Zürich Public Transport – Questions and Answers

This page outlines my responses to questions from  a reporter who called me with questions about public transport in Zurich. It was originally prepared in Spring 2007 – so some of the information is out of date.

What were the key issues that public transport aimed to solve in Switzerland?

Most Swiss cities, like other cities developed before invention of the automobile, have a long history of good public transport service. When automobile use began growing significantly (after World War 2), cities were faced with a dilemma: build highways and parking to accommodate the automobile or encourage people to use public transport through a variety of incentives and disincentives.

Most Swiss cities chose to invest in public transport and many also introduced disincentives for driving in central cities (e.g. parking restrictions). Public transport investments included funding for new vehicles, routes, network improvements (e.g. traffic signal prioritisation systems) and service.

Key reasons to support urban public transport include:

  • Reduce Congestion – Each public transport passenger reduces the number of automobiles trying to use congested highways and parking.
  • Air Quality – Efficient and well-used public transport helps reduce air pollution. Switzerland’s strong air quality laws are one reason for supporting public transport and disincentives for automobile use.
  • Reduce Impacts of Building Highways and Parking – It would be impossible to provide enough highways and parking for everyone who would like to drive without destroying the historic city centres and taking large areas of land outside cities. Public transport reduces the amount of land needed for transport facilities.
  • Transport for All – Public transport can be used by everyone from young children (who are too young to drive) to elderly or handicapped people.

What was taken into consideration in erecting the Swiss public transport infrastructure?

Switzerland’s public transportation system is a combination of national, regional and local transport operators. The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) operates the national passenger rail system and regional trains in many urban areas. There are also several private companies offering regional rail road services.

Public transport service in regions is controlled by regional agencies. These agencies are responsible for coordinating and funding local and regional service. A good example is the Züricher Verkehrsverbund (ZVV). The ZVV provides funding and planning for the Zürich region’s 42 different public transport operators.

How are large new public transport projects financed?

A large proportion of funding for large regional transport projects, such as the Zürich regional rail system, comes from the local government (rather than the federal government as is common in the USA). Furthermore, Swiss citizens vote to approve most large expenditures. Zürich’s public transport network has been built through a series of votes where local citizens approved money to build specific transport projects.

In Zürich voters approved the original S-Bahn network in 1987 and the new through line in 2006, as well as the public transport priority initiative in 1986.

If people prefer public transport, why do you think in the Swiss case, this is so?

People in Switzerland, like everywhere, make rational choices on what transportation they use for a specific trip based on incentives and disincentives. The main incentive for public transport in Switzerland is its very high quality; specifically,

  • service is operated at frequent intervals throughout the day;
  • service is very reliable (it comes on schedule);
  • service is relatively fast (in cities it is often faster than driving a private automobile);
  • vehicles are clean and generally not too crowded;
  • public transport is safe;
  • public transport goes everywhere in the country;
  • service is relatively inexpensive, especially for regular users.

The main disincentives for driving are:

  • lack of parking in central cities;
  • parking fees;
  • roadway congestion and delays;

What is the public transport fare structure like? How much cheaper is it to take a bus or train than driving?

Public transport fares in Switzerland are relatively inexpensive. The fare structure is designed to encourage people to use the system regularly: for example: 24-hour pass generally costs twice the price of a one-way trip, a monthly ticket costs the same as about fourteen 24-hour passes and a yearly ticket costs the same as 9 monthly tickets. This fare structure encourages people to use public transport and also reduces administration costs for the public transport operators.

Interestingly, there is an annual national public transport pass issued by the Swiss Federal Railways that allows owners to use all the public transport systems including the national railroad throughout the country. It costs about 3,000 Swiss Francs per year (1,885 Euro). The SBB also offers a “half-price-ticket” which costs about 150 Swiss Francs per year and entitles the owner to half-price fares on the national rail system and about a 33% discount on public transit in the cities.

My impression is that fares are not considered expensive by most people. They are happy with the quality of service and seem willing to pay. This is not to say that everyone agrees, some (often on the left politically) would like additional ticket price reductions to further increase the use of public transport.

How extensive is the rail and bus network?

Switzerland has an extremely dense network of public transport services. This network covers the entire country and includes intercity trains, regional trains, trams, urban and intercity buses, boats and cable railways. According to the SBB website the network includes 23,500 Kilometers of routes (http://mct.sbb.ch/mct/en/reisemarkt/abonnemente/ga.htm).

One of the most significant advantages of Switzerland’s public transport network, in addition to its sheer size, is its extremely high degree of coordination. The network is coordinated in the following ways:

  • geographic – different public transport operators share the same stations/stops, making it easy for passengers to transfer between vehicles;
  • schedule – public transport operators coordinate their schedules so passengers can transfer between different services with a minimum amount of waiting time;
  • fare – a single ticket can be used on all different public transport services making it easy and convenient for passengers to use the network.

