June 19, 2005

When Public Transit Works: Switzerland

I recently spent 10 days in Switzerland (normally an extremely expensive vacation spot, but actually cheaper than renting a place on Cape Cod if you have free frequent-flier tickets and a free place to stay with a friend), and one of the many things that struck me there, along with the spectacular scenery and incredibly tasty cheese, was how well public transportation works there. It's not simply that it's clean, quick and comprehensive; it's eerily dependable. The entire time we were there, every single train, trolley, boat and bus we took arrived at the exact minute it was supposed to.

This automatically makes the city's public transportation network more usable across a wider area, because it's dependable and painless to switch from bus to trolley to train: You know that if there's a 3-minute connection between bus and train, you'll make it. Even better, your ticket is for a certain time period, not a specific bus or trolley line; so you're encouraged to do a bus-to-trolley transfer as a regular part of your commute. No transfer request needed.

Now I can understand how a well-managed system could get the trains to run on time. But buses and above-ground trolleys in the middle of city traffic? How can they be counted on to get through traffic jams to arrive on schedule?

In Geneva, one thing that seems to help keep buses on time is that there's not a long queue of people entering single file, dropping coins into a fare box. If you don't have a pass, you buy your tickets at a machine at the bus stop (or sometimes even on the bus itself) and then walk onto the bus at any door, showing the driver nothing. It's only when an auditor comes on board and asks to see tickets that you have to show your proof of purchase.

Of course, for this to work, you need a society where people can be counted on to follow the rules even when someone isn't checking all the time (during our entire time of riding buses and trolleys, we were only asked for our tickets once. Intercity rail works like it does here, though, with conductors coming through punching tickets). But this means that even during rush hour, buses don't have to wait long at each stop while 10 or more people each stop to pay. Time stopped is predictable, helping to keep to schedule.

Like in many other places in Europe, it's possible to take trains from one city to another, and then get where you want to go without having to rent a car or take a taxi. For that, of course, you need proper development patterns around train stations as well as a good transit network.

We took trains to a couple of towns and little villages outside of Geneva and easily spent our days sightseeing without need of car or cab; the most difficult time was taking a trolley to the French border, then having to walk for 15 minutes or so, including crossing a busy road in France, to get to a tourist cable car that took us to the top of Mt. Saleve.

Cable car up Mt. Saleve

I was even able to buy a special combination ticket at the Geneva train station for a day-long city transit pass and one ride up the cable car.

Geneva public transit boat

The boat above is part of Geneva's city transit system, allowing people to take one of several routes across the lake in addition to buses running around it.

Update: Is public transit development working anywhere in the U.S. these days? The Michigan Land Use Institute eyes Denver enviously.


  1. Toronto Canada has similar excellent transportation methods and for a widespread city, it make for an excellent place to feel adventuresome while on vacation.

  2. We were in Montreal last year, and were similarly impressed with both walkability and usable public transportation there. No car needed!