Zürich sustainable transport

Posted on March, 01 2012

Leading the world for sustainable transport 

Leading the world for sustainable transport

Zürich's approach to sustainable transportation is both highly successful and widely relevant. Among its key innovations are excellent coordination and lower-cost infrastructure, e.g. trams and buses, while achieving highly competitive public transport services. Removing car parking also helped the city’s transition to more sustainable urban transport.

Keywords: sustainable transportation, democratic participation, service quality, light rail

In many ways Zürich shows how urban sustainability achievements are possible through well-planned public transport (see also Copenhagen, Portland and Vancouver). Zürich’s achievements include top worldwide ranking in urban quality of life, Europe-leading levels of public transport use, low-cost transport infrastructure, and limited car use even in the midst of high affluence.

A case can be made that Zürich shows the rest of the world's cities a highly relevant pathway for turning back road transportation's leading – and accelerating – contribution to climate change and its high use of energy and land – particularly through the vicious spiral of urban sprawl. Ecological footprint savings are multiple in Zürich's transport approach, and there are also greater possibilities to conserve greenspace and biodiversity. How does Zürich achieve this? A range of parts work together.
  1. Democratic participation. Contrary to predictions that democracy cannot prevent unbounded consumerism, Zürich’s experience begins with two cornerstone events of citizens' direct-democracy referenda in 1962 and 1973. These rejected expensive transport solutions of underground rail networks (metros/subways). Later, key commitments to sustainable transportation were made by strong legislation and regulations.
  2. Effective coordination. One body (Zürcher Verkehrsverbund) coordinates some 262 transport lines and 44 operators, and has power over budgets, pricing and financing.
  3. High quality transport services. In Zürich, to provide a competitive transport service versus cars, it has been important to provide: (a) service to residential areas through zone buses, (b) high frequency of departures, (c) coverage throughout day and night, (d) extensive geographic coverage, (e) integrated public transport travel passes, (f) targeted reduced fares, (g) customer-needs research, and (h) extensive communication to citizens through a wide range of media including direct marketing.
  4. Use of light rail. Light electric rail is widely regarded as the most sustainable motorized transport, for its high capacity, ability to use clean and renewable energy, inexpensive surface-based infrastructure – also space-efficient, safety, and preservation of urban spaces for multiple uses.
  5. Car-restrictiveness. This has taken forms such as (a) successful political opposition to building urban highways; and (b) overall restrictive parking policy in the city centre, also achieved through direct referendum and now limited to only 1 parking space per 1,200 sq meters.

What have the results been?
  • World top ranking in quality of urban life, for example ranked number 1 in Mercer's 2003 survey, in part due to excellent public transport systems and very attractive urban spaces
  • Europe's highest per capita use of public transport within two decades of starting its public transit
  • Highly sustainable commuting: in 2002, 74% of inbound commuting was by train
  • High quality public transport at lower costs with smaller infrastructure
  • Low and stable levels of car ownership (370 cars/1,000 persons) and car use (28% of all journeys), despite very high levels of income
  • About one-quarter of Zürich’s land area is in forests

Comparing Zürich with other leading European green transport cities, these data show the transport mode split for all residents’ trips in 1990:

City        Automobile      Transit       Walk-bicycle
Zürich            28                  37                    35
Basel             38                  30                    32
Amsterdam  31                  23                    46
Groningen    36                    6                    65
Freiburg        42                  18                    40
Source: table reproduced from Schiller, Bruun and Kenworthy 2010: 205

Timothy Beatley, 2000, Green urbanism: learning from European cities, Washington, DC: Island Press

Stefan Bratzel, 1999, “Conditions of success in sustainable urban transport policy – Policy change in relatively successful European cities”, Transport Reviews, vol 19, no 2, pp 177-190

Herbert Girardet, 2008, Cities People Planet: Urban Development and Climate Change, 2nd edition, Chichester: John Wiley & Sons

Jeffrey Kenworthy, 2006, “The eco-city: ten key transport and planning dimensions for sustainable city development”, Environment and Urbanization, Volume: 18 Issue: 1 Pages: 67-85

Peter Newman, Timothy Beatley, Heather Boyer, 2009, Resilient cities: responding to peak oil and climate change, Washington DC: Island Press

Preston L. Schiller, Eric C. Bruun, Jeffrey R. Kenworthy, 2010, An introduction to sustainable transportation: policy, planning and implementation, London: Earthscan

Wikipedia, no date, “[Mercer] Quality of Living Survey, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quality_of_Living_Survey

Zürcher Verkehrsverbund (ZVV), www.zvv.ch

Key data are retrieved from the UN World Urbanization Prospects: The 2011 Revision, http://esa.un.org/unup/unup/index_panel2.html

Text by: Aaron Thomas

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