Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
A Swiss Lesson in Enlightened Street Design (citylab.com)
265 points by bschne 19 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments

There's an important point appearing about 2/3rds of the way into this article: Zürich was not always oriented towards public transportation, and was in fact much more car-oriented in the post-WWII years. It was conscious, intentional, and relatively recent urban planning that made it the way it is today.

Something similar also occurred in bike-friendly Amsterdam, which as recently as the late 60's was much more car-friendly and much less bike-friendly.

Some folks, when shown successful examples of public-transit centered European cities, claim that it would never work in the United States, in part because, they claim, the Euro cities naturally evolved in such a way as to be more amenable to public transport than automobiles. Well, it just isn't so!

It's stated in the article but it's not really accurate.

Zürich is thousands of years old. It was never particularly drivable. There a very brief period of time where they tried to make driving easier, then gave up. It was always a high density city that was fundamentally walkable. During the brief period of auto-friendliness, there was also a tram system that remained operational.

Most American cities have no such density. You could magically make all the streets narrow, rip out all the interstates and install a tram system in, say, Omaha, and you wouldn't have a functional city. You'd just have ~500,000 people who couldn't get around.

That’s not quite true.

Many American cities did have this kind of walkable orientation and moderate density - they give the example of Bridgeport CT in the article, showing what it looked like in 1913 and what it looks like now.

What many American cities did not have was the population that they have today. It is indeed quite different to talk about retrofitting the suburbs, where a hundred million or so Americans live, where there was never anything but car-oriented development.

The cities and towns that pre-date that era, however, could have easily grown this way instead of the car oriented way.

The real problem is that car oriented development scales very poorly, and there are few or maybe no easy ways to adapt it to accommodate either higher density or more traffic from more horizontal adjacent growth.

> The real problem is that car oriented development scales very poorly, and there are few or maybe no easy ways to adapt it to accommodate either higher density or more traffic from more horizontal adjacent growth.

Hmm. And what would be the result of that? It might be that cities become more expensive. And I keep reading about how American cities are too expensive, and how the lack of affordability is causing all kinds of negative sociological effects. Could the car focus be the root cause of that?

Some cities are vastly more expensive than others. Most of the reasons for the expense is not related to cars vs transit. Of course a growing city will be more expensive than one in decline, some growing cities are significantly cheaper than others. Huston is the poster for a car oriented city that isn't very expensive - they have built and built so that is possible to afford a house. Transit oriented New York is less affordable than that (but overall not too bad)

Most American cities had population peaks in the immediate postwar period.

Among other things, (a) many white people moved out because they could keep people of color out of living in the suburbs, (b) the federal government heavily subsidized suburban sprawl and the car transportation network. Cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flight

Not the metropolitan areas, though.

What a “city” is depends on your local history and how arbitrary political lines in the sand were drawn.

>Not the metropolitan areas, though.

At some level, that's true. For example, if you take the US census definition of "urban," which some 80% of the US population lives in, there's been pretty much steady urbanization. But most people don't mean places like where I live--with about 3 houses scattered across 100 acres--when they talk about urban although it is according to the census.

On the other hand, the city of Boston--for example--whose political boundaries more or less correspond to good public transportation and the like (or mostly a bit bigger than that) was losing population into the 1990s.

Zurich, a city of 400k, has suburbs housing another 1.2M [1]. People in there also don't use cars: you can have a commute via a bus, train and two trams and nobody will bat an eye.

[1]: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zurich_metropolitan_area?wpr...

>>It was never particularly drivable.

Neither are lots of other very dense cities in Europe, say in Italy, Germany, Spain etc. yet they drive and park in crazy ways.

Space is _but_ a factor. People react to policy incentives and available alternatives.

Make parking scarce and expensive, create convenient/affordable public transport or park & ride, and your city will be the better and more humane for it.

Something I've come to realize is that the automobile industries in each country play an important role.

Switzerland and the Netherlands don't have any major car manufacturing, though I do bet they have some suppliers. And it doesn't even have to be a direct influence (like the LA streetcar story), it's just a background of economics, priorities, and zeitgeist. Politicians and planners won't be as tempted to go against cars when some non-negligeable percentage of their economy (already fragile) is based on car manufacturing.

European countries with large auto manufacturers like France, Germany, and England (also Spain and Italy) still have better transit and town planning than the US (due to history and density), but they won't be as actively seeking car-less solutions (at least until there is total gridlock in the hyper-center). But I think even there, people are realizing that in the suburbs and between towns you need cars, but if you're going to the city center, you're much better off with transit and walking.

Switzerland has fairly high rates of car ownership per capita: 716/1000, vs 811/1000 for the US, according to Wikipedia. The Swiss rate of car ownership far exceeds that of Germany (561), France (478), or even an auto-oriented country like Italy (625).

I think that calls into question your hypothesis: first, direct ownership by voters seems like it should have at least as great an effect on politicians' behavior toward auto transit as would the existence of domestic auto manufacturing, and, second, it demonstrates that Switzerland's car-unfriendly urban planning (and, moreover, extremely high rail density nationwide) does not result in a crippling of the domestic auto market.

Of course, this has to be viewed through the lens of wealth; Switzerland also has the highest wealth per capita in the world, so of course people can afford to keep a cheap Maserati for weekend trips. Given that confounding variable, direct comparisons are hard.

(But I also don't really understand the comparisons you make to other European cities; Italian inter-city transit is heavily car-based, but large cities like Milan have quite functional urban transit, and large cities and small towns alike have limited-traffic zones. Paris certainly has large thoroughfares, but I don't think there has been a lot of widening; the Champs Élysées predates automobiles and serves more as a venue for parades and the like than as a functional high-throughput road.)

So, hard to compare data apples-to-apples, but I think your assumption that urban planning is heavily responsive to the presence of a domestic auto industry is not entirely credible.

