Zurich Public Transport Priority

Zurich’s public transport system is one of the world’s finest because of the city’s comprehensive implementation of transit priority.

Public transport priority measures give transit preference over other vehicles. They make public transport attractive by increasing its speed and reliability. Public transport priority measures include:

  • Dedicated right-of-way;
  • Roadway improvements and regulations;
  • Traffic signal prioritization;
  • Operational improvements (e.g., proof-of-payment), and,
  • Complimentary measures (e.g., traffic calming).

Public transport priority is well understood (see NACTO Transit Street Design Guide) but too rarely implemented because cities fear backlash from automobile drivers.

Zurich Public Transport Initiative

Zurich’s comprehensive public transport priority program is a result of a 1977 citizens initiative that funded a program for speeding-up buses and trams operating on surface streets, and provided key political support for program implementation.

The history is interesting because Zurich citizens voted against an initiative to place trams underground in 1962 (Tiefbahn), and against building a metro to replace trams in 1973, before voting for the citizen-written public transport priority initiative. See Nash 2003, Nash and Sylvia 2001.

Transit Priority and Traffic Signals

Zurich has been exceptionally innovative using traffic signals to support public transport priority and sustainable transport. Three specific examples:

  • Trams and buses are (almost) always given priority at all traffic signals – this is achieved by adjusting the signal phasing and timing to reduce impacts on motor vehicle flow (Nash 2003);
  • Traffic signals are used strategically to control amount of traffic entering the central area – keeping streets free of gridlock – improving flow and safety for all users (Nash 2003; City of Zurich 2013; Ambühl et al. 2018
  • Traffic signals are used tactically to control traffic: for example, allowing trams to go ahead of automobiles when a street is reduced from two lanes to one (see photo);

Zurich’s success shows the importance of strong policy and technical expertise in traffic signal operations.

Public Transport Priority: A Future

Forty years after the citizens initiative public transport priority continues to work well in Zurich, although the city’s rapid growth is creating new challenges. Transit priority works by reallocating street space and time to public transport – today there are more people and goods to move, new modes of transport and growing demand for more liveablity in ever more crowded cities. We can learn two main lessons from Zurich:

  • First, public transport can be made highly attractive and efficient by giving buses and trams priority in street design and operation;
  • Second, changing urban travel behaviour requires strong policies, technical excellence and, (if you are clever, not as much as you might think), funding.

And, most importantly public transport priority has helped make Zurich one of the world’s most liveable cities, as seen in this delightful video from Norman Garrick and Streetfilms.

References

Public transport priority in 2020: Lessons from Zurich; Nash, Andrew, Francesco Corman, Thomas Sauter-Servaes; 8th Transport Research Arena; Helsinki, April 2020.

A Level-based Approach to Public Transport Network Planning – Orth,Hermann, Andrew Nash and Ulrich Alois Weidmann; Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, No. 2537; pp 1–12.

Public Transport Priority: The Bus from Curitiba – Live! – Nash, Andrew; Music video performed live; Andrew Nash’s YouTube channel; December 2014.

Implementing Zurich’s Transit Priority Program – Nash, Andrew; Transportation Research Record #1835; Transportation Research Board, Washington D.C.; 2003.

Implementation of Zürich’s Transit Priority Program – Nash, Andrew and Ronald Sylvia; Mineta Transportation Institute, San Jose State University; Report 01-13, October 2001.