The main railway station was no more than 300 feet from my room at the Hotel Saint Gotthard in Zurich. Here, six light rail transit (LRT) lines, trackless trolleys, buses and intercity trains traveling in Switzerland and the rest of Europe come together in coordinated waves.

From my second-story balcony, I marveled at the LRVs (trams), which arrived every 45 seconds at the stop below with rapid precision. People filled the cafes along Bahnhof Street as commuters boarded already crowded LRVs for their Friday afternoon commute home. There is a tremendous vitality that fuels this city, and public transport is at its heart.

Approximately 1 million people live in the Canton of Zurich, of which 342,000 live in Zurich proper. All public transport providers in the Canton of Zurich are linked together in the Zürcher Verkehrsverbund (ZVV). The underlying service delivery philosophy can be best described as networked mobility.

The ZVV provides a dense route network of LRVs, trolleybuses, diesel buses, ferries and regional rail service.

When you arrive at Zurich International Airport, an underground railway station is located inside the airport for passengers traveling to the downtown area. It is very easy to reach and find because of its convenient location in the central terminal and the excellent signage. Travel time to downtown Zurich is only 10 minutes.

With a service frequency of every 10 minutes, customers are guaranteed a short wait. Upon arrival at the main railway station in Zurich, you have many options to get to your final destination. A majority of the 13 lines on the Zurich Transport Authority (VBZ) light rail system can be accessed from the main railway station without climbing up or down any steps.

The light rail system is serviced by 334 LRVs and accounts for more than 70% of the overall system ridership. A total of 234 buses, both electric and diesel, service the extensive bus network. The total network has more than 300 route miles and enough stops so that every citizen in Zurich lives within a quarter mile of a bus or rail station.

Fare System Integrated

The ZVV offers a user-friendly and fully integrated fare structure system that ensures its customers can ride all types of transport with just one ticket. For frequent commuters who travel during peak periods, there is the Rainbow Card, a season ticket that allows unlimited trips within established zones. An annual Rainbow Card gives the best discount because a customer pays for the equivalent of nine months but gets to travel for an entire year.

The ZVV offers an array of fare instruments designed to meet the particular needs of just about everyone from tourist to frequent customer. These tickets can be purchased at more than 2,000 easy-to-use ticket machines located at stations and post offices as well as Swiss National Rail (SBB) and regional rail stations throughout Zurich. In its fare structure brochure, the ZVV provides its customers with clear directions on the ideal fare instrument and advice on making connections with the SBB. The ZVV also provides its complete timetable and a trip planner on its Website. Visitors can purchase the Welcome 24 or 48 Passes, which allow unrestricted use of all public transport facilities in the city of Zurich and surrounding areas for $8 (one day) or $18.50 (two days). To attract riders during off-peak periods, the ZVV offers the 9 a.m. Day Pass, which allows unrestricted travel from 9 a.m. until the end of working hours throughout the greater Zurich area.

Strong Modal Integration

The country of Switzerland has one of the most well integrated public transport networks in the world. A disproportionate majority of Swiss residents live within a mile of local, regional or national rail transportation. For those who do not, they can take feeder bus service, ferries, or other public means to connect to their final destination.

The cooperation that exists between the SBB, local public transport agencies and organizations committed to improving mobility within the country is exceptional. The Swiss Pass and Swiss Flexi-Pass are successful examples of this cooperation and demonstrate the lengths that the Swiss go to ensure modal integration.

The Swiss Pass gives unlimited travel on the entire rail, bus and boat network of the Swiss National Travel System, including the LRVs and buses operated by urban transport systems in 36 cities and towns. It entitles holders to discounts on many scenic mountain railways. The Swiss Flexi-Pass allows a customer to freely travel on any of three to nine days of his choice on the whole Swiss National Travel System network, enjoying the same facilities as found with the Swiss Pass.

Unique Car-Sharing Program

Since 1995, the ZVV has had a unique partnership with Mobility Carsharing Switzerland, the largest cooperative car-sharing society in the world. This company offers an alternative to private car ownership with a market focus on short-term rentals (less than two days). Mobility’s 45,000 members can book their vehicles online or via telephone and pick them up at more than 850 locations, including 250 train stations.

