Transit Envy

Posted on September 5, 2013 by Colleen Layton

IMG_0434When I think of great transit, I think of European cities. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a few good examples in our own country, but the best examples seem to be overseas, countries that have been investing less in cars and more in all forms of transit for decades. One can hardly take a small country like Switzerland, enveloped in a mountainous landscape, with a population less than Michigan (8 million people) and 4 official languages, and compare it to parts of our own vast country, much less Michigan, right? Wrong! In a truly global world where cultural and fashion trends no longer take months or years to ignite, the world is at our fingertips for inspiration, ideas, and innovation. Good ideas can be reimagined and fitted to fill our own communities’ unique needs.

I have been visiting Switzerland since my sister moved there over 40 years ago. With a whole collection of nieces, nephews-in law and great-nieces now, my visits always bring an outpouring of new sites, sounds, and experiences.

I recently returned from just one of those visits. Although it was 15 days of vacation, “work” was never far behind. As part of the staff at the Michigan Municipal League  that has worked on place-based projects for several years now, I bring a heightened awareness to places. Whether I’m experiencing some place new, or retracing the old, I always walk away with new perspectives.

IMG_0468Switzerland has an amazing interconnected, integrated transit system that connects all modes of transportation. I spent several days in the Engadine, an area located in the southeastern part of Switzerland. From Winterthur, (located northeast of Zurich, 18 minutes by train) it took 2 buses and 3 trains to get me to the small village of Soglio, using only one ticket! The experience was flawless. I had one minute between buses and slightly more between trains, bringing me to my destination at the anticipated moment of arrival.* No one should expect anything less in the home of the world renown watch makers!

Zurich – City Transport Plan 2025

As the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is ranked as having one of the highest qualities of life in the world and although it has a growing creative economy, it is probably best known as a financial center. It is a beautiful, picturesque city of 390,000 people, (1.68 in the metropolitan area), hosting about 16 million day visitors per year.

Many train stations in Switzerland provide double deck parking for bicycles.

Many train stations in Switzerland provide double deck parking for bicycles.

What is already considered one of the best multi-modal systems in the world, Zurich continues to challenge itself to meet the needs of its ever changing transport needs. The Urban Transport Plan 2025 (Stadtverkehr 2025) was launched to promote a non-motorized transport environment that promotes efficient use of urban resources through public transportation, pedestrian and bicycle traffic. One of the central components is a Bicycle Master Plan. Some of the key targets include: doubling the number of bicycle trips by 2025; safety for both the bike riders and the drivers; and increasing the use of bicycles as a means of transit to include all age groups. This will be achieved through a variety of actions including: improved bike infrastructure, i.e. a network of continuous bike routes; a communication plan to raise awareness; and motivate all ages to use a bike through training programs. (In September, there will be a “multi mobile weekend” with info stands set up.)

Velokafi picture in ZurichA creative approach to promoting the overall Bicycle Masterplan is a pilot project that took place in April at the Rathaus Cafe, a popular destination in Zurich. The project is called the Bicycle Cafe or (Velokafi) which rolled in two docking stations, (cost is about $5,300 per station) designed to allow for the front wheel of the bike and raised platforms to rest the feet on either side. One can enjoy breakfast and coffee without getting off the bike!  (Think drive-in restaurant, only for bicycles!)Although this was only temporary, more pilot stations will be introduced in other locations in the fall.  I was able to make contact with the Evelyne Richiger, Project Manager of Communication for the City of  Zurich, who oversees this project. She considers the pilot project a great success because it brought a huge awareness of cycling to the city, inviting extensive media coverage in Switzerland and abroad. The project was  promoted through Facebook and blogs and received requests from Japan, the U.S., Poland, Holland, and Germany, to name a IMG_0399few.  The downside to the initial project was rainy weather which discouraged bicyclists, and a lack of comfort in the “saddle”, according to the journalists. Also, rules for outdoor areas of restaurants are strict in Zurich. For a one person bike station, you have to take away at least one table (for 4 people).  Because of this, there has been some hesitancy on behalf of other cafes to participate. However, Cafe Odeon has volunteered to be the next pilot project that will take place on September 21 and 22.

An idea for some of our cities? Absolutely! I will stay abreast of the development of this project and keep you informed of its progress.

*I’ve often told this story, but it is a great illustration of this country’s disinvestment in our rail transit systems. My niece visiting from Switzerland, was in Chicago with her companion who had never been to this country before. They were traveling by train to Ann Arbor, when it broke down in Kalamazoo. Having to complete the journey by bus, I picked up two very tired travelers several hours later. I was in the dubious position of apologizing for this embarrassing mishap!

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