Zurich – a better model, but not perfect

Northern Europe is sometimes seen as something of a promised land by those with a green/leftish bent, a placewhere a comfortable and pleasant urban lifestyle is maintained in harmony with admirable environmental sustainability. Zurich, like many other northern European cities, does indeed demonstrate much of this. Immaculate medium-density housing sits above attractive streetscapes. Frequent and clean public transport serves the city, and indeed pretty much the entire country. And transport modes and routes are, at least superficially, better planned. In central Zurich, light rail, trolleybuses and conventional buses serve for local transport; heavy rail is used for longer-range commuting and isn’t afflicted with stops every kilometre. Consequently, the public transport mode share is extremely high.

And then there’s private transport. Pedestrians are generally given priority on attractive streetscapes, and of course the Old Town is completely pedestrianized. And there’s a network of bike lanes that are quite heavily utilized. Despite Zurich’s hilly nature (hilly, not mountainous, the real mountains are more than 50 kilometres away), its cycling modeshare across the city seems to be roughly equivalent to the southern end of the People’s Republic (of Moreland). However, the demographic who rides is much broader; Grandma and Grandpa are perfectly happy to ride on the bike paths and streets. Hills? They put their sensible bicycles in the sensible granny gear and pedal up at 6km/h – or they ride the sophisticated e-bikes that are everywhere here – of which more in another post.

But it would be wrong, in my view, to assume that everything that everything relating to planning and transport in Zurich is brilliant.

There is almost nowhere on Earth – certainly nowhere that I have visited – that has the concentration of sports and luxury cars as Zurich. AMG Mercedes, BMW M3s and 7-series, Ferraris, Audi S8s, Porsche 911s; they make up an amazingly large percentage of the vehicles that fill Zurich’s main streets. And while they’re not afflicted by American-style monster trucks, there’s no shortage of Range Rovers cruising around. And I should clarify – the sedans in this collection are overwhelmingly the sports models, not the hybrids and turbodiesels that are popular in other parts of Europe. I’d be prepared to bet money that Zurich’s private vehicle fleet is no more economical – and possibly less economical – than Melbourne’s. And it’s worth remembering that even in the developed world’s most transit-oriented large cities, the majority of trips are done in cars, not by public transport. Fuel is a bit more expensive here than Australia, but it doesn’t seem to be discouraging its profligate use in Zurich’s car fleet.

Then there’s the bike infrastructure. Zurich has clearly made a real attempt to retrofit bike infrastructure to the city. But, particularly in inner Zurich, it is rather less than perfect. Lanes disappear, wander from the road to the footpath with sometimes poor signage – all the complaints that bedevil Melbourne’s bike lanes. Indeed, some of inner Zurich’s roundabouts are even worse for cyclists than the Royal Parade/Flemington Road/Peel Street roundabout. And it’s not like fixing these issues is rocket science; judicious application of some green force fields would go a long way.

And then there’s Zurich’s public transport ticketing system. At least some of the ticket vending machines speak English, which is nice. But the zonal system and ticketing structure makes Sydney’s look clean, let alone Melbourne’s dead-simple ticketing structure. In Zurich, by contrast, figuring out the most cost-efficient way to meet your transport needs for the day is nightmarishly complex. It’s difficult to be sure that your ticket is indeed covering your travel, and Zurich’s ticket inspectors look awfully like the goon squads that my former schoolmate Sal Kimber summed up quite nicely in her song “Met Police”. Contrast this with the much-maligned Myki; the only thing you need to do is ensure that it’s loaded up with enough cash, and it does the rest. No figuring out what ticket you need to buy, no question of whether you’re entitled to travel.

Oerall, in terms of sustainable urban planning,there’s no doubt Zurich is well ahead of Melbourne, or any other Australian city. But I think it’s worth noting that there are a few things in this problem domain where we actually do things just as well, or better.

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5 Responses to Zurich – a better model, but not perfect

  1. mick says:

    My take on transport in Zuerich was that it basically had a similar infrastructure model to many of the cities in Germany, however with a totally bizarro ticketing system.

    The number of fancy cars is pretty amazing. Then again, the average bank balance of your average resident in Zuerich is pretty impressive as well.

  2. And I was curious about the new cars and had a look at official statistics for 2010 (well it’s an overview by the department).
    avg ccm: 1951; avg hp: 158; avg weight in kg: 1489

  3. Interesting, quite interesting.

    Another city with a disproportionate amount of luxury cars is Hong Kong. Everything is either luxury or beat-up minivans – with little middle ground

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