While coordination sounds simple and logical, it is hard to implement. Switzerland needed to overcome many technical and policy problems in the process of coordinating its public transport network, but the end result is extraordinary and the system serves as a world model.

The combination of a large network and a high degree of coordination makes it possible and attractive for people to use public transport.

How do you ensure things like accurate arrival times and congestion on the trains and buses?

One of the most important factors in attracting passengers to public transport is system reliability (buses and trains that operate on schedule). Switzerland has pioneered technologies that help ensure that trains and buses arrive reliably.

Many Swiss cities have implemented public transport priority for buses and trams. These measures include public transport-only lanes, traffic signal priority systems, streets specifically designed to facilitate bus/tram movements, and control centres to manage operations in realtime.

Zürich is an excellent example. The city implemented a comprehensive series of measures designed to support public transport, discourage private automobile traffic and improve the city’s liveability. These programs and their history are described in my report Implementing Zürich’s Transit Priority Program prepared for San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute.

Switzerland also has a very heavily used national railroad network including regional trains which play a key role in the public transport system for larger cities. The Swiss Federal Railways has been a leader in the development and use of information technology tools to plan and operate its network. These tools have helped the SBB select infrastructure projects and vehicles that enable it to maintain relatively high schedule reliability.

What considerations are important when planning an efficient urban transport system?

An efficient urban transport system will use a combination of strategies to provide efficient and attractive public transport service. These strategies include:

  • Minimise Travel Time – Minimising travel time attracts customers and, since the vehicles can be used for more trips, reduces operating costs, increasing system efficiency. This is one reason why implementing public transport priority measures and-or bus rapid transit is such a good strategy.
  • Provide High Quality Public Transport Service – Public transport service must be very high quality to attract discretionary customers (those who have a choice). High quality public transport is fast, reliable, frequent, safe, comfortable, relatively inexpensive, and goes where you want to go.
  • Coordinate Public Transport Services – It is impossible to offer direct public transport service from every possible origin to every possible destination, therefore many passengers will always need to transfer. If public transport routes are coordinated geographically, temporally and with a common ticketing scheme, customers will be attracted to the service and efficiency will increase.
  • Introduce Disincentives for Private Automobile Use – No matter how good a public transport system is, it will never be as good as driving an automobile parked at your home over uncongested roadways to a parking space at your destination for free. Therefore, in addition to providing the highest possible quality of public transport, there must be disincentives in place for driving. These disincentives include congestion, roadway tolls, parking restrictions, and parking charges.

What sort of monitoring is there to ensure compliance with standards for buses and trains, such as frequency etc are not compromised?

In Zürich there is an automatic system that monitors the position of buses and trams. The control centre knows exactly where vehicles are at all times. The bus/tram operators even have a display on their control panel that tells them if they are ahead of or behind schedule. This helps them drive the vehicles so that they maintain the schedule. The automatic location system was implemented in the 1980s before today’s GPS and wireless communications and is based on relatively simple technology (wires in the ground).

Transport planners regularly analyse the tram/bus schedule data to identify systematic delays or unreliability on routes. If problems are identified the routes are studied in detail to determine the problem cause and to identify solutions.

The real-time schedule adherence data is also used to make announcements to passengers about delays and problems as well as to control bus/tram operations (in other words controller redeploy the vehicles to avoid problems like traffic accidents that block tracks etc.). Controllers have pre-defined detours for all routes and scripts to read in announcing detours/delays.

It is also important to emphasise that schedule reliability is naturally high due to Zürich’s comprehensive public transport priority program, which optimized the network to reduce public transport delays. The control strategies outlined above would not work as well in networks with many delays.

Switzerland’s national railroad also uses automatic monitoring to ensure trains operate reliability and without delays. The IVT has helped develop some of the information technology tools used to identify problems and evaluate solutions. The Swiss Federal Railways has an extensive on-going research program to develop new strategies for increasing reliability.

What is the policy of private cars? Do people still prefer to drive, instead of taking the buses or trains?

Switzerland’s regulations regarding auto ownership are not substantially different from those throughout Europe. The cost of gasoline is generally lower than other European countries and auto ownership rates are about the same. The auto ownership rate in Switzerland was 559 per thousand (in 2002) compared to 550 for OECD countries on average.

Most Swiss cities have planning regulations that control the amount and use of parking. Building new parking is generally discouraged (and sometimes prohibited). Some cities, notably Zürich, have implemented comprehensive programs to remove public parking, increase the price of parking and reduce commuter parking (by implementing resident-only parking zones). While cities throughout the world discuss these policies, Zürich is one of the few cities that have actually implemented them.