The sad part is that this thinking gets entrenched in certain populations. People loose idealistic thinking and prefer to stick with the status quo. Even sadder that these certain populations are more likely to vote than those that would stand to benefit from public transport.

It comes as no surprise that politicians lean so heavy on NIMBY policies when in CA 2/3 of homeowners vote compared to 1/3 of renters. Politicians are listening to those who've elected them, so if we want change and functional transport more people have to vote in local elections.

I mean, this sounds good in theory but we have mandatory voting in Australia and all the same problems anyway. There's barely any correlation between people's votes and their interests, unless those interests are so simplified that they can be exploited (i.e everyone voting over and over to lower taxes no matter what they lose in return).

Even if you could get all the renters in California to vote, half of them will probably support more roads and urban sprawl anyway.

> The sad part is that this thinking gets entrenched in certain populations. People loose idealistic thinking and prefer to stick with the status quo. Even sadder that these certain populations are more likely to vote than those that would stand to benefit from public transport.

The status quo actually works on some level. Idealistic thinking often leads to thinking that big disruptive changes will make things better when there are always vastly more ways to make things worse than better. Idealistic thinking is far from an unalloyed good.

I still find it wild that the CA state legislature is arguably the most progressive state legislature in the country... until someone wants to build some apartments.

>>that the automobile industries in each country play an important role.

This. Like the articles states, it's thanks to lots of local resident activists that Zurich got rid of the car-centric urban design. Same for Amsterdam - the protests there was triggered by a string of child deaths in car accidents.

There is _no_ city _inherently_ unsuitable to becoming less car-centric. Yes, some factors like density may facilitate it, but ultimately it requires civic responsibility to win over entrenched interests or just plain human psychological short-sightedness.

Funnily enough, one of the scenarios in SimCity on the SNES was dealing with Bern traffic in 1965. I remember that one being pretty easy as all you needed to do was bulldoze a bunch of roads and replacing it with rail.

Funny how such blatant propaganda passed right under the noses of millions of kids.

Finding the easiest way to solve a problem given constraints is a poor exemplar of propaganda. I’m sure it is and was possible to build perfectly lovely car centric cities in various Sim City games.

If your problem is congestion you need to increase capacity. This requires either bigger tubes (freeways instead of single lane roads) or fitting more stuff into the same tubes, greater pressure (a tram or some other form of rail). If you want to maintain a historic city you can’t do a total rebuild so you can’t build freeways. Thus rail is the only solution apart from congestion charges.

Reality constrains possible solutions. If you model reality in a game the solutions won’t be too much different.

That trains can transport a lot more people than cars is not propaganda, it's just a fact of life.

Squint your eyes at a traffic jam on a European roundabout, and you will easily see the non-existent train in that stretched out line of cars.

Sim City (especially later versions) has generally been built around models based on American car-centric planning. The game very much encourages sprawl-style development.

That there’s no mixed use zoning kind of says it all. Although, rather adorably, apparently a lot of city planners were inspired by Sim City! [1]

[1] https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/la-fi-tn-simcity...

And yet we're still waiting for our Arcologies.

I remember reading an article, probably linked from here, about how SimCity teaches some controversial "lessons" in terms of city planning. Interesting to think about that sort of subconscious (and probably unintentional) indoctrination

I wonder how bad it was during the transition though. Many people who urbanize in the US are still paying the full cost of a car while using transit when they can.

Interestingly London had one of the most extensive tram systems in Europe, but sadly it was mostly abolished in favour of the Car because:

1) cars = freedom

2) trams are for the poor

A good little mini-doc by Jay Foreman spells it out nicely: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ji3C_PjJonM

Interestingly, a very similar story in the UK surrounding bicycles. :\

I wouldn't call Zurichs streets perfect though; by sheer coincidence I spent the majority of today exploring the city for the first time in my life and was very confused on how to cross the road at a lot of very ill-thought-out junctions. And there are still a lot of very loud cars on the road.

However; I will admit there is a "feeling" when walking through the city that it was well thought out in general, I felt like I had a lot of space and I didn't get the same claustrophobic feeling I get in NYC or the cramped "intruded" feeling I get in London.

Well, part of that non- cramped feeling comes from the fact that it's a city that's almost an order of magnitude smaller than London or NYC. I'm a little bit torn because honestly, Zurich was one of my least favorite places in Europe: subjectively very sterile and boring.

Fortunately I've been to Zurich, London and Melbourne. Melbourne's inner city streets have good practical examples of all modes (tram, subway/heavy rail/car/pedestrian... limited separated bike priority examples though) as a practical study available in terms of street design and with a larger population, albeit still not as large as NYC or London.

An example of tram priority is available on street views of Collins st and Nicholson st Melbourne with a higher population. But we're still in a country/city with car culture as well.

Local experience here suggests that you still get this weird psychological effect: the number of people who have proclaimed to me the "wasted space" of the street down Collins is staggering, even though i would argue by objective accounts Melbourne CBD compared to Sydney CBD is a visible success story of pedestrian priority, vitality, and design. And when you sit down and actually do the numbers (as in physically count) these 'wasted streets' are moving more people than cars or buses on equivalent roads.

You also get this weird effect of out of towners or suburbanites proclaiming the superiority of buses: which I can't disagree more strongly with, and again point out that the areas with trams are bustling with life, value, density and services (it seems pretty objective to me to say the main problems/ limits is the traffic, not the trams) relative to the areas that many of these critiques come from, and yet there's a ststrange urge for outsiders to "fix" them with suggestions of cars/buses and how there's "wasted space" in the densest and most commercially and culturally successful parts of the city (with little introspective insight that the two might be fundamentally connected in some way).

Plus there's another side benefit: emergency vehicles can actually get where they need to go at all times of the day: rush hour, dead of night, doesn't matter, fire engines and ambulances can drive down these swerving around the trams. Good luck doing that on a non dedicated tram line during peak hour...

