After spending the past week week in Switzerland, what has struck me the most is the prioritization of pedestrians. That’s not to say Switzerland is without its fair share of reckless drivers. Engines are revved in narrow streets, drivers can be seen texting behind the wheel, and cyclists might have to occasionally swerve around a clueless driver trying to turn onto their lane. This is not so much a Swiss thing as much as a pandemic resulting from the automobile’s acceptance by society.
What seems to be uniquely Swiss, however, is how they combat the inevitable presence of cars by prioritizing pedestrians. The result seems to be a far more equitable society than what has been occurring in the United States over the past few decades.
A couple of examples come to mind.
While riding throughout small towns in the Berner Oberland with Swiss Trails, yellow signs offering directions are omnipresent. Being a silly citizen of the United States of Automobiles, I assumed the times printed on these signs indicated how far away the town listed is by car.
Only after following directions to the Erlenbach train station that said “5 Minutes” did I realize that these are actually walking directions called Wanderwege – “walking paths” in Swiss German. And these walking directions are everywhere, even in tiny Iseltwald along Lake Thun where signs noted that Interlaken is a 40-minute hike away.
In Swiss Watching, author Diccon Bewes writes: “This network of paths is almost as extensive as the national road system.”
Another prioritization of the pedestrian is more apparent in urban environments. First, Swiss drivers will wait for pedestrians to cross the street. If they see a pedestrian beginning to cross, they will slow down accordingly.
This might not seem remarkable, but for someone who frequently witnesses drivers either speeding up to avoid having to wait an ungodly second or two for a crossing pedestrian or blindly ignoring pedestrian right-of-way – it’s as remarkable as the proverbial flying pig.
Another example in an urban environment comes from Lucerne – a beautiful university city of about 80,000. But to an American who is accustomed to cities with a population of 80,000 being rather quiet, it feels like a thriving metropolis.
Here drivers are limited to some of the newer thoroughfares. However, Hanny Felder – a local to Lucerne who showed us the city – tells us that many of the old cobblestone plazas banned cars in the 1950s.
Any casual observer can see that it has paid off. These plazas are filled with vibrant activity, whether it’s the enjoyable intoxication of students karaoke singing “Highway To Hell” or a dinner party eating a la carte.
And though Hanny laments the loss of the local butcher or bread maker, we agree that this is universal. However, shops typically reserved for American suburban “lifestyle centers” are ubiquitous in Swiss urban cores.
Ultimately, no Swiss urban center with a sizeable population feels like a ghost town. To the contrary, I need only look at my home state of Ohio (slightly larger geographically and population) for tragically empty urban centers.
While there are obviously no shortages of internal and external factors that have contributed to the hallowing of urban cores across the United States versus the vibrancy of Swiss urban cores, it’s clearer than ever that we are doing something grotesquely wrong. Yet, as I have discussed in numerous articles here, we are reluctant to do anything about the diagnosis. We are the stubborn child who would rather have his teeth rot while continuing to chomp on candy than listen to the dentist.
Anecdotally, it all seems to boil down to the treatment of the pedestrian. Pedestrians in Switzerland have the right-of-way, they are prioritized in their way-finding, and their other modes of transportation – bike, auto and public transport – compliment pedestrians rather than limit them.
But how do the Swiss feel about the makeup of their cities and the investment in their respective transportation networks? Surprisingly, Bewes also notes in Swiss Watching that the Swiss own more cars per head than Americans or Brits. Yet their cities have not seemed to suffer nearly to the extent that American cities have from the introduction of cars.
Yes, most American cities were developed around the automobile whereas European cities were developed around pedestrians – naturally given the obvious fact that European history stretches back much further than American history. But the Swiss just as easily could have torn down vacant buildings for surface parking just as American planners have for decades. They, too, could have cut their urban centers in half with highways in the name of progress.
However, they have not. Why such stark differences?
Later this week, I will follow up with Diccon Bewes himself to ask these questions. Is there a concrete answer to these questions? Or is the Swiss grass really just greener?