In addition to reducing parking, some cities have reduced the amount of roadway space. Generally this is not done with the intent of reducing private auto traffic, but rather with the idea of supporting other modes of transportation and/or designed to improve safety or urban liveability. A good example is designating an existing roadway lane for use by public transport only (meaning that it can only be used by trams and buses).

Is public transport in Zürich crowded?

Zürich’s public transport system does not seem too crowded in comparison to major cities like New York London, Paris or San Francisco. It is true that at rush hour many buses/trams/trains have standees, but it is rare that they are uncomfortably crowded as is often the case in other cities. There are a few routes that are very crowded, but generally this is only for a short distance and at peak times.

I have often wondered how Zürich does this. First, they operate a lot of service all day long. This means that people know that if they travel in the non-peak hours they still will not need to wait very long for a bus/tram. In fact many of the Zürich trams operate at the almost the same frequency from 7 am until 7 pm (every 6.5 minutes). A second factor is that since the system has such a high degree of schedule reliability vehicles rarely are bunched (several vehicles arrive at the same time and then there is a long period before the next vehicle). When vehicles become bunched the first vehicle needs to carry many more people because more people are waiting at the bus stop since it has been a longer time since the last bus arrived. Finally, a related point is that people trust the system to operate well all day long so they plan their travel – to the extent possible – to be as comfortable as possible (i.e. maybe they will go home a bit later or take a less crowded route).

On the suburban train network (S-Bahn), peak period trains are two or three times as long as regular trains, this means that many more people can be carried with minimal additional staff costs.

How hard is it to park in Zürich and how expensive is parking?

While parking in Zürich is limited, rates are about average for central European cities (but lower than major cities like Central London). The reason seems to be that most people know that parking is limited and know that public transport is a good alternative.

The main problem for automobile drivers in Zürich is the time needed to navigate through the city’s fairly complex street pattern and then find a parking space. Since public transport is so good, it often takes less time to ride the bus than it does to drive and find parking.

The cost of parking in a typical city owned central parking garage in Zürich is available from the Parkleitsystem website (German) by clicking on the area and the particular garage. Zürich’s parking rate structure (where the hourly rate goes from 3.5 to 5 as the parking duration increases) is fairly typical for cities that want to discourage long-term (all day) parking for commuters but still want to provide parking for people coming into the city for shopping or cultural events. There is also parking on the street, but much of this is designated for residents or has parking duration restrictions of less than two-hours.

How many Swiss people own cars?

The auto ownership rate in Switzerland is slightly higher than the OECD average (Switzerland has 559 per thousand (in 2002) compared to 550 for OECD countries). As an ‘urbanised’ canton, the Canton of Zürich has a slightly lower average auto ownership rate (505 autos/1000) and the City of Zürich has an even lower rate (415 autos/1000). These data are from the Canton of Zürich’s Statistical Yearbook (2006). While these rates are lower than average, they are still relatively high (and remember, they do not include trucks and motorcycles). The total number of motor vehicles is 635/1000 in Zürich Canton and 519/1000 in Zürich City.

Swiss people seem to use their cars a bit less than in other countries although I could not find any statistics.

Many Americans say that they do not use public transport because it is essentially impossible for them (it takes an unreasonable amount of time or simply doesn’t go where they are going). Switzerland has made most of the country easily accessible via public transport and in so doing has given people a viable alternative to using the automobile.

What proportion of passenger traffic in Zürich is made by public transport?

From the internet:

“EVALUATION The customer-friendly changes of the public transport of the city of Zurich bought many new passengers. Between 1984 and 2002 the number of passengers increased from 209 to 282 millions per year (+35%).

The suburban railroad network (S-Bahn) was activated in 1990. In the first year of service the number of passengers on the network lines grown by 24%. The growing was than continuous and reached 87% in 2003.

In 2002, 322,000 people were entering the city daily for work or other reasons. 240,000 of them did it by train, using the suburban railroad network (74%). In the town of Zurich every fifth person with a driving license owns no car (22%) and only 62% of the persons with driving license has an own car that he can use at any time (the remaining 16% can use the car of a relative or friend after arrangement) Analysing the daily average distance per person in the city of Zurich the good positioning of the public transport can be read. In average each person over 6 years old in the city of Zurich make 3.3 km (10.5%) on foot or by bicycle, 17.2km (54.6%) by motor vehicle and 10,3km using the public transport (32.7%). This is a very good value compared with the Swiss average of 17.7% public.”

Source: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/archi/programmes/cost8/case/transport/zurich.html

More Information

  • US Transportation Research Board Report describing results of the Fall 2001 International Study Tour. The report provides a great deal of information about public transport in various Swiss cities including Zurich.
  • I have written several publications on various aspects of Zurich and Swiss transport planning and policy.

Pin It on Pinterest