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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Why can’t we be like Zurich?

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I retweeted this video this morning and as I sat watching it, I kept thinking about that question. Or perhaps we just need to rephrase: when Vancouver grows up, it will be like Zurich.

The bit of history that I think is important that is not mentioned in this video is about the trams. It is part of a European awakening. Cities like Amsterdam seriously considered replacing their trams (streetcars) with a subways. Others used a technique they called “pre-metro” to put the trams underground in city centres. And of course what happened in every case was the traffic expanded to fill the space available. So they stopped doing that. Places like Strasbourg designed the trams to be a desirable part of the city, not just a regrettable necessity. There is a lot about public transport in North America that reminds me of other public conveniences.

The same thing also happened in Toronto. When the Yonge Street subway opened, traffic in the City Centre increased because there were no longer streetcars on Yonge getting in the way of the cars. It might be significant that Toronto still has streetcars. It is also very significant that while the planners (transportation, urban and regional) all now think in terms of surface LRT, Rob Ford wanted a subway.

Some people have even referred to the referendum as Vancouver’s Rob Ford moment. And even Daryl dela Cruz is convinced that the choice of LRT for Surrey is increasing the No vote there.

In Zurich they did plan on a subway system. But the costs were astronomical. And they already had a tram network as well as really good railways, which provided both suburban and intercity services. The Swiss are very well off, of course, and Zurich is the centre of financial services. But they are also very keen on democracy and civic minded. An American in that video almost cannot believe that government can be genuinely concerned about people.

I have often thought that the reason we like SkyTrain so much here is that it keeps the transit out of the way of the cars. An elevated structure does provide a more attractive ride than a tunnel – and is considerably cheaper. But it also has an impact on area through which it runs. Not as horrible as the old elevated railways – which may have been taken down in Manhattan but are still the dominant mode of the New York subway in the other boros.

El Queens

I wonder if in some future Vancouver, having finally got up the courage to rip down the viaducts we will start planning to get rid of the SkyTrain structures. Or perhaps turning them into High Line style parks. SkyTrain of course has to grade separated because of the LIM rail.

The British method of light rail is to use old railway lines wherever possible, but on street running in town centres. In Paris even though there is a disused Petite Ceinture railway line parallel to its route  – grade separated at street crossings – the new T3 runs in the centre of the boulevard. The “art of insertion” is actually just removing space that is now taken by cars (moving and parked) and replacing it with people. Lots of people.

New tram station under construction

Here we seem to be much less concerned about people. The Cambie Street line had to be underground because the City had designated much of the route as The Heritage Boulevard. A broad strip of grass with some large trees. Not actually usable. No one plays on it, or sits watching the cars speed by. There are no couples strolling hand in hand on those lawns. Cutting down trees for a transit line – or widening the Stanley Park causeway – is a red flag. Oddly, not for wider sidewalks and bike lanes apparently.

The other thing I noticed about Zurich’s city centre was the absence of towers. This is also common in much of Europe. In cities like Rome or Florence the centro storico is four to six stories maximum. Unless it’s a cathedral or something. Paris does have towers – but only one at Montparnasse which is widely derided or clustered in La Defense (which is the location for shooting dystopian SF films).

You will also note that the film concentrates on the decisions to limit parking and the volume of traffic allowed into the centre.

One other thing that needs to be said too is that the Swiss are very particular about who they let in to live there. I haven’t looked but it seems to me highly unlikely that the Zurich region is planning on absorbing another million people in the next thirty to forty years.

Haven’t I written all this before?

Written by Stephen Rees

March 27, 2015 at 10:31 am

13 Responses

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  1. Good question!

    Worth to note that the subway plans ostensibly designed to “cut congestion” have been defeated twice per referendum…

    all what the video and you marvel at has been approved by a People initiative referendum in 73, put in place to counter those subway referendums then touted to “relieve city congestion”. It was called the “Transit first” initiative. The initiative aimed to put trams and bus in transit lane only, and other low cost measure:

    The traffic priority measure as shown in the video was part of this measures. achievement Goals in term of reliability and speed of transit was layed down (so that as today, the Zurich transit network literally work as a Swiss clock).

    The “Transit First” ballot wording was including the municipal parliament recommendation to vote “no” to it (“it was going to increase congestion and all other sort of calamities”):

    It passed in a watershed and as illustrated in the video, the policy worked very well : The S-bahn later on became a no-brainer (address the demand).

    So, in addition to illustrates that the defeat of a referendum is not the end of the world, Zurich provides foundation stones to a plan B for improving Transit in the region.

