen doesn't have the transit that Zurich has. But Zurich doesn't have the biking that Groningen has.

  • SuperQ

    The thing that I find interesting about Zurich/CH in general is that people are by default treated like adults. There are far fewer warning signs, excessive fencing, etc.

    The interesting thing about those trams is that they have signaling priority, and don't stop or slow down for pedestrians. You better pay attention and stay out of their way.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I agree. So many places I have been to Amsterdam, Zurich, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, etc etc, have very few warning signs, at least it isn't excessive. It says something about the U.S. being such a litigious society. All the beaches and water areas in Zurich - people diving off high places - not many lifeguards to be seen. In Melbourne, I couldn't believe the beaches, just people doing whatever they wanted while drinking whole bottles of wine, EACH!

  • Kevin Love

    It is only possible to have one transportation mode with over 50% mode share. So there are transit cities, like Zurich or Toronto, and there are cycling cities, like Copenhagen or every city in NL.

    In my opinion, I prefer cycling cities. Active transportation gives a greater sense of empowerment, particularly for children.

    Cycling is also faster for shorter trips. Cycling is door-to-door, but with transit, one has to walk to the nearest transit stop, wait for the transit vehicle, and frequently make one or more transfers.

  • Bobberooni

    Unfortunately Zuerich has uncontrolled smoking, making life on their streets extremely unpleasant and hazardous to your health. The main area in the train station is thick with haze, and you have to go through it to get on or off a train. My throat was sore for three hours after I caught a train there. It was the worst I'd seen in Europe, even worse than Paris where they love their nicotine. Norway was the best.

    I guess Zuerich is only a "people" city for smokers. I had a lot more fun touring Los Angeles by transit.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    It's also cold and boring and the food is awful and it's ruled in part by a racist far-right-wing party. But I think this site focuses on the transport.

  • Greutzi

    I've spent a lot of time in Zurich, and think it's a wonderful place. The trams and buses are great, the parks are beautiful, diving into the Limmat is a blast, etc. But there is never significant traffic back-up in the city? Uh, no. There's plenty of traffic in Zurich, and many spots where it backs up. It's a very difficult place to get around in by car, including because there are lots of other cars there. I realize that this is by design (my friends there say that the city's motto is "you can't get there from here by car").

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I'll agree with the smoking. I kept telling everyone about it. But it's all relative, depends on where you are from and how much your city has. For example, when I recently went to Philadelphia I couldn't believe how much more people smoked vs NYC. Then I looked up the stats and realized just how much more.

    I thought there was plenty of smoking in Stockholm, Amsterdam and many other countries.

  • Fakey McFakename

    Zurich, like most of Switzerland, is also very exclusionary - if you're already there, you're good; if you live somewhere poorer, you're not getting in. It's nice to have vibrant streetlife, but too many Swiss cities are essentially playgrounds for the wealthy that exclude everyone else.

  • AndreL

    The comparsion isn't appropriate. Groningen is a 195.000-large city, filled with students (a cohort that tends to be healthier, younger, poorer and therefore much more likely to be able and have incentives to cycle). It is also completely flat.

    Zurich is the center of a metro area comprising 1.8 million inhabitants. It has several hilly areas, and a very different distribution among ages and income levels.

    Even richer Dutch metro areas than Groningen have lower bike usage...

  • AndreL

    There are plenty of tram stops in Zurich that involve stepping out onto a platform.

  • J

    Wow! I think there is a lot to learn from Zurich. In addition to the many things noted here, I saw some amazing details in their transit infrastructure. Buses and tram all have proof of payment, and often vehicles have screens that show upcoming stops, and when you approach a stop with a transfer, it shows wait times for those routes. Most new 12m buses have 3 doors, which allows very quick boarding.

    That said, I hesitate to call any one City global champ. Zurich can learn a lot from Dutch cities about building bicycle infrastructure. Most major streets in Zurich had only painted bike lanes or, more frequently, nothing at all. I also found the driving culture there to be fairly aggressive. Fantastic city, though.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    I think a case can be made for about a half dozen to credibly claim world champ status. But what Zurich has done as good as anyone is create a real city center that is not ruled by the auto. Yes, they could use much more bike infrastructure, but they have set themselves up for when they do it, they already have infra in place where they can control traffic, limit cars, charge even more for parking - and create more ped and bike space. I fully believe the bike improvements will come and when they do the city will be even more awesome. Now about the smoking.....

  • Max Wyss

    With all due respect, all of the above statements are wrong.

    The city executive is "red-green", and that "racist far-right-wing party" (which is policically sligthrly more left than the USAn Republicans) failed miserably to get any candidate elected for more than 20 years. FWIW, Lady Mayor is gay and happily married. Food… yes, if your absolute and only choice you accept is "mexican", you are right. Boring… for a younger generation, Zürich has one of Europe's leading club scenes…

  • Max Wyss

    You may have realized that most of the Bahnhofstrasse (the Paradeplatz counts as a part of the Bahnhofstrasse) is a pedestrian zone, and the rest has, with the exception of a around 150 m long stretch, no through-traffic. If you are caught driving on the Paradeplatz (with the exception of two small corners), you pay pretty steep fines.

    Many of the streetcar lines are fully or at least partially equipped with vehicles with low-floor entrances, allowing almost level boarding from a standard sidewalk curb, and totally level boarding from a slightly elevated curb. This ensures compliance to the "accessibility" legislation. Those low-level curbs are also in use in the tunnel section of the network.

    The issue with San Francisco is the tunnel under Market street which is set up for high-level boarding, and thus does not allow for low-floor vehicles. As a consequence of that, many other stops need high-level platforms,

  • Max Wyss

    Actually, the only place where the Bahnhofstrasse has a fence is the about 150 m long stretch with car lanes having through-traffic.

    And, yeah, you quickly learn that you have no business on the tracks. The warning bells sound quite aggressive, and if you leave your car obstructing tram traffic, the operator maybe waits for half a minute for you to get away, and then, it is a priority call to the control center which immediately calls the police. Besides to a fine, you will also have to reimburse the VBZ for their expenses, which can be several hundred Francs per minute of delays…

  • Robert

    This is not within the control of the Zurich Municipal Government. If you want to complain about Swiss Banks, do it somewhere else.

  • http://ecoplanning.ca/ Eric Doherty

    Great video. However, there is only one glimpse of Zurich's very interesting fleet of electric buses. So I made this 6 minute video to fill that gap. https://youtu.be/HmtXLoe8jog