Where is a subway in Melbourne?

It's near tautological that tram is better for people who live and work and sleep at tram stops, and worse for people who don't.

Two things there:

I'm not sure that it is tautological.

There's a definite "psychology" of lobbying for more car resources and the psychological fury of being "caught behind a tram" or seeing the "wasted space" or a "tram going by ahead of you", but trap the same person in a car at a standstill in traffic with less throughput and the fury disappears and a kind of quiet resentment yet passive acceptance replaces it. Put a motorist behind a tram and it becomes the object of their hatred. Put them in gridlock and the car in front becomes "just a drop in the overall frustrating flow, with the proportional amount of blame".

Secondly, back to the "wasted space observation" phenomenon. There's this paradox of space wastage observations in the higher density/high utilisation part of town made by people from low density/low utilisation parts of town.

Higher density areas provide and support services that are intrinsically unattainable in low density areas, so it's not immediately apparent that someone outside the high density area is worse off, because they now have a greater diversity of opportunity/facilities accessible even if they live outside the high density area. You can visit and access those services even if you don't live there. Personally, i'd rather live in a Melbourne suburb without a tram than a Sydney one, because the Sydney CBD is comparatively dead/pedestrian hostile.

The obvious example is the central business district or downtown. While it's a popular polemical tactic to pit the car drivers against the dense pedestrian core, it's a very "brave" position to argue that denser well-connected areas provide no benefit to those who live outside them.

The counter example is the wasted space, neighborhood destruction and bizarrely barren wastelands of some American cities: strip malls, multi lane highways, car parks, etc, and the realisation that they can neither sustain thriving local communities or neighborhoods, but culturally can only be populated with mega-stores and generic chains/stores accessible by mass cars and mass culture.

If a tram station in front of someone else's house prevents a hundred cars from needing to drive past man, I'd consider that a net win for everyone.

Same thing in Munich. It feels pleasant to just walk around in a way that I haven't found in the US. Some US cities are reasonably walkable (e.g. SF, NYC, Boston), but they don't really feel nice to walk around like Munich. Munich manages to be fairly dense -- at least by American standards -- without feeling crowded.

They were also very effectively replaced with expanded rapid transit, regional rail, and buses, all of which carry many more passenger than trams ever did.

London still has one of the most extensive underground railway systems in the world, as well as the most iconic buses.

Notwithstanding the nostalgia that we often associate with them, trams are not a magical method of transportation. Nothing of value is lost if you can get the same job done with trains underground and buses above. Underground railways have the additional benefit of not taking up precious urban space that could be used by e.g. bicycles. It just happens that digging tunnels is much more expensive than embedding a pair of rails in the pavement, so cities have to think harder about short-term costs vs. long-term benefits.

Being on the surface adds a lot of value for short trips in a tram (or similar). To reach the subway takes 2-4 minutes of travel down to platform level and back up. To cross the car lane to the tram station in Zurich takes 10-30s if you see the tram coming or read the digital signage, and a few minutes later you can be at your intended destination. Zurich has of course large parking garages, and if you bring your car in to the city you would leave it there and be able to hop around on the trams & buses, taking only a few minutes between your different shopping and eating destinations. I also think as a wealthy car driver you can differentiate yourself from the poor public-transport-dependents by choosing to stand on the tram, showing off your high-end branded shopping bags.

I would very much love to agree with you. But London’s public transportation system, while very good considering its age and the extensiveness of deployment is not perfect; it is not a stretch to call it overburdened.

I lived there for 5 years and absolutely dreaded commuting.

A quick win would be to prevent the morning and evening rush. But that’s another discussion entirely.

If you have ideas on how to prevent that daily nightmare there are 10 million pairs of ears ready to listen :-)

I've done the London commute for 6 years now.

My solution : work out flexible hours with my employer. If I have the stand-up at 11 I can jump in the underground at 9:30, after the worst of the rush is done. Likewise in the evening, work until the worst of the rush is done.

My SO solution: live in the city, work on the outskirts. The commute is effectively against the traffic. Can get a seat and plenty of space at 8:30, top of the rush hour.

There are some solutions but I'm not sure that they scale, though.

Of course it's far from perfect. It's an ancient, organically grown city that contains roughly the same number of people as the entire country of Switzerland.

Instead of romancitizing about European cities that are 1/20 of their size, I wish Londoners and New Yorkers would look to China and Japan for better examples. Those guys know how to build and maintain 21st century infrastructure for millions.

> Those guys know how to build and maintain 21st century infrastructure for millions.

Maybe Japan? Haven't visited. But China has lots of terrible city planning and they are way too into cars. I lived in Beijing for 2 years and Beijing traffic is just the worse.

Beijing is also not a very good city to be a pedestrian in, as every major street typically has 12-16 lanes and waiting at intersections takes forever. It feels like walking along a motorway. Finding shortcuts throughs the alleyways of a city block is also really hard as many of them are gated. Same goes for any major Chinese city really, except for the ones with surviving colonial city centres like Shanghai. The metro is pretty good, but definitely not pleasant to use during rush hour, and changing lines usually entails a lot of walking around underground tunnels.

Transport For London itself doesn't look to small cities. They even offer consulting to large cities (Hong Kong, Sydney, Boston) to share their experience.


Trams are actually a strange beast that's not as cheap and flexible as a bus, and not as efficient as the underground but still quite expensive to build and maintain, which is the main reason many cities abandoned them. A big advantage is that they are electric but once electric buses really take off they'll be a much better compromise for public transport overall. Much of the surface traffic would have to be reduced anyway.

The main advantage of trams over a bus is that in general, the layout is more conducive for rapid boarding and alighting, and the trams can physically be longer and have more room for people.

The main advantage of trams over an underground is that they can be much cheaper to build. Crossrail 2 in London is expected to cost 32 billion GBP; you could build quite a lot of tram for that kind of money.

