Flashback Friday – Cycling in Zürich: An uphill challenge

This week I have been spending time in Wellington, looking at some proposed cycleway routes and observing bike behaviour in our capital city. Although similar in size to Christchurch, Wellington suffers from having a lot of hills that limit the enthusiasm of many to jump on their bike. Given that I was observing 6-9km/h un-powered riders slogging it up some of the steepest hills, it’s perhaps no wonder that the amount of cycling happening is low, although e-bikes are making quite the difference now. But the other key difference is the simple lack of cycling provision in many parts of the city. As Wellington rolls out more cycleways though, they might see a big jump in cycling – and you only have to look at examples like the hilly city of Zürich (first featured in this blog  post in Aug 2015) to realise that topography is not always an excuse for little cycling use…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very good cycle network signage around the city (and Switzerland in general)
A slightly separated cycle lane
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
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
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
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…

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…)

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?

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