The Swiss have mastered public transit. What might California learn from their success?

Recently, with Seamless Bay Area, the Bill Lane Center convened the SwissCal Conference to bring Switzerland's transit best practices to bear on California's own transportation ecosystem.

a tram in Switzerland
A tram approaches a stop near the Genève-Cornavin railway station in Switzerland. Photo by Tim Adams via Flickr.


Hoping to bring practitioners and policymakers together to learn from Switzerland's successful public transportation juggernaut -- what some have called the most efficient and comprehensive travel system in the world -- Seamless Bay Area and the Bill Lane Center for the American West recently convened transit experts and California transportation leaders for the virtual SwissCal Conference. The San Francisco-based nonprofit works on policy reform to realize a more "seamless" and widely-used transit system for the Bay, and the Bill Lane Center was proud to join forces with them in support of a vision both organizations share.  

During three main sessions in February 2022, expert panelists introduced Switzerland's highly coordinated public transit operations; outlined the roles played by federal, public and private actors; and advised on how to apply the European country's best practices to California. In a fourth and final session, smaller groups of conference attendees in both Southern and Northern California had an opportunity to workshop the numerous lessons learned from the panels for their respective regions.

"So often in transportation we hear about effective transit practices from places like Switzerland, that are able to accomplish seamless coordination of service in an environment with many local cities and agencies," said Ian Griffiths, policy director at Seamless Bay Area. "However, we rarely have the opportunity to deeply understand how those governance systems are structured, and how we can apply these practices at home. Using the opportunity of a 'remote' conference created by the pandemic, SwissCal provided a unique opportunity for California policymakers to hear directly from Swiss experts over multiple days, and also begin to collectively identify how to make meaningful progress in California within the next one to two years."

As for the Bill Lane Center's interest in more effective public transit, Kate Gibson, program manager for the Center, had this to say about how transportation figures into the vitality and health of  California and the West: "Insofar as transportation plays a central role in achieving California's climate and decarbonization goals, the Bill Lane Center is invested in helping the state realize a more coordinated and useful transit system." Gibson noted that while the Center has done a good deal of work investigating the benefits of electric vehicles, there are other ways to lower emissions and create efficient and enjoyable transit experiences. Working toward seamless public transportation can play a big part in developing equitable, sustainable cities, Gibson said.

Antoine Belaieff, a thought leader in Swiss public transportation who helped catalyze the SwissCal conference, echoed Gibson's remarks about the central role transit plays in ensuring the health and habitability of a region. "In order to remain attractive, the Bay Area needs to address air quality, housing and jobs and create a welcoming environment for investment. A lot of people have already left San Francisco because the city is so expensive." Good public transit is a key ingredient in solving all of these problems, said Belaieff, who spent years as a civil servant in Switzerland before joining the mobile ticketing company FAIRTIQ. "Housing, transportation, land use and equity are all interconnected," he remarked, "and you have to start somewhere." For Belaieff, who has experienced the ease of Swiss public transit firsthand and worked in the field for years, improving California's public transportation ecosystem seems like a logical place to begin.

Highlights from each session have been captured by Seamless Bay Area's summarizing blog posts, offering the panelists' main takeaways. The opening talks provided an overview of Swiss transit in general and explained the country's regulatory landscape. In her Session 1 blog post, Sana Ahmed recaps that Switzerland's transit networks boast some of the highest rates of public transport use in the world, with coordination between regional and federal units being the secret to their success. While the federal government sets goals and standards for the system as a whole, Ahmed notes, an organized transportation industry association fosters collaboration among multiple actors to produce unified plans. One federal requirement is "direct service," which demands a regularly updated and unified fare structure from multiple operators. 

The second session focused on understanding the different roles public transport providers play in delivering such a coordinated rider experience. A full summary of these panels can be found in Sana Ahmed's Session 2 blog post, though a central point presenters drove home is that in Switzerland,  the federal government specifies desired outcomes they want public transit to achieve, and the transportation industry works out the daily implementation of these technical regulations. In the Bay Area, on the other hand, goals for public transit are formulated  by individual transit agencies, resulting in a far less coordinated customer experience. This also holds true for California as a whole. "This Swiss system of cooperative workforce development, enabled by partnership between the industry association and the federal government," Ahmed summarizes, "appears to be an important model for the Bay Area to study further. "

Inspiring Californians to improve their own transportation system by providing a solid model is exactly what Belaieff hoped to achieve when he brought the idea for a SwissCal conference to Seamless Bay Area's Ian Griffiths. Griffiths was immediately on board, as his entire organization is dedicated to transforming the Bay Area’s fragmented system into something convenient and optimally functional. "I felt that the Swiss system might be relevant for California, and that we could show how Switzerland achieved coordination and relative seamlessness while maintaining local autonomy," Belaieff remarked. "Switzerland and California could not be more different, but I think that the participants were inspired and could see how principles could apply."

screenshot of mobile app FAIRTIQ

Applying Swiss transit principles to California was a central topic in the conference's third session, which also looked at how Switzerland is incorporating new technology into public transportation. Antoine Belaieff's company FAIRTIQ has developed an app that automatically calculates the best fare when users swipe right or left as they begin or end their journey, for example. The platform, presented to conference attendees by FAIRTIQ's Jonas Lutz, can be used across 250 Swiss transit operators, and it does not require riders to pre-load funds. At the end of a rider's journey, FAIRTIQ automatically buys the correct ticket based on the user's location, and funds are distributed to the proper transit agency. If California were to adopt a Swiss model of common transit definitions and standards, mutual trust among transit operators and a central brokerage system (among other things), the state would be able to simplify fare payment in a similar manner, Lutz explained.

A full report on the SwissCal Conference and the lessons learned from its panels and discussions will be issued by Seamless Bay Area in the coming months and will be available on our website shortly thereafter. 



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