My untested theory re: trams over buses is that trams are predictably less random.

You’re a tourist. You board a bus. Where does the bus go? A: literally anywhere.

You’re a tourist. You board a tram. Where does the tram go? A: where those tracks, that I can see, go.

This is obviously less relevant for non-tourists but I wonder if it’s a factor nevertheless. It’s hard to go disastrously wrong on a tram, whereas on a bus you might find yourself inadvertently half way down the freeway.

You should see what busses are like now. They are twice as long with an accordion in the middle to round right angle turns. If you need more length you just run more of these busses on the lines. Some of the buss lines I take also accept paying fare at all three doors with the tap card (although fare dodgers are at least 50% of the riders on my bus).

Those buses in the US tend only to be 60 feet long.

To put this in perspective, the longest single tram unit is 183 feet long in Budapest: https://welovebudapest.com/en/2016/04/14/budapest-now-has-th...

And because trams are basically just street legal trains, they can be coupled together like a tram. Seattle eventually plans to couple 4 96 ft units together, for a total length of 384 ft. You couldn't run a bus that long safely in mixed traffic; trams are able to do this because the vehicle is fixed to the tracks.

Smartphones have probably changed that a bit. What you say absolutely used to be a factor in my not taking buses. I still don't take them much but it is easier to figure out the routing and where you are these days.

Only the fact that trams can be larger is inherent in trams. The rest could easily be applied to a bus if someone had the vision to do so.

It's not always _just_ about objective features. I really like trams and trains in general, because they feel "solid" – like an immovable part of the city infrastructure. There are mental benefits to this, I feel. Buses jostle around, abrupty change speeds, etc. Trams... just glide. You are on a movable walkway, seeing the cityscape unfold on both sides as you commute to work.

Trams do not glide. The trams in portland sound like nails on the chalkboard when they round a turn. They also vibrate and thud and have to deal with traffic all the same if they aren't grade separated.

The on-boarding/off-boarding efficiency of trams would be very hard to replicate in a bus design.

Low floor and equivalent disabled access would be hard too.

The efficiency of metal on metal movement is harder to match with buses.

Big heavy vehicles on bitumen and rubber particulate have environmental costs and maintenance costs (I haven't looked at this one, but people frequently ignore that tyres themselves being used create air particulate pollution).

You can have the equivalent shared pedestrian zone with a tram: search Bourke st mall Melbourne or watch how pedestrians jaywalk with abandonment down Brunswick st Fitzroy that you can't get with heavy rail because of the start/stopping times, and that you don't get with buses because pedestrians don't have the psychological certainty of their travel direction and momentum.

And lastly there is a real psychological town planning point with fixed rail that sees density and value build up around better around permanent paths and installments. It's well and good to dismiss that as someone could do it differently if they wanted to, but its arguing using "shoulds and coulds" against empirical reality.

> but its arguing using "shoulds and coulds" against empirical reality

Not every city sees it this way. Maintaining the existing infrastructure is very expensive (and even disruptive), not to mention building more. Many cities use it as a backbone to connect several main nodes which makes sense. But they are not very suited to having short stops, can't take you everywhere, and it's hard to re-plan. So in the end they still have to maintain some pretty massive bus fleets that can use already existing road infrastructure.

Vehicle features like accessibility depend on the model of bus or tram, modern ones all have them. And many cities find it a bad idea to mix any kind of traffic with pedestrian zones. The explanation of "travel direction and momentum" doesn't really make sense to me. Buses have a very obvious "front" while trams are usually perfectly symmetrical. And trams are far more dangerous in any accident (weight, stopping distance, metal wheels). If you ever saw a tram breaking down, an accident on the track, or works on the road you know how much more disruptive this can be compared to regular traffic (with trolleybuses coming in a close second). I lived in places where this happened every few days in the morning rush hour.

For cities with deep pockets and which can interleave tram and subway lines to have as much coverage as possible it may be easier. But most cities don't really have deep pockets. Which is why the are many bus-only cities, probably none or very few tram-only cities (none that I've heard of anyway).

If the goal is to replace personal cars a city has to offer something "close" in comfort. Electric buses are a good clean alternative and they're as close to personal car comfort as public transport will ever be.

Aren't most modern city buses with low floors and wheelchair ramps?

Like the other pros and cons, it's a matter of degree and trade off.

We have buses as well (I still use them locally for trips too). I don't have a wheel chair, but I do have a stroller and no car, so I'm using then both heavily. In my old city I often put my bike on the front of the buses and relied on the express bus with commuter dedicated lanes that came every 5 minutes for a commute which worked very well in a town of 400,000 of mostly car drivers. But does it scale?

You can get several prams practically straight onto and off of a flat bottom tram without almost any stopping or logistical penalty.

On buses, not only is it comparatively awkward to get on and off, you have to nod, thank, praise every other passenger for getting out of the way, and you spend most of your time praying you'll be the only one using that particular aspect of the bus, because otherwise it becomes a lot more complicated.

Could you run three times as many buses to accommodate? Sure, but then you end up running into increasing start-stop-merging problems and the bus bunching problem presents itself earlier along the supply curve than with the tram.

Getting the bike on a (small) bus is not the best experience. But that's what trains or subways are for. They take hundreds of people longer distances to the general destination area. Perfect use case if you cycle.

> a flat bottom tram

Only modern trams have this, just like any modern bus. But consider this, a single bus costs several hundreds of thousands of E/$ (double if it's electric). A single tram costs several millions. That's before laying track.

At least in the US, buses tend to only be partially low floor, with a higher section where the engine and fuel tank are in the back.

Bus tires also are generally larger diameter and wider than the wheels of a tram, so the wheel well physically juts out into the low floor section and reduces available space.

And (this may be fixable) the doors on a bus tend to be narrower, almost but not quite wide enough for two people to walk off simultaneously, and are more poorly laid out to minimize distance for passengers to the door.