From there, it’s a self-service operation. Cars are equipped with a chip card that allows members to swipe their Mobility membership cards over an electronic strip to open the doors and retrieve the keys that are always located onboard. Mobility Carsharing’s relationship with the ZVV also involves DaimlerChrysler and is known as RailLink. The idea behind RailLink is very simple: to provide ZVV customers with direct and quick access to automobiles when they arrive for business or pleasure at a rail station.

As part of this cooperation, Mobility provides central booking, vehicle maintenance, an onboard computer and process know-how. ZVV provides the central stations, its sales and marketing network as well as parking facilities for the vehicles. DaimlerChrysler provides small vehicles and technology know-how. Enrolling in the program entitles customers to reduced rates for both the vehicles and trains. These partnerships have proven to be beneficial to both Mobility and ZVV.

From Mobility’s standpoint, its revenues have steadily increased in recent years. Prior to becoming Mobility members, individuals used public transport for 63% of their journeys, compared to 75% after obtaining membership.

Priority Program a Success

Critical to Zurich’s success is a comprehensive transit priority program that was implemented over the past 25 years to accelerate operating speeds along the LRT network. The scheme was effectively born out of a failed subway proposal. In 1978, residents voted to provide $147.5 million over 10 years to implement transit priority to improve the existing surface LRT system rather than constructing a new underground system for $885 million. The system is not overly complicated and has become a model throughout the world.

Virtually the entire LRT system operates on the surface, often alongside ordinary traffic. The transit priority program allows for uninterrupted travel between stations by offering maximum prioritization for public transport modes at all intersections controlled by traffic signals. Track is separated from other traffic in certain sections with dedicated rights-of-way or simply by white road markings. In addition, parking is banned along roads used by LRT and left-hand turns across tracks have been eliminated.

Technically, signal prioritization was achieved by installing considerable numbers of induction loops and radio relays for the transit vehicle positioning system, as well as customized software developed by the local authorities. Zurich’s transit priority program entails the following:

  • The clustering of traffic signaling operations into regional automated control groups, called macrocells.
  • Queue length and flow feedback, which allow the system to automatically adjust to any change in traffic demand (a dynamic, not static process).
  • Gateways at the edge of the system, effectively limiting the number of vehicles inside the system.
  • “Green waves” along priority routes designed to control maximum speeds at optimum and legal levels.
  • “Red waves” along routes reserved for local traffic only to stop them from being used by through traffic.
  • Sesame gateways for transit vehicles at all lights, through the introduction of a transit phase.
  • A comprehensive radio-control command center that monitors and registers transit vehicle location with precise accuracy on a real-time basis.
  • Statistical analysis of transit delay patterns to help identify hotspots and monitor success of traffic light cycle tuning. What are the effects?
  • Average delays for a transit vehicle at a traffic lights has been reduced to below four seconds.
  • Improved LRV speeds.
  • Fewer LRT system delays.
  • Creation of more pedestrian and bike space.
  • Improved service predictability.
  • Increased transit boardings.

Planned Extensions

In 1996, the VBZ ordered new low-floor LRVs from a consortium of Bombardier and Alstom. These vehicles are 7.9 feet wide and almost 120 feet long. A total of five pilot vehicles are being tested throughout the system. After overcoming initial problems with gearboxes and meeting strenuous noise-level requirements, it appears VBZ will order up to 75 of these vehicles by the end of this summer.

On Feb. 9, the citizens of Zurich voted to spend $442.6 million on a new light rail system connecting the city with the airport. The first extension will be to the existing No. 11 line. VBZ will operate this new Glattalbahn at least until 2010. An extension of the existing LRV network of 1.8 miles will be built in the west, connecting Escher Wyss-Platz and Bahnhof Altstetten. The line will carry up to 30,000 passengers daily.

A Model for the Rest of Us

Today, each of Zurich’s inhabitants uses a bus, LRV or ferryboat more than 500 times a year. This is more than twice the number of trips per capita in Europe’s largest cities like London, Paris and Berlin, and represents one of the highest per-capita usages of public transport in the world.

More people use public transport in Zurich than private automobiles. There is an extremely high consensus on public transport as evidenced by the fact that not a single referendum on public transport has failed in Zurich since 1973. These results are directly attributed to the system’s ease of use, reliability and overall modal integration. In terms of fare integration, time sequencing between service modes and physical integration at major transfer points, the public transport system of Zurich is first rate.

As professional transit managers, we strive for efficient, reliable and safe operations delivering seamless and integrated services for our customers. If these are the measures of effective public transport, Zurich has perhaps the most well integrated network in the world.