Wiki Wednesday: Zürich, Where Transit Gets Priority on the Street

Ready for some transit system envy? This week’s StreetsWiki entry comes from Livable Streets member Andrew Nash, who fills us in on how surface transit became the mode of choice in Zürich, Switzerland:

The first thing one notices about Zürich is that trams are ubiquitous downtown. The city considered
changing its tram network several times (either placing the trams
underground or replacing the trams with a metro system), but voters
rejected spending money on these ideas. However, in 1977, Zürich voters
did approve an initiative to make the existing surface transit system
work better by providing transit priority for trams and buses.

Transit priority means that public transit vehicles are
given priority over other forms of transportation through such measures
as traffic signal control, transit-only lanes, and traffic regulations.
Watch carefully as a traffic signal changes from red to green just when
a tram arrives at the intersection. Transit priority was not a new
idea, but Zürich has succeeded in implementing it to a greater degree
than almost any other city in the world. Zürich’s public transit
priority program is described in Implementing Zurich’s Transit Priority Program.

Combined
with Zürich’s regional rail network, the extensive implementation of
transit priority techniques enables the city to provide subway-like
service without a subway, Nash explains. If the Zürich article
interests you, check out Nash’s entry on optimizing traffic signals for surface transit — he’s looking to add information about other cities that have implemented such systems.

  • The order of priority should be (1) Pedestrians; (2) Bicycles; (3) Transit (rail/bus); (4) Shared vehicles; (5) Single-Occupancy vehicles. Unfortunately, moving a tram with 100 people on it or a bus with 50 people on it is given no more consideration than a car with one person in it. Transportation policy should be about moving people, not cars, and those methods which move more people should be given precedence over those who move only one isolated person at time.

  • Unfortunately, total transit priority – at least in America – is terribly unsafe as drivers don’t always react as desired to unexpected signal changes and cycle skips.

  • So is it the fault of the transit/pedestrians/bikes or the drivers? Sounds like drivers need to be held accountable too.

  • Damien, relying on motorists to be inexperienced lunatics driving 15 mph above the speed limit has resulted in the highway-style local streets in the U.S. So, we gain passive driver safety at the expense of access by other modes to the right of way and a destruction of a high quality of urban life.

    Is it too much to ask, “Can’t drivers be actively safe?” Can the driver test be more rigorous? Can it actually require a working knowledge of the physics of moving a massive vehicle at high speeds on public streets?

    We spend billions making sure drivers are coddled every step of the way – while exposing children, the elderly, and everyone else not in a car to extremely unsafe conditions. Transit priority is critical to undoing the insane policies of the 20th century as regards transportation planning in the public right of way.

  • divabynight

    As a bus driver in California, I get sick and tired of trying to do my job driving a 40ft vehicle carrying over 50+ passengers sitting at a stop light with 30 or more cars sitting next to me, and when the light turns green and i have my signal on to merge into traffic, all 30 cars start to speed up to keep me from getting in or cussing me out because they think I cut them off when I do get in. What is the big deal let the bus in until you can go around and go on about your business. In regards to cyclist you have a lane to use. Do Not Dance on the line and pay attention to the vehicles on the road with you. No i do not want to give the right of way to a smaller entity as i’m a bigger vehichle and it takes more time for us to pick up speed and slow down. You can’t believe the number of passengers that have fallen on the bus because the car next to me decided they wanted to got to the fast food restraunt and made a right turn in front of the bus causing the driver to slam on the breaks and someone fell. We get the license plate number and give it to the police and guess what you are now being sued for that passengers injuries. This is all due to other vehicles do not understand that buses are not rollin on winstons they can not stop on a dime. Never mind there could be someone on the bus you might know, like your mother or kids. The laws should give priority to the larger vehicles, and yes we should have our own lane and if you get caught in it that is a ticket. I recommend camera lights for these lanes to help monitor cars who decide to use those lanes when they should not be, and yes we do need our own lights just as we do in downtown Los Angeles to help keep these buses on schedule. You like to complain that the buses are always late here is a remedy. And no pedestrians don’t get the right of way either. They are notorious for walking against the light, stepping off curbs without looking and stepping in front of buses as well. They will also run into traffic to catch a bus and get hit by oncoming cars because they can’t seemt to leave the house on time to catch the bus on time. They are the very ones who also get on the bus and give the drive a hard time becasue the drive left him yesterday and he was late for work as if we don’t already have enough on our plate. Between pedestrians in vehicles on foot and on the bus, we can not focus on properly with all this dumb outside drama goin on. I’ve had someone throw cherries at my bus because i was able to out drive them in heavy traffic. I can do this because my bus sits up high and i can see what you can”t, allowing me to get around problems before the average car can realize there is one. My question to you is ” How do you run into the back of a 40ft bus and claim not to have seen it?” For Christ sake, people the bus is 40ft long and takes up the entire width of lane. Some clown motorist has said that numerous times. Then has the audacity to want to sue because he was injured thinking he’s going to get some money, and it was their fault. Go Figure

  • Nelsonc

    I happen to be a Transport Planner (just finished studying) living in Zurich for the last 3 years. I am now used to the service provided in the city, which is admirable, but I do not take it for granted, as most people here seem to do.

    The programs implemented in Zurich, as Andrew Nash describes, have required some 30 years of work, with active participation from the community, public and official support, and coordination of the different public departments, with the general goal of improving the efficiency at a network level.

    Additionally, getting a driving licence in Zurich is expensive and demanding, consequently (most) people are rather good drivers in my opinion. Pedestrians always have priority (except in the case of trams, as their required braking distance is larger than that of a rubber-tired vehicle), cyclists have adequate lanes and they are respected by drivers.

    Overall, I believe the key for the success here is the education of the general public, together with the good coordination of the planning and implementation of the different transit programs by the city. Drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and transit users are not fighting all the time, there are rules and everybody just seems to follow them. I could not believe it at first but it is like that. 99% of the time you just approach the pedestrian crossing and you do not have slow down or wait for the cars to stop, they see you coming and they just stop, regardless of time of day, type of vehicle, or appereance of the driver.

    Regarding the comment by divabynight, I agree with you on most of your comments. Public transport is about moving PEOPLE, NOT VEHICLES, and this is what should be constantly told to the public. When drivers understand that an efficient public transport system that attracts choice riders can take cars of the road and reduce congestion (and pollution), that just building more roads is not the answer (it’s a vicious cycle), and that if we cooperate in the use of road space instead of competing for it, EVERYONE will benefit. It’s a win-win situation, it’s just not that simple as for everyone to understand it inmediately.

  • The last two comments were enlightening, but unfortunately the transportation engineers in the United States have gone out of their way to explicitly count buses as a NEGATIVE IMPACT on travel times.

    A single-occupant vehicle is considered the equal of a fully loaded bus in their grading of the highways efficieny and utility. A bus is larger, makes more stops, and is slower, therefore (the logic goes) it detracts from the efficiency and utlity of the roadway.

    Billions of dollars in transportation funding flows from this measurement regime and hypothesis (billions in Los Angeles County alone).

    Until buses, and other modes, are given their due in the measurement of our roadways, we will never see improvements like this. There is an entire industry in the U.S. built around marginalizing all other modes but private automobile travel.

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