They are and it takes all of two minutes for the buss driver do deploy the ramp and secure the wheelchair to the cabin

Two minutes is a long time in an individual person's commute, especially if it is done multiple times on the route.

Two minutes is often the difference between making a timed connection to another route and missing it.

In the US the only thing that stopped municipal trams was bribes from auto manufacturers

In LA they were run by a private company that was mandated by the city to keep fares the same as in like 1910 despite costs being far higher in the 1950s. Service was cut and cut and ridership therefore fell and fell until the company folded and the city ripped out nearly all the rails.

By contrast, nearly the exact same thing happened in NYC. All the trains there were private, went bankrupt, but the city bought and expanded the system instead of tearing it out.

Besides cost there is also time. Many of London's lines are very deep, and so it takes significant time just to get down there & back up again.

">Nothing of value is lost if you can get the same job done with trains underground and buses above."

I would argue that seeing day light is a thing of value. Also the ability to look out a window and see life is also much more interesting than staring out into dark lifeless subway tunnels. Berlin and Amssterdam both have trams and neither seems to have impinged on space for bicycles.

Trams have the advantage of not being blocked by traffic. You can achieve the same with dedicated bus lanes, but motorists don't always respect those and they take more space.

Not all trams have dedicated tracks. Usually some main lines, otherwise they share the road with cars.

The worst part is that they share intersections with regular roads, exactly where most accidents tend to happen. And the accidents can be a bit more disruptive because a tram can easily block even bigger intersections.

I think a cyclist would feel more safe and less gassed alongside a tram, than a bus (the majority of buses not being electric).

Why not trains underground and trams on the surface in the pedestrian environment like Melbourne CBD :p

(See my other post in this thread for real benefits and design choices trams make over buses and rail)


The immense streetcar network in the Los Angeles area.

Ripped out to run busses on freeways. Look at how that turned out. They were about to build an extensive subway network and grade separate many of the streetcars, but urban planners back then didn't think it would be possible for freeways to experience traffic.

Now, 60 years later, we are paying out the ass and taking decades on transit builds and all there is to show for the last 25 years of LA Metro is three light rail lines (none are grade separated, are crowded and delayed during peak hours, and they take 40 minutes to go from their termini to downtown), one heavy rail line that doesn't have enough stops or short enough headways, and a stub with, once again, not enough stops or short enough headways that they've been working on extending for three years and won't finish for another 4. There is also a BRT, which was supposed to be rail and funded to be rail, but LA Metro backed down to the 50 NIMBYs in the room screeching during the public presentations instead of plugging their ears and building better transit for the hundreds of thousands living along the orange line.

This city has 18 million living in the metro area and the transit system is an embarrassment. Every other major artery should have rail running underneath it by now. The whole LA basin should have a fisherman's net of trains criss crossing it by now.

The only saving grace is if the federal government one day steps in and plows through these transit projects with the army corps of engineers. LA Metro is in over its head and can't be trusted to pick a contractor that isn't going to overstate, embezzle, underdeliver, then get picked for the next contract because they've made friends with the board and did just sooo well on that last project that was overbudget and behind schedule.

Headways - I believe many Pacific Electric routes had a car every 5 minutes. Not once every 1/2 hour like a lot of light rail.

As somebody besides me put it, if you have to check the schedule it's not a real transit system.

This happened in a country with direct democracy, instead of the political complexities in my country (US). It also took a long time to implement (another downfall of US policy making). It's also a much smaller country. But I wish we could do this, but it seems unlikely in much of the US to ever move away from car central design.

It was the canton's decision. Direct democracy was involved [1], but at the local level, not nation-wide. People from other cantons in Switzerland had no say in this matter. The people of Zurich have decided that they want that. Zurich is not a big city, by global standards, but any city with similar size can make these decisions, if they want to pursue the same goals.

[1] Examples: in 2014 the people of Zurich decided (66% voted yes) to extend tram line 8, in 2017 that extension was opened. And just this year a the tram line 2 was extended to reach further into the suburbs of Zurich, and further work is planed for the next few years. People of Zurich also voted on these extensions, and will continue to in the coming years.

Well, it's definitely harder for cities in the US. The US' whole system from the federal level down through states and cities are designed to make things good for cars and terrible for everyone else. Like, just look at the interstate highway guarantee of paying the vast majority of costs for new freeways. There was certainly no such guarantee for public transport, or sidewalks, or bike lanes.

I’m curious about what their cost structure looks like. In SF building about 2.75km of a combo of bored tunnel and cut and cover tram tunnels cost $1.5 billion...

Construction of the tram 8 extension took place 2015-2017, total costs of 170mio. The length of new tracks was only a few hundred meters, the rest of the line is sharing tracks with existing lines. Everything above the ground. Difficult part of the construction was the fact that the new tracks were built across an existing bridge that is also used by car traffic. Nothing too difficult I suppose, just a bit of clever traffic management was needed (both during construction and afterwards).

I believe when the bridge was renovated a few years before, it was re-enforced to be able to take the load of a tram. The approval to run a tram over it came later.

Similar thing happened with the subway that was never built. The station and a few tunnels where already dug because of renovations but the people voted no on building a subway. That part of HB turned into the SZU Station.

The tram tunnels by the Tierspital where also meant for the subway from what I recall. When they converted those for the use with trams they had several issues like the tunnel being not heigh enough. You can see the tracks are very low and the electrical connection on top is almost completely compressed.

Zürich recently built a train tunnel that is 4.8 km long plus a 675 m trainstation 16m underground for ~USD 2 billion.



I don't know offhand what the current extension costs, but the full extension of 13.4km is projected to cost about $750M.

The Swiss take their roads seriously (I get to hear about it every night : ) ).

Other points not mentioned:

Switzerland has - effectively - no domestic car industry, so there were never any special interest groups with economic clout pushing to get rid of public transportation ala the US.

