zurich skyline

5 things Toronto could learn from Zurich

The Swiss people's love of rules, order, and cleanliness is plainly evident in Zurich. It has its benefits: the trains run on time, its public transit functions like a well oiled machine, and the citizens get to have a direct say on important issues. The downsides: neighbours will snitch over minor garbage infractions, and various mundane activities are inexplicably banned on Sundays.

Ideologically speaking, Zurich is the polar opposite of Toronto. The city government is structured so that the position of mayor is largely ceremonial and matters of particularly vital importance trigger plebiscites, giving citizens a direct say in how the city operates, regardless of who is currently in the town hall. Likewise, fastidious urban planning has given Zurich a well-functioning, streetcar orientated transit system that would make a Toronto transit rider green with envy.

Here are five ideas Toronto could study in Zurich.

Street parking is a blight
Since 1989, Zurich has imposed tight restrictions on parking spaces. As City Lab reports, a typical 1,000 sq. ft. store generates less than one parking space. For comparison, the Prime Tower complex, which includes Switzerland's tallest building (36 storeys,) was built with 250 parking spots. A building of similar size in Toronto could have more than double that amount, depending on its location.

In addition, construction of new parking spaces is banned. Unless the same number of surface spots are removed, new underground spaces cannot be installed. Period. "We have just a fixed amount of parking spaces. We are unable to build more parking in the city, it is forbidden," Heiko Ciceri from the city's division of transport told filmmaker Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

In Zurich, street parking is restricted in areas well served by the city's excellent public transit. This being Switzerland, the streetcars, buses, and commuter trains run frequently and on time. Just over a quarter of the residents use a car to navigate the city: the rest use public transit, ride a bike, or walk.

Referendums give power to the people
Switzerland's direct democracy system puts a large share of the government decision making process in the hands of eligible voters. The Swiss vote in referendums on matters of national, provincial, and local importance on average four times a year. In 2012, for example, the people of Zurich voted to build drive-up "sex boxes" for prostitutes (prostitution is legal in Switzerland, and the secure, rented spaces came with alarms, guards, and showers.)

There are down sides to holding votes so often, one of them being low turnout--just 2 in 5 people typically cast a ballot in each referendum. The upside, however, is that voters (in some Swiss cities permanent residents can vote, too) have a direct say in matters of importance. Imagine a direct public vote on the fate of the Gardiner, the Island Airport, or the Scarborough subway.

Mayors don't need to be important
Zurich does have a mayor, but not in a sense we would recognize in Toronto. The present incumbent, Corine Mauch, the city's first female and first openly gay leader (which I note because Switzerland didn't give women the vote until 1971,) was elected in 2009 after just two months on the nine-person city council. The position is largely ceremonial and Mauch acts largely as an ambassador, overseeing cultural programs and representing the city overseas.

The balance of power in Zurich is in the hands of the 125-member city parliament, but, as noted above, direct public votes are often used to decide matters of significant importance. Each member of city parliament represents about 3,000 people (in Toronto, councillors on average represent 60,000 people,) and votes on by-laws, the budget, and the rate of taxes.

Water fountains don't have to be gross
Zurich is dotted with clean, picturesque fountains that dispense free, potable water. Partly due to the cold winter climate, Toronto doesn't have many public water features, but there's certainly a benefit to having drinking water available to the public. Toronto Water's HTO To Go, a mobile water truck used at special events, is a smart idea that promotes this city's quality drinking water, but imagine it scaled up to permanent, well-maintained sites across the city.

Take streetcars seriously
No other city does streetcars quite like Zurich. As the backbone of the city's legendarily efficient public transportation system, the highly organized network is entirely focused on providing excellent service. Information screens onboard all streetcars show the route and upcoming stops, the vehicles have priority at every intersection, and there is real-time service information available at all stops. Oh, and every route is POP.

Zurich streetcars sometimes run in mixed traffic but many of the city's most important streets are only accessible on foot or by transit. Bahnhofstrasse, for example, is the city's main street (and also one of its ritziest,) but cars are banned. Likewise, Limmatquai, a waterfront promenade that was once choked with traffic, is now a thriving transit mall. Imagine if Toronto had the guts to do streetcars right and kick out cars.

The proof is in the data: dedicated rights-of-way lead to more reliable service, even in Toronto.

Chris Bateman is a staff writer at blogTO. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisbateman.

Image: Kamil Porembiński/Flickr

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