Switzerland: transport paradise?
Switzerland has a reputation as a country which has got its transport policy right. In May I had the opportunity to test this when the Kay family (my wife Carol, my 2-year-old son Sebastian and myself) took up an invitation from relatives in Switzerland to visit them for a week. They live in Heerbrugg, one of a string of small towns and large villages in the Rhein valley above Lake Constance. It is not one of Switzerland's main tourist areas, so we were able to see how transport works for ordinary people in a semi-rural area of the country, using borrowed bikes on two occasions, and public transport on the other days.
Firstly, it is noticeable that Switzerland has much more of a cycling culture than Britain (so much for the accusation that cycling is only popular in flat countries like the Netherlands!). One example: on one occasion I saw several women with bicycles congregating in a residential street for no apparent reason. When several children suddenly ran out, I realised that they had been waiting outside a nursery. The children were loaded into a variety of child-seats and trailers, and their mothers pedalled off home with them. Child-seats and trailers are much more common in Switzerland than here, and are almost invariably attached to bikes being ridden by women: the Swiss are rather conservative, in that men go out to paid employment while women stay at home and work.
Cycling facilities are better than here, but not perfect. There are both on-road cycle lanes and off-road cycle paths. The off-road paths are generally well-designed: direct, continuous, well-surfaced and signed. There are occasional glitches where these requirements are not met, but fewer than we are used to in this country. The main problem is that motor-cyclists are allowed to use them, although I got the impression that not many do, so it may not be a big problem in practice. The on-road cycle lanes are sometimes painted onto quite narrow main roads; they certainly give some protection, but the traffic may still be passing you quite close. I didn't look very closely at cycle-parking facilities, but I did note plenty of cycle stands at railway stations.
As well as the utility cycle routes within and between settlements, there are also leisure routes along tracks and minor roads in the hills and forests, signed with a "mountain-biker" symbol; and of course venturing into the hills will bring you into contact with the lycra tendency, steadily eating the metres of altitude together with the kilometres of distance.
Cycles in Switzerland have to be licensed: the licence costs 4 SFR (1 SFR is approximately 40p), and covers third-party insurance. There is also the option of paying 19 SFR, which entitles you to further benefits provided by the VCS (the Swiss equivalent of the Environmental Transport Association).
Roads of all classes tend to be narrower than their equivalents in Britain, with many residential streets in particular being very narrow, effectively forming "home zones". There is some additional traffic-calming, but it tends to be less obtrusive than in Britain: all I saw was a few speed tables, and definitely no road humps on bus routes. It is quite common to see signs when entering villages or residential areas, politely requesting drivers to keep below 30 kph (about 20 mph). It would be nice to think that British motorists could be kept below 20 mph simply by erecting speed limit signs - think how much it would save on the Council Tax if there was no need to build physical traffic-calming measures!
Driving standards in Switzerland are probably better than here, but certainly not perfect. We were on a bus one evening, following a peloton of racing cyclists out for a training ride; eventually the driver got fed up with following them, and his overtaking manoeuvre was a bit hair-raising!
And what of public transport? British politicians talk about Integration, but the Swiss have really got it in practice. Timetabling, information and ticketing is all integrated, with the multiplicity of train, bus and ferry companies all using one system.
With regard to information, the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways) web site http://www.sbb.ch/pv/index_e.htm (the English-language version - I wonder how many foreign languages the Railtrack web site is available in?) is a perfect example. Timetables, fare information and ticket purchase are all available from the site, not only for SBB services, but also for the plethora of private companies running narrow-gauge railways, ferries on the lakes, and bus services - and even for international rail services to a variety of destinations including London. This includes an enquiry service for less straightforward enquiries; although we flew to Zurich, I had considered going by rail and used the enquiry service to ask about fares for my family from London by sleeper via Paris. It all goes to show that privatisation of public transport need not necessarily mean the sort of problems we sometimes face in this country getting information.
Incidentally, the narrow-gauge railways are not simply tourist attractions like those in Britain; they are an essential part of the transport network. We were staying close to the rural canton of Appenzell, which has no SBB lines but is served by a network of three narrow-gauge lines operated by the private company Appenzeller Bahnen, connecting to the SBB network at several points in neighbouring cantons. The AB trains are at least hourly, continuing well into the evening, providing vital services for many small towns and villages; there is only one station on the AB network that is primarily a tourist destination.
An example of integrated ticketing was when we visted Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. Knowing that Vaduz has no railway station, I asked at the Heerbrugg railway station about bus connections. I was very rapidly given a ticket covering the whole journey (train to Buchs, then bus to Vaduz), with a printout of the times for the outward journey. The connecting time at Buchs was only 4 minutes - no problem, this is Switzerland where the trains and buses run on time - and of course bus stations are always next to railway stations. (I am reminded of the Dutch tourists I once met in a Cumbrian youth hostel, who expressed astonishment that in some towns they had visited in England the bus station was more than half a mile from the railway station!) Maybe Kinchbus and Midland MainLine could learn something from Liechtenstein Bus and SBB.