Zurich is not amenable to cars, and never will be because of how it's laid out.

The highways outside of the city are also designed in a way that makes capacity expansion extremely expensive and unfeasible. The Swiss need a way to limit or stop automobile usage growth, and heavily pushing public transportation is an effective way to do this.

also worth mentioning that the US highway system was also intended to facilitate troop movement, something that Switzerland is probably disinclined to enable within or across its borders

What makes you believe Switzerland is more disinclined to enable troop movement than any other country? They are blessed not to have fought in a war since ages, but they are not less ready for it than any other country.

Swiss defense needs are quite different from US ones, so it wouldn't be surprising if the preferred infrastructure were different.

I suspect their extensive rail system* is the logistical backbone of their defense plans.

...of course key tunnels and bridges will have mines (in the old demolition sense) in place to deny the infrastructure to an opponent. Same as they've done their road passes.


Same situation with trams in several cities in France (Nantes, Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Lyon, Lille, even small bits of the periphery of Paris).

It doesn't have to happen in the entire U.S. all at once, just a city at a time.

The Swiss are also quite civilized. Used to be (last I was there) that tickets were rarely checked on buses in Geneva. It was an honor system.

That empty space would get jammed before you could say "this is not Switzerland, Dorothy".

That's still the case on intracity transit throughout most of Switzerland. Intercity trains are nearly always checked though.

I think it's able to work because the fines are seen as high (90, 130, 160 CHF for the 1st, 2nd and 3rd violations and at some point they can force you to buy an annual pass) and because not paying the fines isn't really a viable option in Switzerland (they'll go into a debt register which is checked for a variety of reasons, it's kinda like the replacement for a credit report).

I don't know about exact policies on Swiss railway/local public transport networks, but I'm pretty sure by now fines and frequency of checks are calculated such that it ends up being cheaper for the transport company to only do random checking instead of check every ticket.

Where I live, the bus drivers will now only open the first door to inspect tickets, and then open all the back doors to let passengers out. I guess a lot of folks (especially kids) were not buying tickets. And the inspector doesn't have the authority to hold you or see your ID, so a lot of kids would just play dumb, ask to exit at the next stop or even argue with the inspector. I've even seen shoving and fights. Sometimes the bus driver would close all the doors and wait for the police to arrive. This of course aggravate everyone else on the bus. Other times they would have the police accompany the inspector.

It's also common to hear someone come in at the front and ask the bus driver to only go one stop without a ticket. I always thought it was a local or regional thing. Then I heard the same in a Toronto streetcar, on the other side of the world. A very surreal moment, it made me smile.

That is correct. There is a percentage of acceptable invalid ticket holders below which enforcment would cost more than the loss of ticket revenue.

They realized a long time ago that 100% valid tickets in impossible. Everyone can forget to buy the right ticket at some point in their life. We are humans not machines.

An honor system on ticket-checking can work fine if there's high enough fines for being caught without a ticket. If there's a 1 in 10 chance they'll check your ticket, and the fine on riding without a ticket is at least ten times the cost of a ticket, the government comes out even as long as the cost of enforcing the fines isn't higher than the money saved by not having to hire as many ticket-checkers (or spend as much time waiting at the stop because of not needing to check everyone's ticket).

The fine in Zürich is "only" USD ~100 plus the ticket you where supposed to have. However, if you get caught again the price goes up. Your record doesn't get deleted for at least a year. If you get cought more than 4 times they may take you to criminal court.

If you have a valid ticket on your name but not on you, they will issue the fine but you will get it reduced to USD ~10-25 if you show your pass at a station beuro.

Well I was there for a couple of years and iirc maybe saw it twice? So definitely not 1/10. But of course no doubt some sort of cost analysis informs the Swiss norms. But it's not just the buses, but fair disclosure, I did catch the famous "Swiss Bug". (I was going to say August is a great time to visit Geneva and catch Les Fêtes de Genève but apparently it is no more.)

It's to think of countries in the EU as more like states in the US.

At the state level in the US, a lot can be accomplished. I suggest spending a few days in Seattle, their bus system is similar to what this article describes.

I spent my youth in Geneva and the tram and buss system was fantastic. I could and did get all over town unsupervised as a 10 year old kid. I wish there was anyplace in the USA that had that level of access for our youth.

The primary thing that strikes me about that photo is how far apart the tram rails are. What's the space between the trams meant to be used for? Not cars, I assume, as that would slow the trams. It also doesn't look like a comfortable place for bikes. In fact, where are bikes even supposed to go on this street?

And if you pay attention to the car in the distance, you see that trams and cars are mixed in that direction; they're only separated in the direction away from the camera. Separating trams and cars completely might do traffic a lot of good here.

So it's not entirely clear to me what this street is supposed to be a good example of. Cars and trams separated in one direction, but not in the other (admittedly much less busy direction, at least at this moment). No space for bikes. It's not as punitive for cars as the article suggests, nor as great for trams as the article suggests. I guess it's okay for pedestrians.

The message of the article is certainly good: when it's crowded you need to invest in more efficient forms of transportation than cars. But that top photo is a poor example of that.

> The primary thing that strikes me about that photo is how far apart the tram rails are.

This image was taken right before the tram station, with no context at all. There is so much space wasted to allow the passengers to safely get off the tram without getting hit by cars (see 3rd picture to see how people get of the tram). This is done because they cannot move the buildings.

In the 2nd picture you can see how the tram continues and how the tram lines move together to allow for a |CAR|TRAM|TRAM|CAR| street.

> It also doesn't look like a comfortable place for bikes.

It is not, you drive in the middle of the street there to prevent cars from dangerously overtaking you.

> Cars and trams separated in one direction, but not in the other

Its only for a very short section

> I guess it's okay for pedestrians.

Sometimes you are faster walking up there than cars drive.

> It also doesn't look like a comfortable place for bikes. In fact, where are bikes even supposed to go on this street?

