The Zurich Model

April 26, 2010

Entry edited on April 27

The Zurich metropolitan area is home of around 1.6 million of people on 2103 sq km [1] and boost one of the highest transit ridership in Europe if not in the world. This has obviously drawn the attention of the transit observers and advocates, speaking then of a Zurich model, but do they draw the right conclusions?

Some authors, like Paul Mees, use the Zurich Model to support the assertion that transit efficiency is not correlated to density, and so can work well in low density suburbia [5], while others noting that Zurich has no subway per sei, could conclude that a dense enough all at grade bus/streetcar service could be a better option than a traditionally more hierarchical network like we know in subway rich cities like Toronto or Munich.

A bit of history

In 1960 and 1973, Zurich has rejected twice subway plan which was more or less aiming to replace its streetcar network, then considered guilty of creating congestion.
That being said, subway work has been initiated before the failed referendum, and ~2km of already built tunnel have later been re-used by 2 streetcar lines, but the city will then mainly bring some efficiency improvement to its network [7].
In 1983, a referendum will give the green light for a cross city rail tunnel with new underground station, enabling the introduction of the S-Bahn, a regional rapid rail network working in a way similar to the Parisian RER, which will be inaugurated in 1990.

This S-Bahn came with a fare integration between the different transport operators, and a more general re-organization of the rail service with what is called “Taktfarplan” or “regular timetable” (that means that you train start at regular interval, usually at least once an hour , e.g. 8:04 , 9:04, 10:04,…) which has been underway on the Swiss national network since 1982.

Though that the frequency of the S-Bahn is not high enough to forget the timetable, the later one are easier to remember, and so simple they can figure on the network map itself.

The settlement structure

Zurich regional area density is low and could be compared to the one of Houston, TX or Edmonton, AB, but eventually such comparison are not telling the real story as much as the topographic map below can say:

extract of Zurich area topographic map showing how the urbanization follow a linear model along valley separated by strong physical barrier

The Zurich area topography draws urbanization along natural valley corridors where sit the railway network. While it is not a pure model of urban clusters; the Zurich area can be compared to the typical north American urban sprawl model either. It has rather developed a linear urbanization model along transportation corridors.

More, one can see that the geography force indirect route to go from point A to point B as soon as those points are not in the same valley, whether you take your car or transit. The usual transit network disadvantage of providing indirect route for “non radial” become less problematic in the case of Zurich.

The Socio-economic structure

Zurich city with a population of 380,000, host 320,000 jobs, for an active population of only 200,000. 50% of its work force come from outside its boundaries.

One should also note that the Zurich city population has declined since the 60’s when it was host of 440,000 people, at the advantage of its suburbs.

The Zurich socio-economic pattern could be compared to Calgary or Seattle for the very high ratio job/population. both inner cities foster good transit ridership number by North American standard, but this can be mostly due to a very centralized job market favoring a good transit market share in the CBD rather than a good transit system per sei [6], as could illustrates the statistic below.

Zurich city [3]92632611

Conurbation Size (in km2) Transit Car Walk/bike
Zurich urban area < 2,100 41 40 19
Seattle urban area 2,100 7 88 4
Seattle city [1] 370 18 67 10
Seattle DT [1] 23 33 39
Calgary city [2] 726 17 75 7
Calgary DT [2] 27 22 51

The table above verifies the correlation between high transit ridership and a strong CBD stated by J. Michael Thomson [9], but there are some interesting facts to underline:

  • Zurich’s walk/bike mode share is pretty weak and in line with the one in Seattle
  • car share in the Down Town of the both North American cities, is below the one in Zurich

The Swiss city is significantly smaller that the considered North American ones, so it could have been interesting to compare thing on a similar size, but the conclusion we can probably draw is that Zurich tends to make a difference in its suburbs more than in its center, where it seems that the high transit mode share is achieved more at the expense of the bike/walk mode than the car on.

The Network

It is constituted of a 380 km S-bahn network. In comparison the Zurich’s streetcar network has 70km of track, and the streetcar route are around 7km long, not venturing much farther than 5km of the Zurich center. The map below overlay this streetcar network on the s-bahn to illustrates the coverage zone of both.

The Zurich s-bahn network and in thin red line, the tram network “roughly” mapped to scale

The Results…or does Zurich has been too far?

The Zurich S-bahn has been an undeniable success with ridership increasing from 159,000 ride/day in 1989 to 356,000 in 2007 [5]. A second cross city tunnel is currently under construction.
The Zurich Transit Priority program [7] has also produced positive effect. Though speed is not the only element of the program improvement, it is still an important one: as an example, the table below provides the evolution of the average speed on the Zurich’s trams network (number from [8])

1960 1970 1990
16km/h 14.5km/h 15,5km/h

On a financial note, The Zurich public transit had a recovery fare box of around 45% in 1997, requiring CHF360 millions of subsidy yearly: it could be due to a political choice of low fare, but one should keep in mind that the Zurich model is not necessarily a self sustained one. The table below represents the operating cost and fare-box recovery (number from [7])

years operating cost farebox revenue % fare-box recovery
1991 522.6 277.5 53%
1992 563.6 286.9 51%
1993 583.2 292.8 50%
1994 600.7 294.4 49%
1995 605.4 298.1 49%
1996 639.2 298.8 47%
1997 660.2 300.0 45%

For matter of comparison, the table below shows the evolution of the ridership in some selected Swiss cities since 1980.

