Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘Zurich

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

“Metro Vancouver transit users to get smartphone tools”

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Kelly Sinoski in the Vancouver Sun says that Translink will release an app for real time information on bus service on September 6. “The first phase of the program will allow transit [users] to access a map that pinpoints the location of every Coast Mountain bus and community shuttle in real time”…”the second phase, which will predict a bus’s arrival at a particular stop, [will be released] early next year.”

Obviously this second phase will be a great deal more useful. Schedule information in a system where the bus is mostly at the mercy of traffic is not very much use at all. The fact that there is supposed to be a bus in five minutes is not helpful if the bus is running early or missing entirely – and neither circumstance is at all unusual. Of course, with rising passenger numbers and the lack of adequate funding, there is also absolutely no guarantee that you will actually be able to board the bus when it does arrive.

In a book review on the Spacing blog John Calimente has some interesting comments to make about Zurich, and why their system works so well even in their low density outer suburbs. He talks about timetables, transfers and frequency. In my comment after that, I point to the difference in political culture. The Swiss have never dropped their commitment to decent public services. Once they got railways and streetcars – and into some very challenging terrain – they ensured that it was not only usable but attractive. Of course they also have autobahns and high car ownership – but not instead of good public transport – as well as. Underlying much of what is wrong in many systems is the notion that somehow the people who use public services are not as important or as good as those who drive themselves. Mrs Thatcher’s famous remark about any man over thirty on a bus being a failure might be apocryphal but it certainly rings true in many ears. And many politicians at all levels seem to have bought into the notion that if a system benefits major corporations like General Motors or Exxon then it must be good for all of us. Certainly the corporations themselves have spent much on convincing all of us that should be the case. It isn’t. It never was.

Zurich Bicycles

Zurich Bicycles by Alex Minza, on Flickr

Transit is not a stand alone issue. We should be pursuing greater density anyway. It is simply a better, more efficient system all round. The fad of low density auto mobility is – or ought to be – over. It did not work as advertised, and under present circumstances cannot be allowed to continue. Urban areas with separated land uses and great distances between origins and destinations are hugely wasteful of resources – and created much social anomie. In this region we had appeared to recognize that, and congratulated ourselves on stopping one inner city freeway. But that was about all we did. Yes, SkyTrain was a significant decision. But we focus far too much on big projects and gee whiz technologies. Most of what Zurich has achieved is because they stuck to what they knew worked, and concentrated on making it work better. We can emulate that – but first of all we have to come up with what they had all along, which is a level headed approach to public service provision supported by taxation.

by ponte1112, on Flickr”]Triebwagen

Written by Stephen Rees

August 23, 2011 at 12:29 pm