    …and the bahnhofstrasse a model for Robosn, including Robson square, to improve the Transit integration in the city fabric

    see also here for a little more of context


    March 27, 2015 at 12:24 pm

  2. So the real distinction becomes ‘Transit lines AND cars’ vs. ‘Transit lines INSTEAD OF cars’. It seems that a more mature city tends to go for the latter, while a younger city goes with the former. Perhaps this will change as the population changes. That change would be due to Millennials preferring the cities to suburbs along with an influx of people who were familiar with better transit in the cities where they used to live. Those are the people who don’t own cars, or perhaps use car-sharing when they need them. As for the die-hard car owners who prefer sprawl (and in this group, I place the stubborn and largely intransigent population of the Surrey suburbs), the current transit vote may very well show that they outnumber the younger city dwellers, but that can’t be the status quo forever, and this gives me some hope.

    However, what makes me sad, is that the relative wealth of Canada (along with the rest of the world) will start to diminish as countries have to spend more and more just to keep the rising oceans at bay, as well as feed more people with fewer crops. True, the poorer nations will feel it first, but it will affect every country. Large projects like transit systems may very well be out of reach of many ‘1st world’ countries in the next 10-20 years, depending on how bad the yearly weather damage begins to climb. Because this window is closing, it may be very hard times for the next 2 to 3 generations, and after that, no one can be sure.


    March 27, 2015 at 12:50 pm

  3. Well even if I had written it before, I am not going back to edit it now, as it has got two very good comments already. Thank you both!

    I really appreciate your European knowledge here, Voony and David provides some broader context. I agree that we need to start moving much faster on adapting to climate change. And to add to that I am not really all that happy about the way we seem to be ready to welcome technological change as a way to keep on driving. And, of course, it is not just transit it is creating places that work much better for people – who may as easily be walking or cycling.

    Stephen Rees

    March 27, 2015 at 1:04 pm

  4. About the cycling: Notice how fit everybody looks! I feel that if I travel there, I must get in shape or look like a typical obese North American (and I’m not even as bad as most of the people I see in the US!)


    March 27, 2015 at 1:13 pm

  5. I have been to Zurich several times in the past although my personal knowledge is almost 10 years out of date and did not watch the video yet. A few points to remember. Transit in Zurich is great. But much more so than the trams which are mainly for getting around the central area the S-bahn is the key. The S-Bahns/intercity trains are in their own rights of way and all crossings are grade separated, mainly in tunnels downtown. All that transit cost a lot of Swiss Francs. It is clearly worth it.
    That said, if we want to do the same in Vancouver we will need to do it incrementally because if we take too many lanes too fast we do not have the same fall back to the S-bahn for moving people. I am not saying we should not implement transit only lanes and signal priority, just saying we will need to go slow while making sure we can offer rapid transit alternatives. If we don’t have the S-Bahn equivalent and take too much road space away it will not work. In Vancouver Skytrain is sort of a mutant between metro and S-bahn, I don’t like it as much as the S-Bahn but we are not in Zurich either and I would not start from scratch either (with the possible exception of the Arbutus corridor I can’t think of a single viable budget friendly corridor it would work on (personal dreams of a new Fraser crossing with tunnel to the existing rail line in the cut for a direct to downtown BCR line to Langley aside)).
    What I would like to see is a look at all the Bus routes in Vancouver that get delayed in congestion and say every route that gets more than 2000 pphpd (or the equivalent of 1 lane of cars) gets its own lane and signal priority at intersections that don’t have other bus routes crossing. Signal priority is an advantage Zurich has over us. The transit routes are much more radial than our grid so they can assign signal priority for transit easier. Here if you give signal priority for transit on Broadway, you screw transit on numerous other routes.
    Sorry that was a bit rambling.


    March 27, 2015 at 5:13 pm

  6. Re: ‘SkyTrain must be grade separated because of the LIM rail’ – it must be grade separated because it runs at 80km/h (faaar faster than any light rail system in mixed traffic) and because it is automated. The LIM rail is just an inert piece of metal sitting in the middle of the tracks. There are power rails on the sides of course, but those could be replaced with an overhead system if someone so desired. However you can’t possibly run a train at SkyTrain speeds without a dedicated guideway.

    Re: Cambie Heritage Boulevard: It’s worth mentioning that those boulevards in Vancouver were set aside as a land allocation for freeways. Kind of ironic when you think about it, that we couldn’t get our transit at-grade due to a freeway land allotment that then turned into a tool of the NIMBY crowd along Cambie, most of whom have long since moved away or sold their places to developers now that transit actually exists along there…


    March 27, 2015 at 9:03 pm

  7. Bryn, the Cambie Boulevard (the correct term is ‘median’) was not set aside for a freeway. It was one of the few things realized from the Bartholemew Plan and in my opinion increases the quality of urban design in South Vancouver. One must appreciate the sequoia trees are still in their infancy and will become towering natural legacies. The Burrard Bridge was also part of Bartholemews’ vision.