Intra city commuting pattern on last 20 years in selected swiss cities

It is remarkable that the already very high transit market share in both the Zurich region and city has make some gain after the 90’s when it tends to stagnate in the other Swiss cities. But as already noticed when comparing the modal split with Calgary and Seattle, is that this gain has been done quasi exclusively at the expense of the bike/walk share mode which tends to be low in Zurich and not only by Swiss standard:

  • All things happen like if the improvement of the Zurich city surface transit, by better accessibility and frequency but not necessarily significantly improved speed, compete more with the walking or biking option than the driving option, but
  • One should also question if Zurich offer, like other Swiss cities, has not reach a limit touching the “hard core motorists group” which could not consider transit under any circumstance.

The graph below compare the inner city mode share with the region urban area one for some selected Swiss cities:

mode share in selected swiss cities in the inner (ref. 3) and the urban area (ref. 4)

As mentioned before, where the Swiss cities exhibit specificity is more at the regional level than at the local level: Even at the region level, the transit market share is greater than the car one: this is probably contributing to the overall high level of transit share including in the inner area, but there is more to it:

  • The walk or bike share is still non negligible even at the regional level: that seems to indicates that the suburban shape is suitable to those mode, and sufficiently transit friendly
  • The walk and bike mode in the urban area of Zurich seems more important that in the inner city itself: it confirms the fact that the city’s level of Transit service tend to cannibalize those mode more than the car one.
  • car mode share is smaller in Bale and Bern than in Zurich. Those city being smaller, one could have expect the reverse.

While numbers show an higher transit share mode in Zurich than in any other Swiss cities, it doesn’t translate with a smaller car mode share showing the limits of the “Zurich model”.

On a side note, one could note that the German speaking cities perform better than the French one (Lausanne and Geneva), reflecting difference we can also see between France and Germany in term of transportation market share: Eventually beyond an unified public policy of a nation, some cultural trend tied to language could be identified making this policy more or less effective.


As we have seen, Zurich can’t be really invoked to justify good transit in low density area. As well one shouldn’t ignore the specific socio-economic structure of Zurich providing a favorable ground for Public transit.
The defeating of the Subway proposal has not translated in lack of a hierarchical network in Zurich: Eventually Zurich could have been too small to support a 3 level hierarchy (bus-subway-S-Bahn) like in bigger city such as Paris, but the “rapid rail” component is here providing a rapid transit backbone in the Zurich area.
We should also ask the question if Zurich has been too fa in its quest for high Transit ridership: this one lately seems to have been done at the expense of the walk or bike mode rather than the car one, and we should ask the question of what should be an efficient transportation goal:

  • Increase the transit mode share or decrease the car mode share?

If the former is the goal, then Zurich is a model, but if it is the later, the point is more moot.
Overall the Swiss urban areas achieve a remarkable non automobile mode share, and may be we should talk more of a “Swiss model” than a “Zurich model”: The Swiss model is not only constituted of a good local transit, like we could find in other European cities, but rely on an excellent regional rail network. The Public transportation option is still of excellent quality at any level from local to the Intercity train sustaining a real culture of public transportation starting as soon as the kindergarten with some initiatives like the walking-bus …and eventually that could be the real lessons of the “Swiss Model”, Zurich is capitalizing on.

[1] numbers from department of planning and development, city of Seattle, Jan 2004

[2] numbers from Mobility Monitor April 2008, city of Calgary, Jan 2004

[3] numbers from LITRA, Switzerland, 2004 citing statistics from the Office fédéral de la statistique. Those statistic discriminate intra city commuters and inter city commuters: To give fair comparison we have mixed both using a 2/3 weight for intra commuting pattern and 1/3 for inter commuting pattern reflecting the fact that Zurich city has one third more jobs than active residents. The intra commuting number are kept as is for figure comparing Swiss cities between each others

[4] numbers from Projet d’agglomération
Lausanne-Morges (PALM)
, December 2007
, citing the census 2000 from the Office fédéral de la statistique

[5] “Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age”, Earthscan, Paul Mees, 2010

[6] One could see Zach Shaner’s comparison of Vancouver and Seattle illustrating the kind of Transit service offered in Seattle.

[7] Implementation of Zurich’s transit priority program, Andrew Nash, Mineta Transportation Institute, San Jose, October 2001

[8], Dr Felix Laube and Dr Rolf Bergmaier, Transport Engineering Australia, 2000

[9] Great Cities and their traffic, J. Michael Thomson, Littlehampton Book Services, 1977