Lessons In Urbanity From Switzerland

By Joe Baur

Recently my fiancée Melanie and I were fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Switzerland. What started as an ancestral pilgrimage of sorts ended as an eyeopening experience that left me sad for my country, state and city.

Travel hits different people differently. The stereotype goes that spending time in India will leave you spiritually enlightened. Travel through Latin America, and you’ll appreciate a different pace of life.

Switzerland, however, showed me what a city should be. From capital city Bern and Zürich to Lausanne, Luzern and Lugano — Switzerland has managed to develop and maintain urban cores that have successfully fought off the intrusion of cars, including the transportation inequality and sprawl that comes with auto-dominance in the States.

A couple of lessons come to mind, some within our control and others not so much. However it didn’t make much sense to me to leave out valuable lessons from Swiss history simply because we don’t have time machines. To the contrary, as with all these lessons, we can learn moving forward.

Pedestrian Prioritization

Pedestrians are at the top of the food chain in Switzerland. First of all, the cars actually stop for you when crossing the street across cultural borders. Whether you’re in Italian-Ticino, French-Lausanne or the German Berner Oberland of central Switzerland, you can walk peacefully knowing that cars will preemptively stop for you at the crosswalk.

Drivers do not try to split packs of pedestrians crossing the street when making a turn, nor do they speed up in hopes of beating you to the crosswalk. They simply wait, possibly realizing that speeding will only increase their chance of being a murderer and not their punctuality.

Perhaps the greatest nod to pedestrians in Switzerland is the Wanderwege (in Swiss German) system of hiking paths that outnumbers the road network. We first encountered these paths on bike, noticing a sign pointing downhill to the train station we were looking for. The sign estimated five minutes.

However, despite not owning a car at home, my American brain assumed five minutes of driving. Needless to say I was quite surprised to arrive at the train station in just a couple of minutes riding a bike.

I later learned that these paths take you everywhere. Through cities, the countryside, or wherever it is you need to go. So it goes without saying that the Swiss are generally fit and without the health issues that can come with a lifetime of constant driving.

Sure you can drive, take a train, or ride a bike instead in Switzerland. But what’s important is that no other mode of transportation hampers the pedestrian. The pedestrian is first. Everything else simply enhances their options. Quite the contrast to our car-first mentality, whether when looking at our culture or the Ohio Department of Transportation’s sprawltastic budget.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, I know I’m not alone in having to constantly stop speedy drivers or remind them what pedestrian right of way means. Nick Castele, a WCPN reporter, sent out this tweet last week that pretty much sums up the situation in Cleveland walkability.

“Every day at @playhousesquare, pedestrians find themselves on collision courses with cars & trucks making right & left turns.”

King Of Transit

Switzerland is the European king of public transportation, if not the world over. Everything runs on time. Trains, buses, ships — everything. In fact, the Italians have a bad reputation with the Swiss because trains arriving from Milano generally don’t run on time. Punctuality is very Swiss.

Naturally people like transit when everything shows up on time. Electric signs are plentiful at bus and train stations with real-time information on routes. And should a train be late, you will be notified in several languages. But again, it’s very rare that anything is late.

Now imagine what Johnny Westlake’s opinion of taking transit would be if RTA ran on Swiss time. Heck, think of what any Clevelander’s opinion would be of public transportation if checking out NextConnect wasn’t as productive as a game of “Guess Who!”

Though I have defended RTA time and time again for doing the best they can with a shrinking tax base and practically no support from ODOT, Swiss transit has made me less forgiving.

I’m not saying anything new, but there is no excuse for the ticket machines, the dysfunctionality of NextConnect, the lack of smart card technology, and giving into “important people in cars” to slow down what was billed as a rapid route. (Though the latter is mostly on the city.)

Also inexcusable is the delay in fixing these problems that leave a black eye on transit in the eyes of the general public. Time and time again we’re told they’ll be fixed with deadlines coming and going. NextConnect, for instance, was supposed to be revamped by February. Instead, these common sense fixes have been unnecessarily delayed. We might as well be waiting for the cable guy to show up.

Since we are left without user-friendly technology to make transit enjoyable, customers are frequently left irritated and inconvenienced.

Saturday evening, Melanie and I trotted over to our usual bus stop at Superior and Roadway. It was a few minutes before 7:10 when the 26 came around the corner. We thought it was early. As we boarded, we noticed everyone was angry and confronting (not aggressively) the bus driver. Turns out this was the 6:40 bus and most riders had been waiting for a little under an hour.

No reason was given as to why she was so late. All I can say is thank God this wasn’t in the middle of last winter’s soul sucking awfulness.

As if that wasn’t enough, the driver missed her next stop and had to pull over a block away. A long line of customers (again, who had been waiting for nearly an hour) had to cross Ontario to catch up with bus.

When the bus became too full to take on new riders as we headed towards Gordon Square, the driver had to tell confused passengers waiting at bus stops why they couldn’t board her tardy bus.

A passenger sitting next to me was clearly upset and started voicing out his grievances with RTA for all to hear. Tardiness was his frequent complaint.

“It’s a crime how they treat people,” he told me.

Now how am I supposed to convince someone who can drive to take transit when we can’t even keep regular riders happy? Granted this is one experience, and I have certainly had plenty of enjoyable trips on RTA. But too many of these stories exist for RTA to become a legitimate option for many people.

ODOT is a formidable foe that should be an ally. I’ll grant RTA that and I have repeatedly. But there’s no excuse for 20-plus minute delays, frequent customer complaints gone unresolved, and obsolete technology.

Do Better

This region needs a swift kick in the face sooner rather than later. We won’t attract the car-lite/car-free creative class, millennials — or whatever you want to call us — if cars take precedent in pedestrian-oriented city streets and the buses don’t run on time.

Our culture needs to change. Cops need to start pulling over drivers who have close calls with pedestrians downtown. Transit should be clean and efficient.

Sure, it would be nice if the state transportation agency with a huge chunk of our tax dollars would be on our side, but we can do better in the interim. And if we want to be a successful 21st Century city, then we must do better.


Joe Baur is a freelance writer, filmmaker and satirist with a diverse array of interests including travel, adventure, craft beer, health, urban issues, culture and politics. He ranks his allegiances in the order of Cleveland, the state of Ohio and the Rust Belt, and enjoys a fried egg on a variety of meats. Joe has a B.A. in Mass Communication with a focus on production from Miami University. Follow him at http://JoeBaur.com and on Twitter @BaurJoe.



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