What Does This Street In Zürich Mean?

Above is a picture of a pretty typical city street in Zürich, Switzerland.

What do you see?

In some ways, this scene represents a kind of Rorschach Test for transportation and urban planning. If you are a passenger on a tram riding on one of the two sets of rails that take up most of the street, this scene represents freedom of movement and a sense that transit is privileged in Zürich. If you’re a pedestrian, this is a relatively comfortable street to be on, with useful services, restaurants, and a few interesting stores (check out the model train store at the corner with Haldenbachstrasse). If you’re on a bike, this, like most other streets in Zürich, is OK, but not great.

But if you’re an American tourist, your first thought might be that these Europeans are real strange: Look at that long line of car traffic on the right, and look at all that road space going to waste. And an engineer or planner trained in the conventional mode will probably agree with you, and see a picture of abject failure. In the parlance of the traffic planner, this is a street operating at Level of Service F.

In the Rorschach Test, you get to rotate and analyze the image, so let us do that. This is a typical main thoroughfare in Zürich where, since at least 1980, space has been carved out to give transit its own right of way and in addition, transit has priority at all signalized intersections. This particular street, Universitätstrasse in the University District of Zürich, carries two tramlines—streetcars, for North Americans—and so it has trams passing on average every three to four minutes in each direction. This is also one of just four major roads carrying vehicular car traffic from the downtown to the freeway that runs out of the city to the north (the others also carry trams, with the exception of one, which is more highway-like).

Let us first deal with the American tourist who sees inefficiency. During the peak hour, the vehicle lanes carry about 400 cars and perhaps 500 people. (I counted!) The two tramlines carry about 3,500 people per hour. So, notwithstanding the fact that at first glance the tram lanes seem empty and remarkably inefficient, the numbers tell a different story—the tram lanes are doing yeoman’s work, carrying 7 times more people than the car lanes, and they could easily carry many more. And this is before we even start to consider the environmental and economic advantages of transit over cars. (People in Zürich have unlimited access to all transit in the city for just $1,000 per year, yet the subsidy from the city, state and the nation is modest, since the fare box returns, and other revenues, pay about two-thirds of the cost of operating the system.)

Now let’s get to the conventional engineer whose rule book would say that something must be done to alleviate this atrocious situation for the people in those cars. So what can be done? Well for one, we could remove the priority given to the trams in terms of travel space and at the traffic signals. 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. What do we do then? Not a pretty picture: The trams will need much more subsidy for an inferior service, and we are nowhere closer to improved travel for the folks in cars, since we have created hundreds more car trips.

More extreme remedies, such as removing buildings to widen the street, could certainly be applied. What that would get us, in addition to fast passage to the suburbs for people in cars, is an economically crippled city that is no longer worth lingering in. Having lost local retailers like the neighborhood grocery, city residents would now have to drive to get food, adding even more cars to the mix.

Look at the scene again and imagine what it might look like if folks here had implemented road-widening schemes to fix the perceived problems of poor Level of Service. This shouldn’t be hard to imagine, because we do know exactly what that looks like in the numerous cities around the world that have chosen this path.

To give just one example, a few years ago a former student of mine, Kristin Floberg, studied old fire-insurance maps to inventory every structure in the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, then built a 3-D map showing what the city looked like in 1913, before it was “engineered” to address traffic congestion. Then she compared that to the land use pattern of the modern city.

Today’s auto-oriented downtown is unrecognizable. Only 19 percent of the land is occupied by buildings, while 62 percent is consumed for automobile uses like roads, highways, and parking. Almost all of the destruction that we see was done in the name of moving or parking traffic. In particular, planners made the fateful decision to build two major multi-lane automotive thoroughfares, Interstate 95 and Route 8, right through Bridgeport’s downtown during the great wave of “urban renewal” of the 1960s and ‘70s. But the process of reshaping the city to fit the automobile started earlier than that: In his book Fighting Traffic, the transportation historian Peter Norton documented how this kind of destruction was planned, designed, and executed as far back as the 1920s.

And Bridgeport is not unique or even particularly extreme: Cities all over the world have been hobbled because avoiding traffic congestion became the primary consideration in transportation planning. As I write, my home city of Kingston, Jamaica, is being deformed in just this manner—I recently received a digital SOS from colleagues there who are at their wit’s end about how to stop the ongoing destruction of neighborhoods for road-widening schemes.

Plain old Universitätstrasse can reveal a lot about the sacrifices we have been asked to make in the name of efficient car travel. To me, it suggests that what we have lost is not worth the sacrifice. But it also shows that if we think more holistically about what we are trying to achieve in urban and transportation planning, we can reverse some of the damage that has been done to cities through the implementation of ill-considered transportation dogma.

When you see Universitätstrasse, remember that it once looked much different—with more space for cars and far less space for people. Like other European cities now celebrated for forward-thinking car-light transportation policies, Zürich was awash in automotive traffic in the postwar era. Starting around 1970, the city began a far-sighted effort to strengthen transit and discourage car travel, including by taking the radical step of reducing parking in the city center. The city we see today is a result of numerous incremental changes over decades that all had the same goal of making the city transit friendly. Today there are fewer cars per person in Zürich than there were in 1980.

These changes are a testament to the work of citizen activists from the 1960s and ’70s who twice succeeded in getting the populace to vote against highway expansion plans and to instead got the government to agree to rebuild their transportation system around a streetcar system that was at the time falling into a state of disrepair. Today, Zürich, a city of 400,000, keeps extending its already extensive streetcar system.

This Rorschach Test ultimately is a powerful reminder that cities are primarily for living, and that transportation needs to complement rather than displace that life.

In his 1972 book Towns Against Traffic, the iconoclastic British planner Stephen Plowden wrote that when it comes to transportation planning our eyes and our attention are drawn to the most conspicuous problem—the cars stuck in traffic. We don’t notice the other problems: the people packed like sardines on underfunded transit, or the pedestrian waiting forever to cross a high-speed road, the bicyclist whose bike lane suddenly disappears. And we can’t even see the private crisis of all the people who aren’t on the streets at all, like the retirees stuck at home because they can no longer drive. Zürich shows that effective transportation requires that we widen our focus to see beyond cars, and by so doing, ensure that our plans and actions are in the best interest of the overall well-being of the city and all its residents.