Another issue for cyclists is the permanent danger of getting your wheels in the rails, which means you are likely to either come to a sudden stop or, worse, come off your bike. There were experiments with "self-sealing" tram tracks that would lessen these risks, but no real solution exists quite yet, as far as I am aware.

It's a mistake everybody makes once, and then you learn to take tram rails at a sufficient angle. That's been my experience in Amsterdam. Also, when it's wet, there's the possibility of your rear wheel slipping on the tram rail if the angle is too small.

> The primary thing that strikes me about that photo is how far apart the tram rails are.

It's an anomaly on that street. The older building on the left edge of the picture protrudes further in than its neighbors, so at that spot, you could not fit two tram rails, two lanes of traffic, and reasonable sidewalks.

So instead, for a few meters, cars and trams share a lane, the sidewalks get wider, and pedestrians don't have to cross a lane to get into the tram.

You can see side by side pictures here: https://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/ted/de/index/taz/bauen/universi... (the new layout is very recent, and not yet visible on any satellite maps).

Can't find the exact location on google maps. But my guess is that there is a tram stop right next to where the person is standing. The fact that the tram blocks the cars is a good thing because it lets people get out without having to worry about getting run over by cars. This would be just one of many ways how tram stops are laid out along the streets. There are many factors that decide how they are built. Perhaps there was not enough space to construct a tram stop, two roads, and two tracks at the same location.

Found it on maps [0] (well 50m down the road, looking at the camera pos of the article), but it looks totally different. Way more conventional with both tram tracks in the middle of the road and cars outside. StreetView is dated 2014. I wonder when this picture is from.

[0] https://www.google.com/maps/@47.3838561,8.5483138,3a,75y,188...

In Amsterdam, trams stops have a platform for people to get on and off. Is that not a thing in other cities?

Also, if the tram stops cars, then cars also stop the tram, which means delays when car traffic is stuck.

> In Amsterdam, trams stops have a platform for people to get on and off. Is that not a thing in other cities?

Almost everywhere platforms in Zurich, but with very few exceptions.

> Also, if the tram stops cars, then cars also stop the tram, which means delays when car traffic is stuck.

Trams in Zurich steer the traffic lights (TF) => when a tram nears an intersection the TF will switch to let it pass and when it nears a section of road which is shared with cars that occupy it, the TF in front of the cars will let cars in front of the tram pass to free that section of street / lane so that the tram can pass as well.

Jams can be caused by more than just traffic lights, though. Control of traffic lights is not going to solve everything.

I did not write about the cause(s) of traffic jams nor about controlling traffic lights to solve anything. My post was about "trams", not cars.

I was in Zurich for a week. The public transit seemed effective, but the city was so pretty and walkable that I didn’t use it, with the exception of a small “polybahn” rail car that seemed to go up the hillside. I didn’t know where it went, but it was 2 bucks and seemed charming so I rode it. Turns out it just went up ~three flights of stairs worth of streets.

Those stairs suck though. I walked them for ~three years.

> During the peak hour, the vehicle lanes carry about 400 cars and perhaps 500 people.

The entire article is based on this incredibly misleading sentence!

The reason that number is so low is because of how bad the traffic is. A second lane could reduce that traffic and get you to the normal 1500-2400 cars per lane (source: light googling/wikipedia). Which is actually superior to the 1750 people per lane you get from the trams! (Given the 1.25 people per car he mentioned)

Have we read the same article? It explicitly discusses scenario about what would happen if second lane would be given to cars:

That would give us one more lane of travel in each direction. With the addition of turning lanes at the intersections, that would help a great deal: Now we have the room to move 700 to 800 cars per hour. (“Voila! The model shows that we are at Level of Service C or D,” reports the engineer. “Not great, but better than before”).

But they’re forgetting about the 3,500 people in trams (and the thousands more on foot and on bikes). How many of them would continue using the tram if it ran in mixed traffic, and consequently was much slower and less reliable? What if just 1,000 of them decided to switch to driving or to Lyft, now that the tram would be in much poorer shape? Remember: This is a rich city, after all—people have choices. Now we are back to square one.

> It explicitly discusses scenario about what would happen if second lane would be given to cars

Yes, it's just wrong in assuming a simple linear relationship.

Unless there's something very special about Swiss roads that mean they have only a quarter of the normal throughput, then the abysmal throughput the author observed will be down to it being an endless traffic jam which could be alleviated by another lane.

”During the peak hour, the vehicle lanes carry about 400 cars and perhaps 500 people. (I counted!) ”

He counted, not looked up the statistics. And this is during peak hour, not peak throughtput.

I don't see how that contradicts anything I've posted?

1800 cars/h means a continuous uninterrupted stream of traffic, which is a reasonable assumption for motorways and other grade-separated roads, but less so for an urban road, where you will have frequent other traffic wanting to cross at-grade. So for urban roads it's typically intersections that are the limiting factor for capacity, not the stretches of road inbetween.

Switzerland is one of the best planned country in world

lol this picture was taken right in front of my house

In Street View [0] the area looks totally different from the article. I'd love to learn more. What is more up to date? If the article, why were those changes made?

[0] https://www.google.com/maps/@47.3838561,8.5483138,3a,75y,188...

you just told everyone exactly where you live.


There's still a dozen houses they could be in. Too much legwork to identify.

depends on your thread model.

the main point though was that people make such statements without thinking of the potential consequences.

the comment added nothing to the discussion (that's not my complaint, just an observation) and thus reveals personal information for no purpose. the risk may be small, minuscule even, but it is greater than zero and, that is the actual point, the risk is greater than the value that the comment adds to the discussion.

Damn that is an ugly street. Makes me appreciate subways.

If you're on a bike, that road is lethal. Any mistake and your tire's going into the track and you're on the ground.

