Cycling in Zürich: An uphill challenge

After my time in Munich, I spent a brief few days in the Swiss city of Zürich, a city of about 400,000 people (although there are about 1.5 million in the greater urban area). Unlike the afore-mentioned German city, Zürich has a relatively low cycling share of only ~5%.

A lot of competition from other travel modes in Zurich
A lot of competition from other travel modes in Zurich

This might not seem surprising, given how hilly the city area is, draped over the hills surrounding Lake Zürich and the Limmat river valley. But in fact the biggest challenge is the competition provided by an extensive and well-used public transport system. At least one third of trips are made by the combination of rail, bus and trams provided in the city. And when it comes to prioritising (the often limited) space, everyone else (even the motor car) gives precedence to public transport.

Not enough room to squeeze everything in, so the bike lane has to share
Not enough room to squeeze everything in, so the bike lane has to share

All that has made it relatively hard for cycling to get good traction in Zürich. But that hasn’t stopped the city from providing quite a useful range of cycle-friendly facilities around the place. There is a mix of on-road cycle-lanes and separated facilities, as well as plenty of shared quiet streets.

Red and yellow are the colours of choice for Swiss cycleways
Red and yellow are the colours of choice for Swiss cycleways

Like most European places, Zürich has a lot of lower speed zones in its residential and central urban areas. In addition, many are restricted for general motor traffic.

Not just 30km/h - some shared spaces are only 20 km/h
Not just 30km/h – some shared spaces are only 20 km/h

One controversial intervention was the removal in 2004 of a main traffic route alongside the Limmat River in the middle of town and designating it as a space for pedestrians, bikes and public transport only (goods vehicles are allowed to provide deliveries). The result has been a very popular riverfront promenade.

Ambling along the Limmatquai
Ambling along the Limmatquai

Another thing that has been widely done around the city is to allow contra-flow cycling on many one-way quiet streets. Sometimes, this is simply by means of signs; sometimes there might be a lane marking to help out.

One-way for motor traffic plus room for two-way cycling
One-way for motor traffic plus room for two-way cycling

Other ways to improve the “permeability” of cycling compared with driving include blocking off streets to through-traffic, whilst still allowing bikes to get through.

This junction is blocked off for motor vehicle access - but fine for biking through
This junction is blocked off for motor vehicle access – but fine for biking through

Zürich has also been happy to experiment with other things too; for example, providing a very narrow two-way traffic space in conjunction with cycle lanes. This “2 minus 1” arrangement is fairly common in urban and rural Netherlands; a pity that a recent trial of it here in NZ was too hard for locals to comprehend…

A narrow two-way traffic lane with cycling shoulders - everyone works it out
A narrow two-way traffic lane with cycling shoulders – everyone works it out

Here are a few more photos of interesting features around Zürich:

Very good cycle network signage around the city (and Switzerland in general)
Very good cycle network signage around the city (and Switzerland in general)
A slightly separated cycle lane
A slightly separated cycle lane
Another contra-flow cycle lane, this time kerbed in front of a school
Another contra-flow cycle lane, this time kerbed in front of a school
Some of these on-road cycle lane positions look a bit daunting
Some of these on-road cycle lane positions look a bit daunting
A number of dead-end streets meet in a little square where bikes can carry on through
A number of dead-end streets meet in a little square where bikes can carry on through
This cycle route follows an old railway line - so they incorporated the rails in it
This cycle route follows an old railway line – so they incorporated the rails in it
Off-road shared path cycling, with tram space in the middle
Off-road shared path cycling, with tram space in the middle
Not sure why they needed this awkward barrier in the middle of this pathway
Not sure why they needed this awkward barrier in the middle of this pathway
Only buses are meant to go against the flow here - but bikes invariably ignore that
Only buses are meant to go against the flow here – but bikes invariably ignore that
No room to pass on the cycleway? Take the road...
No room to pass on the cycleway? Take the road…

At the moment there is a bit of momentum in Zürich to pay attention to cycling more than they have done in the past. The Zürich regional council has set up a bike promotion team and committed to spending 20 million Swiss Francs (~NZ$30m) between 2010-20 to improve the lot for cycling (i.e. about a fifth of what Christchurch is planning). They’re even tackling the hills by introducing some electric bicycles (e-bikes) for their staff to use.

Council e-bikes charging up (don't seem too practical for around-town use...)
Council e-bikes charging up (don’t seem too practical for around-town use…)

It will probably never reach the highs of their public transport use, but certainly there is a lot of potential for more cycling around Zürich.

What cycle-friendly features from Zürich do you like?

3 thoughts on “Cycling in Zürich: An uphill challenge”

  1. Yes by northern European standards 5% is not great – though I imagine that is higher than Zurich’s French cousin Geneva. German speakers are much more enthusiastic cyclists than FFrancophones.

    However, NZ has a hilly city of 1.5m that would love to have that “low” mode share. That would mean a doubling of Auckland’s cycling. Let’s hope we see that one day.

  2. Out of the half a dozen countries I have driven in. For me the Swiss road marking have been the easiest to read. They don’t seem to overuse paint or it maybe the disciplined way they use the three colours (White for motor vehicles, Yellow for Pedestrians / cyclist and magenta for temp/road works) seems to explain the road in way I’ve not seen in other countries.

    Your sixth photo is a good example of what I remember. Yellow line across driveway indicates your crossing foot path. Road doesn’t look to need lots of red surfacing (green in NZ) across intersection.

  3. We lived in Rafz (about 30 km N of Zurich) for 6 months a couple of years ago. Many a pleasant evening (we had babysitting at night) was spent on our tandem exploring the amazing network of veloweg (cycleways) around our village, which were always well signposted. On one particularly memorable occasion we cycled in to Zurich for a romantic dinner and got horrendously lost because, within Zurich, the veloweg only posted the next suburb – not the ‘big picture’ direction you were headed. The locals we stopped to ask had no more idea than us which way to go and were bemused to think we were even attempting it. An adventure later, we did eventually find our way in – mainly by piecing together the suburbs we remembered the train (our usual method to get into town) stopping off in. After a lovely meal (and well lubricated) we made ample use of Polaris – the north star – in our attempts to find out way back out of Zurich!

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