This is not a Melbourne tram… it’s part of Zurich’s transport – regarded as Europe’s best

16 November 2010 – Melburnians once needed to visit Europe to be embarrassed at the gap between our public transport and the best in the world. Now we have the Internet.

The authority that runs Zurich’s public transport system – regarded by many experts as Europe’s best – now has an English version of its website. The Zurich Transport Network, or ZVV in German, receives so many inquiries from the Anglosphere that they decided to translate the main sections of the site.

So it is now possible to see how Zurich achieves what seems to be impossible here: an interconnected network of fast, frequent, reliable, safe and clean trains, trams, buses and ferries covering the whole State, or Canton. The authority’s current strategic plan, unfortunately, is only available in German. Released in July this year, it covers the five years from 2012 to 2016: the strategy for the five years to 2010 was released in 2004.

The Zurich strategy provides a stark contrast with public relations documents like the 2008 Victorian Transport Plan. In place of pictures of smiling politicians and citizens, the ZVV strategy contains data on trends in patronage and finances, and detailed, costed proposals for action. It also enables one critical question to be answered: how much does it cost to provide world’s-best public transport?

The ZVV carried 567 million passengers last year; by comparison, Melbourne residents made 497 million trips. Zurich residents paid 596 million Swiss Francs in fares, or 619 million Australian dollars, similar to the Melbourne total of around $600 million.

The big difference is with public subsidies. The subsidy to the ZVV last year was 346 million francs, or $359 million. This year’s Victorian budget papers give the cost of public transport in Melbourne last year as a staggering $2.45 billion, but when pressed, the State Government says these figures don’t represent the true costs, as they include some fare revenues and strange items like ‘capital asset charges’. So what is the real subsidy in Melbourne? My best estimate is around $1.5 billion, or four times the subsidy Zurich requires to carry more passengers than us.

So the difference between Melbourne’s public transport and the world’s best is not primarily about money, something the $1.35 billion Myki debacle starkly illustrates. First-rate public transport systems extract maximum value for every dollar of public investment; badly-managed systems can consume billions without producing noticeable improvements.

How did Zurich’s public transport come to be so much more efficient than ours? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is political conflict.

Forty years ago, Zurich’s public transport carried fewer passengers than Melbourne’s, and like here, numbers were falling. Planners responded with a proposal for an expensive underground metro, to replace its major tram routes. The plan sparked a political conflict which convulsed the city for much of the 1970s.

A coalition of environmentalists, students and academics argued that the metro was a waste of money that would worsen the environment, by freeing up former tram routes for car traffic. They proposed an alternative “people’s initiative for the promotion of public transport”, giving trams priority over cars on the street and at traffic lights. Although all political parties supported it, the metro plan was defeated at a referendum in 1973. At a second referendum in 1977, the ‘people’s initiative’ passed, despite opposition from city bureaucrats and politicians.

Zurich upgraded its tram system, increasing speeds and cutting delays. Faster running allowed more services to be provided, and patronage boomed. Zurich’s small tram system now carries more passengers than Melbourne’s huge train network.

In the 1980s, the Cantonal transport minister, inspired by this success, decided to extend high-quality services into Zurich’s suburbs. The minister was from the Swiss Liberal Party, which had been the strongest supporter of the metro and the most dogged opponent of the ‘people’s initiative’. But he realised that new policies were needed, and sponsored the successful referendum that created the ZVV to take over public transport from a myriad of public and private operators. He then recruited the crack team of network planners who have made Canton Zurich a byword for public transport success.

A German transport scholar, Stefan Bratzel, studied Zurich and other transport success stories, and was surprised to learn that political conflict is an essential ingredient for success. Bureaucracies and private transport providers don’t change course voluntarily: a social crisis was needed to “open a window” for policy change.

Victoria’s window?
Could the coming Victorian election provide our window-opening crisis? Community discontent over problems ranging from Myki to crowded and unreliable trains to nonexistent suburban buses is at fever pitch. Importantly, concern has spread beyond the “usual suspects”, to business leaders worried that the public transport mess is making Melbourne a national laughing stock.

The state election looks like being close: some pundits are predicting a hung parliament. However, this is not enough by itself to bring about change. Past Victorian elections have turned on transport policy – notably in the 1970s and early 1980s – without producing lasting change.

Bratzel’s European research found that policy change requires more than just a political crisis. It also needs community and political leaders with a clear understanding of the causes of transport problems, and workable solutions.

These were the missing elements in Melbourne’s previous transport crises. “Sustainable transport” advocates were clearer about what they opposed (freeways through environmentally sensitive areas) than about solutions, which usually involved vague suggestions about spending more money.

Thanks to cities like Zurich, we now have tried and proven models of public transport success. All we need now is political leaders with the imagination to implement them.

The Brumby government seems determined not to rise to the challenge, preferring to stick with the slogan its focus-group researchers came up with: “it’s all part of the plan.” The opposition has been energetic in highlighting the government’s public transport failures, but to date has offered little in response other than a new slogan, “back to basics.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the first party to follow the example of the hard-headed Swiss Liberals is the Greens, who have advocated a Zurich-style public transport authority advised by Swiss experts.

The Victorian Liberal Party has now followed suit, having apparently learned that first rate public transport is not just an issue for environmentalists and inner city trendies. The Liberals are, however, less forthcoming than the Greens about how the new public transport authority would deal with the existing private franchisees. Ironically, the only major party that remains committed to continuing Jeff Kennett’s experiment with private provision and planning of public transport is the ALP.

An earlier version of this article was published on the ABC website The Drum

Paul Mees is a senior lecturer in transport planning at RMIT. His new book Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age was released in April by Earthscan of London.

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