Integration of timetabling was demonstrated superbly by the operation that could be observed every hour at Heerbrugg. From about xx53 to xx58, four buses from nearby villages arrive at the bus/railway station. At xx59 and xx01, trains arrive and depart, one in each direction. Then over the next 5 minutes the buses depart back to the villages. There is also one further train in each direction each hour, and up to three further services on each bus route. All this in a town smaller than Shepshed.
The only downside to travelling on Swiss public transport was the fares, which are almost at the level of British train and bus fares (though substantially cheaper when compared with the general cost of living). However, regular travellers would never pay full fares: anyone can buy the monthly or annual half-price card, entitling you to half fares on all public transport at all times. At 90 SFR for the monthly card, it was not worth it for us to buy them for one week's travelling, but if we had stayed a second week with the same amount of travelling they would have saved us money.
Cycling is of course integrated with rail travel. As well as the cycle racks at railway stations (I didn't investigate whether there are also lockers), there is plentiful provision for taking cycles on most trains (I believe there are some restrictions on fast Inter-City services). The 4-car units which serve Heerbrugg have 3 cycle storage areas, accommodating 3 cycles each. However, cycles are hung by the front wheel on a hook from the ceiling: lifting a lightweight touring bike onto the hook was easy, but when it came to a heavier mountain bike it was rather a struggle: I certainly prefer systems which don't require bikes to be lifted. The fares for taking bikes by train are exorbitant: we were charged the same as the passenger fare on the one occasion we did so. However, no regular cyclist in Switzerland would pay this, as there are again season tickets entitling cyclists to much cheaper cycle carriage on trains.
TIME OUT - THE AUGUST PUB RIDE
At 7:30pm on the second Monday in August a small group of Campaign members (where were you?) met at John Storer House and immediately headed off through the town centre and out along Meadow Lane.
At Stanford on Soar we turned right, taking the back lane to Cotes. After earlier rain the countryside smelt gorgeous, and there were elaborate cloudscapes to admire. It was a time to reflect on the sheer joy of cycling, and on what a better world we could enjoy if cycling were taken for granted as a normal part of everybody's everyday life.
At Cotes we crossed the main road and sneaked through the bollards. Yes! The tricycle just made it! Then it was up to Prestwold and left to Hoton, turning right to enjoy the tiny little lane which takes you into the village centre.
We arrived at the Packe Arms at ten past eight. The children's playground provided Sophie (age 6) and her little sister Isobel (14 months) with plenty of active fun. The grown-ups sat peacefully in the fading light enjoying beer, cider or whatever and floating ideas for the winter meeting programme.
At nine o'clock they close the playground and it was a good time to be on the road. Anxiety when my headlamp refused to work, but Campaign Chairman Clive simply removed the bulb, scraped the contact on the ground, and refitted it. How good to have a practising electrical engineer on the job! From there it was an easy downhill run back to Loughborough.
Chairman Clive Davis email@example.com 0115 9831308
Secretary David Bentley 236695
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CAMPAIGN MEETINGS are held on the second Monday of the month at John Storer House at 7-30pm.
11th September Maintenance, a review of our reporting and its effects.
9th October Winter cycling, bring your tips on how to cope with the weather.
13th November Safe routes to school. A speaker from Leicestershire County Council has been invited.
11th December Christmas party - bring food and drink to share.
Our subscriptions are very low to encourage membership, so if you are not already a member we very much hope you will consider joining us by filling in the application form below and sending it with your subscription to:
The Membership Secretary, Loughborough and District Cycle Users' Campaign, 32 Bramcote Road, Loughborough, Leics. LE11 2SA.
If you have any queries, please feel free to phone us on Loughborough 211468.
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Food for thought from an article by John Franklin (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/quinze/digest/Enabling.htm)
However, if you keep telling people that special arrangements are necessary to cycle in safety, they are bound to construe that cycling is inherently an unsafe activity and thus to be avoided. You don't encourage people to do something by emphasising - indeed exaggerating - its danger.
As previously said, in the 1950s when cycling was common, people were relatively little concerned about cycling safety, but now there is an obsession with it. Why, and whose fault is it? I believe that there are three principal culprits:
1.Road safety practitioners who, for years, compared cycle and car safety on the basis of mileage travelled alone (a fairer basis is exposure, or time). This showed cycling in a comparatively poor light, which was widely publicised, in part in order to deter people from cycling.
2.Doctors and other health professionals, who in recent years have put great emphasis on the risk of head injury when cycling in order to encourage cycle helmet use. They have tried to solve a perceived problem without looking at it in context to relative risk or the wider health benefits of cycling.
3.Cycle campaign groups. I include myself in this criticism, for I have been involved in cycle campaigning for more than 20 years. Like others, I have often emphasised danger to get the attention of decision makers and in order to get the support of the media. I now believe, however, that the cycling lobby is guilty of a massive own goal.