    The planned north-south freeway would have wiped out all the blocks between Ontario and Quebec Street (literally hundreds of houses) from the viaducts near False Creek to Richmond.


    March 31, 2015 at 12:28 pm

  8. Interesting, I can’t find any of my original references that had led me to believe that about Cambie boulevard / median, or really even remember where I acquired that particular tidbit. But I did find old drawings confirming the Ontario / Quebec routing. Thanks for the correction!


    March 31, 2015 at 12:34 pm

  9. Apologies in advance for the length of this comment.

    Zurich S Bahn map:

    I always marvel at the assumption that a particular mode of transit will lead to desirable European urbanism. Thanks to Rico for pointing out that the S-Bahn does indeed comprise their fast regional rail service, similar to SkyTrain here. We need to keep in mind that transit service must suit the given or planned urbanism, and it’s plainly obvious that the tram streets are NOT suited for the fast regional rail service which, if one swoops around on Google Earth, you’ll find are in railway cuts. Transit planners are not architects; nevertheless, the tram route planners showed great respect for the existing architecture.

    According to one history site, Zurich’s first truly Euro settlement was a 15 BC Roman military base. Its current street layout evolved from the Middle Ages when horses, donkeys, carts and walking people going about their business. Then, of course, came late 19th Century rail which, along with uniformly zoned building heights, must have cleared large swaths of tightly packed housing. In Vancouver at that time settlements were just starting to displace several aboriginal villages scattered around the waterfront between great old growth forests. And of course, the architecture and urbanism of Zurich are not the product of a 75-year onslaught of Autotopia. Here in the Colonies we are facing a massive urban restructuring beyond the 19th and early 20th Century inner city because of fossil fuel depletion. Zurich may suffer a bit at its periphery, but it will no doubt carry on without losing a step, at least as long as wealthy people continue to deposit their money there.

    There are a few similarities. The City of Zurich today occupies an area a scant 10km x 6km and remains at 400,000 people or two thirds of Vancouver’s, while the Metro is 1.9 million vs. Vancouver’s 2.4 million. Zurich and Vancouver have very similar population densities (4,550 people/km2 v 4,625 p/km2 respectively), yet have very different urbanism because the density is distributed differently and the architecture responded to dissimilar conditions. We share the attribute of dramatic mountain scenery and extensive waterfronts. Both are democratic and rest within advanced industrialized nations. Both are currently expensive places to purchase a home. There the similarities end.

    The differences include the superior banking and financial capabilities of the Swiss, which they conjured without having the same massive natural resources we had. Instead they managed their resources a lot better (e.g. thousands of rural woodlots and farms are hundreds of years old and are thriving). We could learn from that. They kept their urban and intercity passenger and freight rail despite the challenging topography and a half century of cheap oil. We were subsumed by an extractive economy and are only now learning about the higher values of tech, manufacturing, value-added and conservation. They avoided adopting much of the North American wholesale sinkhole of freeways, malls, sprawl and totalitarian car dependency, and therein will largely avoid the forthcoming necessity to redesign their suburbs and transport at great cost. The people of Zurich have the capacity to avoid expenditures on cars because of their high quality, multi-modal transit system. The Swiss national government is no doubt much more involved in sharing the capital and operating costs of urban infrastructure, and that includes massive investments in projects like the Gotthard Base Tunnel for high speed rail moving both people and freight through the EU Alps. Here we cannot depend on the federal government to recognize that cities are the engines of the economy and the loci of culture.

    Should one feel the need to move to Zurich after watching that great doc on its transport, then here are a few other little things to consider from the website Numbeo.

    Indices Difference (updated March 2015 from many sources):

    Consumer prices in Zurich: 74.85% higher than Vancouver
    Consumer prices including rent: 68.42% higher than Vancouver
    Rent prices: 57.11% higher than Vancouver
    Restaurant prices: 110.9% higher than Vancouver
    Price of groceries: 66.46% higher than Vancouver
    Local purchasing power: 50.72% higher than Vancouver

    Zurich has a cost of living index higher than (highest to lowest) NYC, London, Sydney, Vancouver, Berlin, Beijing and Rio. You will need 60% more income to maintain the same standard of living in Zurich as Vancouver. Apartments listed in either inner city and suburbs are 95.71%-99.32% higher per square metre in Zurich than Vancouver. Zurich incomes are on average 153.85% higher than Vancouverite’s, which lowers their real estate price to income ratio to 7.86 compared with Vancouver’s 10.13.