You learn fast, zürich is not a bad place to bike. I bike with the tram on my daily commute in vienna. Cars are by far a bigger danger on the roads. My experience as a biker in zürich was pleasant, like most things in there, a really nice place to visit...

My big thing was how can you ride a bike when the same bike lane is used for passengers on the tram. So the tram comes, stops, and passengers disembark-you cannot ride at speed then or it would be superhumanly easy to run someone down.

You just have to be careful. It's not such a problem. Bikes are also supposed to ride on the side of the road or on the bike paths.

It is an issue. When the tram or you turn and the angle is too small.

I live in Melbourne where cyclists and trams co-exist quite happily. It’s unusual for someone to be hurt by a tram.

Contrast with the carnage that is cars v. bikes in London.

Sorry, I was not clear. The danger does not come from the tram but from the tracks. It is not unusual to see people falling (when they cross the tracks at a too low angle) especially when wet and/or icy/snowy and/or thin tires and/or not attentive (mobile phone...).

This might be a situation that calls for fat tires on a mountain bike rather than skinny tires on a road bike.

In Amsterdam I've seen women wearing 3-inch high heels cycle safely, _across_ the tracks.

A lot of American cities had excellent street cars, and were built around rail lines, until Firestone, GM, and Standard Oil started funding National City Lines, who bought up streetcars and replaced them with buses.

It's cool, their executives were fined $1 apiece, so justice was clearly served.

I don't get how that downtown even works. Do the Swiss not use trucks to deliver goods? That car lane is too narrow for anything bigger than a passenger car. There's no passing lane, so what happens if an ambulance or fire truck needs to get through? How do bicycles even exist on that street, since the bike lane seems to also be the passenger disembarking lane?

Why make pedestrians need to cross a line of traffic once they get off a tram? Do you think you can push a stroller between two stopped cars? What happens if someone spills a bag of groceries or goods?

I mean, it looks ten times easier to actually live in a suburb than this.

emergency vehicles can use the rail tracks if they need to pass. them being there is actually an advantage for that because if the road was full of cars on all lanes, they could not pass either.

making pedestrians cross traffic after getting off the tram is indeed an issue. but there are various solutions. usually the tram is close to an intersection with traffic lights and crossings. you use those to get to the tram.

the alternative would be to have the trams run on the sides and the car traffic in the middle. but that doesn't work when the tram needs to get around the corner, because it can't turn with such a short radius.

there are tradeoffs.

i have lived in the suburbs and in a street like the article describes. that street is much more livable. for example i don't need to travel long distance to buy groceries. the next supermarket is usually within walking distance. other shops too, restaurants and anything else i might need. not so in the suburbs where the next mall is often kilometers away.

You can get small commercial vehicles/delivery trucks down most of the streets in Zurich.

Cars are also expected to make way for emergency vehicles, and as the other poster mentioned, emergency can use the rail lane when they need to.

Drivers are expected to keep crosswalks open at all times. Pedestrians at crosswalks also have the right of way, and it's extensively enforced. A lot of the junctions also have cameras - it's on you if you get stuck in one after the signals change, and the fines aren't cheap.

I love seeing solutions like this work in small European countries with small, homogeneous populations, and then watching a bunch of Silicon Valley folk--who live in a relatively small, homogeneous population--rant about how this should be the standard for the whole US, which has neither a small nor homogeneous population.

Edit: homogeneous areas, not populations. My bad.

I’m not sure what is homogenous about Switzerland? If anything it’s one of the more heterogeneous countries out there: a federation of regions with quite different cultures and languages. And Swiss towns are far more mixed socio-economically than the segregated suburbs common to many other countries

Relative to the US, every country is homogenous. We're a huge, sprawling mass of literally every country on earth, liberally sprinkled across dozens of different biomes.

Ok, but what does this have to do with urban planning. The EU is a huge sprawling mass of literally every country in earth across dozens of biomes, and yet that didn’t stop Zurich from making these choices

Because Zurich is not in the EU! (I’m joking, I agree with your point.)

Oops good point!

Zürich has roughly the same proportion of foreign born residents as San Francisco.

A country with 3 different official languages and where two of its largest cities are mostly expats and foreign nationals can hardly be called "homogenous."

4 official languages.

German, Italian, French, and Romansh.

Are you trying to claim that Zurich is homogeneous? Switzerland is like 25% foreigner, and many of them (along with full Swiss citizens) aren’t white, that would be magnified in a bigger Swiss city like Zurich. Also, since when is Silicon Valley homogeneous?

Singapore is very far from homogeneous, and still has excellent public transit.

Germany is not a small country by population, and has vastly superior public transport compared to the US.

You're just making an excuse for your own preferences.

Could you explain to us how a country's population size and overall diversity has any effect on a city's local transportation system? Because you skipped the part actually explaining how that is in any way relevant.

In the US, it's not entirely baseless to speculate that wealthier residents perceive public transit as largely for the benefit of the lower classes, and sometimes block it in neighborhoods to keep out the riff-raff.

In Switzerland, public transit is used by (demographically) everyone. You can meet the Swiss president catching a train to work https://img.blick.ch/incoming/3100960-v4-bildschirmfoto-2014...

or the captain of the local hockey team bringing home the cup after a night's out celebrating the national championship: https://www.20min.ch/diashow/46825/46825-0dtUaFAvgxvMBKiL0V6...

I would describe Zurich's population as rather heterogenous, but you've made a case. I don't think this should be standard for every region because you need a high-population density to be efficient (e.g. rural Swiss areas look very different from Zurich), but it definitely is a very good approach for densely populated urban areas. Zurich has a very high quality of life and I would give a non-negligible amount of credit to public transport.

Dude, San Francisco is small, no less homogeneous than Switzerland and fairly wealthy so we can conclude the difference isn't due to that.

Also, absolute straw man. No one is asking that Cary, NC have underground rail.

why should my culture or background influence my need for transportation? the swiss have different economic classes too so let's not bring that in play.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact