Silicon Valley needs a transportation system like Zurich’s

One of the more colorful trams in Zurich.

One of the more colorful trams in Zurich.


Today’s San Jose Mercury News ran an editorial by architect Thang Do that outlined what we need to do to make Silicon Valley a better place to live.

He warns that with all the construction underway, we better do something about our transportation system or we’re headed for permanent gridlock.

He mentions Zurich as a shining example of a city that understands public transportation. Here’s why:

The city has an integrated and comprehensive network of tram, rail, bus, and even riverboats to take you where you want to go in the city, throughout the country for that matter. One ticket gives access to all public transportation, with the exception of intra-city rail.

Imagine stepping out of the Zurich airport with all your luggage and walking fewer than 50 yards to a waiting tram whose platform is flush to the pavement. Just roll your baggage on.

A model of transportation efficiency. Hauptbahnhof station with bike racks.

A model of transportation efficiency. Hauptbahnhof station with bike racks.


Every tram has an LED screen that shows your location and the stops ahead, including connecting trams. Every stop has a shelter with an LED sign indicating the time of arrival for trams, along with machines for purchasing tickets.

Local trains accommodate bicycles and stations have large areas dedicated to bicycle parking. Many streets have bicycle lanes and because there are relatively few cars on the streets, traffic is not an issue.

VTA light rail does have one up on the Swiss trams: VTA provides racks for bikes.

Zurich and Switzerland have thought of everything when it comes to getting around on public transportation. There’s no need to own a car, which is a reality for most people living in the landlocked country. That’s a good thing because living in Zurich is as expensive, if not more so, than living in Silicon Valley.

We can learn from Zurich. The sad truth about Silicon Valley is that the Valley of the Heart’s Delight once had a wonderful light-rail network, which was dismantled piece by piece with the arrival of the automobile.

Light-rail line from the late 1800s exposed on The Alameda in 1984 at Santa Clara University bypass.

Light-rail line from the late 1800s exposed on The Alameda in 1984 at Santa Clara University bypass.

In hindsight, we blew it, but we mustn’t give up hope. We can build a transportation system equal to that of Zurich. All we have to do is, in the words of Patrick Stewart: “Make it so.”

Even the fanciest shopping area, Bahnhofstrasse, has light rail.

Even the fanciest shopping area, Bahnhofstrasse, has light rail.

Intra-city and intra-regional trains whisk you all over the country with ease.

Intra-city and intra-regional trains whisk you all over the country with ease.

Tram interiors are roomy and accommodate luggage.

Tram interiors are roomy and accommodate luggage.

Ticket machines are everywhere and take all manner of payment.

Ticket machines are everywhere and take all manner of payment.

You can even take riverboats in Zurich. They thought of everything.

You can even take riverboats in Zurich. They thought of everything.

4 Responses to “Silicon Valley needs a transportation system like Zurich’s”

  1. ted Says:

    Hey Ray, don’t you know we live in a Bubble here…..don’t try to bring in any outside influences. We are much to self absorbed to handle that for the near future. But thanks and keep travelling.
    Just keep your big ideas to yourself.

  2. jay Says:

    I did a group mtn. bike ride through abandoned train tunnels in the SC Mtns. about 30 years ago. Until that day I had no idea that in the 1920s one could take a train from SF to Santa Cruz that took about 1:20. It seemed almost astonishing to learn and realize how tragically backwards things went in the ensuing decades.

    Unfortunately light rail in SV seems to me mostly a massive waste of money. I really think more bang for the buck could have been achieved by putting the funds into bicycle infrastructure. Living in the Seattle area now where it’s relatively rainy and quite hilly makes me realize how ideal the flat and dry valley is in comparison for bike commuting–if only more people can be made comfortable with it.

    I’m holding out hope for small self driving cars and busses to be part of a solution to our traffic in the future. Part of the reason I moved is I saw more and more building. However a lot of the same development pressures are obvious in the Seattle area (where there is also a struggle for transit answers).

  3. djconnel Says:

    One idea I’d not copy is in Switzerland bringing a bike on the train can be the cost of a full ticket, which is substantial, much more than even Caltrain tickets which aren’t cheap. But then you need consider the entire population of Switzerland is comparable to that of just the SF Bay area. OTOH there’s huge costs associated with our addiction to cars and supporting the associated infrastructure (consider alone the value of the land taken up by all of our expressways, which you simply don’t see in Europe). Certainly I agree with you — “we blew it”.

  4. Ray Hosler Says:

    DJ: You’re right about the bike ticket. However, if you have your bike in a bag/case it’s free. That’s what I did way back in the ’80s. It is too bad there is a substantial charge. Note that the weekend evening trains can be jam packed.

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