Zürich Public Transport An Introduction

Schematic map of Zurich's city transit network.
Schematic map of Zurich’s city transit network.

Switzerland is famous for its trains and public transport. You can get pretty much anywhere in the country using a combination of trains, trams, boats, buses, mountain railways, and cable cars. And not only is it possible, it’s easy: all transport systems throughout the country are coordinated. So the lake steamer you want to take in Lake Lucerne leaves 5-minutes after the arrival of your intercity train from Zürich, all you need to do is walk across the plaza in front of the Lucerne train station to the boat dock (and the ticket you bought in Zürich is good for the boat!). More information about the Swiss Travel System from the Swiss National Railway (SBB)  and the Swiss Tourism getting around page.

But, back to Zürich … Zürich is world-renowned for its extremely high-quality public transit system. It has one of the highest levels of per capita transit ridership in the world—no mean feat when one considers that it also has one of the highest levels of per capita income. People in Zürich are definitely “choice” riders, and the city’s public transit system is good enough to attract them.

Trams and Buses – Transit Priority

Campaign poster for Zurich Tiefbahn Plan 1962 to place trams underground in the center city.
Campaign poster for Zurich Tiefbahn Plan 1962 to place trams underground in the center city. Measure was rejected.

The first thing one notices about Zürich is that trams (the European word for streetcar) and buses are everywhere. The city considered changing its tram network several times (either placing the trams underground – Tiefbahn Plan 1962 – or replacing the trams with a metro system – 1973), but voters rejected spending money on these ideas. However, in 1977, Zürich voters did approve an initiative to make the existing surface transit system work better by providing transit priority for trams and buses.

Transit priority means that public transit vehicles are given priority over other forms of transportation through such measures as traffic signal control, transit-only lanes, and traffic regulations. Watch carefully as a traffic signal changes from red to green just when a tram arrives at the intersection. Transit priority was not a new idea, but Zürich has succeeded in implementing it to a greater degree than almost any other city in the world. Zürich’s public transit priority program is described in Implementing Zurich’s Transit Priority Program a research report I co-authored for San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute. And, here’s a link to the short version of the study published in the Transportation Research Record (Zurich Transit Priority 2003).

Zürich S-Bahn – Regional Rail Network

Transit priority keeps trams and buses running smoothly within the city of Zürich, and the region’s suburban rail system, the S-Bahn (the ‘S’ stands for schnell or fast in English), connects the city with cities and villages within the region. The Zürich S-Bahn is operated by the Swiss National Railway and other companies under contract to the regional public transit coordinating agency: the Züricher Verkehrsverbund (ZVV) (German).

Campaign poster opposing combined S- and U-Bahn network in 1973.
Campaign poster opposing combined S- and U-Bahn network in 1973.

An S-Bahn system was included in the 1973 public transport plan along with a metro. That initiative was rejected, but voters liked the idea of the S-Bahn. They voted in favour of building the S-Bahn in 1981. Today’s S-Bahn network is the result of a massive building project completed in 1989 that included construction of a four-track S-Bahn station under the main train station (Hauptbahnhof), a tunnel under the old city, and a tunnel under the Zürichberg. The new station allowed S-Bahn trains to travel through the main station rather than using the push-pull operation required in the surface terminal; this made it possible to operate new routes and greatly increased the flexibility and efficiency of S-Bahn operations.

An important part of the S-Bahn initiative approved by the voters was the condition that fares and schedules for all the region’s public transit operations be coordinated—which led to the formation of the ZVV.  More history of the S-Bahn is available in Implementing Zürich’s Transit Priority Program. (or, short version: Zurich Transit Priority 2003).

Campaign poster for Zürich S-Bahn project in 1981. Project approved.
Campaign poster for Zürich S-Bahn project in 1981. Project approved.

The S-Bahn runs on a clockface schedule: all the lines operate every half-hour (some are more frequent) at the same time each hour. For example, the S-16 trains leave Stadelhofen Station for the airport at 12 minutes after the hour and 42 minutes after the hour, all day long, from about 6 am until midnight. In the city of Zürich, there are often several different S-Bahn lines that operate on the same sections of track, so it is possible to take any one of these trains, leading to a much higher effective frequency than every half hour.

The S-Bahn schedule is also used to coordinate bus services outside the city of Zürich. For example, the S-Bahn train arrives at a given station every half hour. Approximately three minutes after the train arrives, the buses waiting at the train station depart on their routes. These buses return to the station approximately five minutes before the train arrives, allowing for easy transfers. At some of the larger stations, passengers transfer from express S-Bahn trains to local S-Bahn trains. A good station to visit if you want to see how this timed-transfer system works is Wetzikon (take the S-5 express S-Bahn from the Hauptbahnhof or Stadelhofen station).

Construction of Zurich HB City Link Tunnel, January 2010.
Construction of Zurich HB City Link Tunnel, January 2010.

The original S-Bahn has been so successful that Zurich voters approved construction of a second underground through route called the Zurich Cross City Link or Durchmesserlinie (German). This is a line under the Hauptbahnhof to Oerlikon Station. The project includes a four-track underground station at the Hauptbahnhof (Löwenstrasse Station), a long railway viaduct between Altstetten and the Hauptbahnhof, the Weinberg Tunnel (map) and extensive improvements (including addition of a track) to the Oerlikon Station. The project has been completed and currently serves S-Bahn and long distance trains.

The S-Bahn is still a victim of its own success and the region is investigating new ideas for increasing and improving service. We wrote a TRB paper about some ideas: A Level-based Approach to Public Transport Network Planning (TRR 2015, no. 2537).

All the major public transport projects currently underway or in the planning process are described on the ZVV Projects (German) page.

Zürich’s Integrated Public Transport System

Zürich S-Bahn new level floor cars, October 2009.
Zürich S-Bahn new level floor cars, October 2009.

Many large cities have developed three-level transit systems. These systems consist of buses or trams for short trips, metro or subway systems for intermediate-length trips, and suburban rail systems for longer distance (regional) trips. In contrast, Zürich has adopted a two-level system to serve all trip lengths by implementing the transit priority system—which allows the buses and trams to serve both short and intermediate-length trips efficiently—and by building more S-Bahn stations within the city than typical suburban rail systems—which allows the S-Bahn to serve the longer intermediate-length trips and regional trips. This combination of transit priority and S-Bahn is a very good fit for Zürich and cost far less than constructing a metro system.

Zürich Transportation: More Information

Selected sources for more information on Zürich’s public transport system:

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