Cycling’s Stiff Competition in Zurich (Switzerland)

The 2014 EU BICI series is available for Seville (Spain), Ferrara (Italy), Berlin and Munich (Germany); this week’s edition on Zurich recruits insights from Thomas Götschi (Zurich resident and past research collaborator) as a co-author

The transport scene is Switzerland’s largest metropolitan area is admirable—almost two-thirds of trips are by non-auto. A mere ~4% of these trips, however, are by bike. A logical deduction is that the cycling environment here suffers. However, it’s not this simple. The low cycling rates are best attributed to four factors: (1) almost 300km of public transport routes, including more than 100km of tram lines can whisk you most places in the city on 7.5 min headways[1], (2) walking is attractive as densities are suitable (average density is more than 4k per km2), (3) things are not flat, for the most part; Zurich is situated along the Limmat and Glatt valleys on the north tip of Lake Zurich, covering several hills, and (4) the current state of cycling affairs favors a limited market of the enthused and committed.

The cycling scene/environment here is unique and “typically Swiss.” It’s unique because despite fairly limited/poor cycling infrastructure, cycling is still attractive owing to low levels of motorized traffic and an established “acceptance of cycling as travel mode.” But many locals still call the cycling environment here terrible and it suffers relative to other Swiss cities, despite similar infrastructure treatments. Dedicated or separated cycling facilities are in short supply because so is transportation corridor space. Cycling facilities are provided where they fit and mix in the streets with auto traffic. Subsequently, there is a lot of mixing because travel lanes are narrow. It works because traffic speeds and volumes are low (at least in the city core). But two additional aspects of the mixing help set Zurich apart.

(1) There are plenty of marked cycling routes, in the form of arrows that direct cyclists to “take the [middle of the] lane.” It’s like a bike boulevard but different: car volumes along most routes here are higher and faster than in US type bike boulevards. “Take the lane” approach is done more often in Zurich than in other cities I have seen and it works. Most neighborhood streets are traffic calmed at 30km/h (390km of roads).

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Take the middle of the street

(2) Bicycle lanes are marked in the form of a dashed yellow line (rather than a solid line or a sharrow) to indicate that cyclist space is shared with cars as needed (due to lack of space for dedicated lanes for both modes)[3].

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Unique dashed yellow for the (non-dedicated) bicycle lanes

The combination of relatively low speeds, low traffic volumes, and particularly plentiful and aggressive markings on the streets make Zurich arguably the best city I have seen to accommodate cyclists within shared roadway space. It’s a different type of harmonious co-mingling than you see in the Netherlands or in Danish cities in ways difficult to describe. Many streets in the center resemble a 4-color Jackson Pollack painting–white stripes delineating car lanes, bronze rails from tram lines, aggressive yellow stripes for bicycle facilities—all on a grey concrete background. But this semi-chaotic look provides a clear signal that cycling is welcome as a transport means on most city streets. More than, 1,000 km of routes have some sort of marked cycling facilities[4].

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Aggressive paint to the streets, quasi Jackson Pollack style

For the ‘cautious but concerned’ cyclists (or in their terms, “occasional cyclists”), things are far from great in Zurich. They yearn for more separation from motorized traffic (e.g., dedicated bike lanes or neighborhood streets with almost no traffic). That network is not well connected and full of gaps (mostly in the locations where it is most relevant such as intersections). And, there simply are few dedicated facilities. Cars mixing with bicycle routes, tram tracks that need to be avoided, and topography to contend with present real challenges.

Zurich’s new “velo master plan” aims to double the cycling mode split by 2025, and recognizes these mentioned challenges. The city’s new bike plan foresees both a network of “direct” routes (for the more experienced) and a network of “comfort routes” [6] for the occasional/more cautious/less experienced rider. In a dense city like Zurich, it is unclear where to find the space for this. The city’s supposed intent is to widen existing lanes on main routes to 1.8 metres, which will come at the cost of space for other modes (cars, pedestrians). The city says they will remove trees and also jettison 1,000 public parking spaces (out of 67,000 currently in the city)[7]. But they have reportedly made unfulfilled promises in the past so it remains to be seen whether the new bicycle masterplan, with its comprehensive and long term perspective, will change that.

Three other dimensions suggest that Zurich’s cycling scene will be one to watch in upcoming years.

  1. The city is hilly and wealthy. These two factors suggest that Zurich will be one to eye in addressing the onset of e-bikes. Sales figures in Switzerland are sky-rocketing and the parallel increase in crashes has caused some debate. New regulations require users of faster ebikes (assistance beyond 25km/h) to wear helmets; there are also debates about restricting bike lane use[8].
  2. Zurich’s reliance on public transport (Mobilität in Zahlen) also is the cyclist’s enemy: there is intense need to navigate the tracks of the 15 tram lines that traverse the city on 110 km of track[9]. I personally witnessed these rails take down two cyclists during my short stay. To partially mediate one of cycling’s primary nemesis—tram tracks—the city is experimenting with a stiff foam material that will make it more difficult to catch bike wheels (it will be stiff/hard enough to support bikes) but soft enough to let trams ride on the tracks. The city has also been experimenting with different sidewalk/curb designs and auto-detection of cyclists at traffic lights.
  3. It appears nonetheless that the cycling culture here is alive and well. After all, in a one-time public relations gag, Zurich was featured as hosting the world’s first “cycle-in” café, complete with ride in tables to park your bike (and stay on your bike), with service[10].
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Competing with rail lines but also squeezed by suitcases

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Waiting behind trams

 

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Bolder – in lane – red highlight markings after a fatality in this location (also see next two photos)

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Thanks for the help

[1] Mobilität in Zahlen 2010 (Originally Swiss Travel Survey 2010),  http://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/ted/de/index/taz/publikationen_u_broschueren/mobilitaet_in_zahlen2.html ~34% public transport; 26% walking.

[2] 7.5 min on weekdays, 10min on Saturday and weekday off-hours, 15min on Sundays (http://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/vbz/de/index/fahrplan.html)

[3] This is the case in most cities in the US, but bikes are generally not welcome within the car right-of-way.

[4] http://velo-city2013.com/wp-content/uploads/20130613_urswalter.pdf

[5] See slide 8 of http://velo-city2013.com/wp-content/uploads/20130613_urswalter.pdf

[6] http://www.stadtplan.stadt-zuerich.ch/zueriplan/stadtplan.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

[7] http://www.thelocal.ch/20121109/zurich-rolls-out-ambitious-cycling-plan

[8]The Organization of Swiss Traffic Engineers has a call out to tackle the issue www.svi.ch

[9] http://www.streetfilms.org/cyclists-vs-rails-in-zurich/

[10] https://www.prote.in/en/feed/2013/04/velokafi and http://www.stadt-zuerich.ch/content/dam/stzh/ted/Deutsch/Ueber%20das%20Departement/Medienmitteilungen/2013/april/130402_mm_velokafi_foto_per_kasch.JPG

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