    All this is to say that while there is much to admire about places like Zurich, they are very different in many ways from Vancouver with completely divergent histories, opportunities and challenges. We cannot be like Zurich, but that doesn’t mean we cannot be more sustainable and better at placemaking.


    March 31, 2015 at 3:39 pm

  10. There is still a lot of confusion about the appropriate layer of rail to be applied to various parts of a city.

    Jarrett Walker clarified this issue in a couple of posts on Human Transit a couple of years ago on the Broadway subway. It’s obvious the trams in Zurich are performing the same function as the trolleys in Vancouver. These are distinctly a slower, local pedestrian –scale service. While trams are often more attractive (Strasbourg comes to mind as well as Zurich) one has to be careful when surmising that trams can replace buses. Taking it at a face or numerical value, a one-to-one tram-trolley displacement would be a very expensive proposition for no improvement in transit performance. Signal priority, dedicated medians, etc. move the scope up to another level and may not be appropriate on some streets where pedestrian traffic is high.

    Moving up the scale to regional service, SkyTrain and S-Bahn also perform a similar regional service where speed really counts. It just doesn’t make any sense to propose that slow trams can become extensions of a fast regional transit service as some tramophiles have proposed for Broadway. That is exceedingly problematic. SkyTrain has not just the attribute of speed, but also frequency and therein capacity, and roads like Broadway present some unique challenges of geometry, such as the density of intersections each with a significant amount of cross traffic controlled by signals to have surface rail of any kind be classified as viable. This is not a statement meant to protect the existing road traffic capacity. Broadway needs both slow local and fast regional transit, so both grade separation and utilization of the surface are required for transit. IN my view that is accomplished with SkyTrain in a subway (1 km station spacing) and an improved surface #9 trolley service (2-block stop rhythm assisted with curb bulges).

    I also believe there is an intermediate level between slow trams and fast and frequent S-Bahn / SkyTrain, and that would include high capacity light rail in a dedicated median with ~500m station spacing. The Arbutus Corridor, 41st Ave, 200th St, King George are a few routes that come to mind.

    There you have it: three layers of rail within city boundaries.

    Changing urban design and architecture is an entirely different matter.


    March 31, 2015 at 4:35 pm

  11. Hi MB,

    Thanks for the detailed posts. I have a couple of thoughts. The first is that S-bahn is not really like Skytrain, it is more like reliable, all day bi-directional commuter rail. I am pretty sure that stop spacing is wider than Skytrain (just personal recollection, not fact checked), as such it is faster over long distances than Skytrain. In a perfect world we would have something like the S-Bahn. We do not live in a perfect world and Skytrain actually does pretty good…although it would be painful to take Skytrain from Langley to downtown if it was ever expanded that far. Another tangent I would like to go on is I don’t remember significant crowding on the various forms of transport in Zurich (I travelled mainly non rush hours though). Service levels are high enough that the trams have space, so do the buses and the trains, this makes the service more enjoyable but costs more money. Zurich has committed to spending money on transit. Too bad we don’t.


    April 1, 2015 at 1:14 pm

  12. Hi Rico,

    Good points on transit.

    It would be a struggle to force Vancouver transit to copy cities like Zurich. However, there are some comparable modern urban design precedents, even without the setting.


    April 2, 2015 at 12:07 pm

  13. Each layer of transit (S-bahn, metro, tram, bus) serves a distinct purpose. A city that neglects one of the layers or attempts at a one-size-fits-all solution will always leave someone inconvenienced.

    Commuter rail like WCE can be fast, but often runs only in peak hours and only in the peak direction. It is not a replacement for S-bahn.
    SkyTrain covers the metro layer well because it offers very high frequencies. Over longer distances it becomes a bit slow compared with S-bahn.
    Vancouver has attempted to fill the tram gap with express buses that fail the comparison in almost every respect:
    – trams have a dedicated ROW and separate signalling. Metro Vancouver has no transit priority signalling and few transit lanes
    – where a dedicated lane exists, the express bus is forced to share it with low speed local buses, taxis and vehicles making right turns
    – depending on length a tram can hold 2-5 times as many passengers as an 18m bus
    – tram offers a superior ride with no potholes or traffic induced sudden stops (standing on a rail vehicle can exceed the comfort of sitting on a bus)
    – express buses sometimes share stops with other buses and may be obliged to wait for another vehicle to clear the stop before they can proceed

    Express buses do offer some advantages:
    – there’s no need to lay expensive rails
    – buses can re-route if need be
    – shared stops are advantageous for passengers who can reach their destination using more than one bus number


    April 3, 2015 at 4:47 pm

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