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Testing the limits of unlimited mobility

By Andreas Keiser

The motorway between Zurich and Bern is a busy one (Ex-press)

The motorway between Zurich and Bern is a busy one


Despite the introduction of double-decker trains, new transport routes and tighter timetables, rush hour often means “standing room only” in Switzerland.

Now the debate is on to determine who should pay for what as frustrated commuters consider their options – including navigating the choked roads and motorways.

Some 162,000 commuters travel to Zurich every day: 90,000 of them come by car, another 70,000 arrive via public transport. Meanwhile, 44,000 Zurich residents leave the city every day to work elsewhere.

Switzerland has become a nation of commuters, and there are a number of reasons for this. Communities eager for economic growth have linked themselves to cities through better infrastructure, thus improving their appeal to potential residents.

Flexibility is a must on the Swiss labour market. People who change jobs tend to find themselves commuting because not everyone is willing or able to move.

For families, moving is seldom an option. Living space is cheaper in the countryside and it is difficult to have children change schools. In many cases, at least one parent ends up commuting.

Swiss Transport Minister Doris Leuthard recently announced a package of measures that the cabinet hopes will curb the amount of commuting. “We don’t want to encourage people to commute across the whole of Switzerland," she told a media conference.

The government wants to make train travel and driving more expensive – partly to expand and maintain the existing infrastructure, but also to discourage people from travelling such long distances on a daily basis.


If the government has its way, the price of train tickets will gradually go up, in particular during rush hour.

The government would also like to increase the cost of driving a car. For example, the price of the annual motorway tax sticker would be raised from the current SFr40 ($42) to SFr100. The parliament will consider this in an upcoming session.

In addition, the cabinet wants to increase the fuel tax by up to ten cents per litre of fuel. Meanwhile, tax deductions for commuters would be limited.

“The politicians in Bern obviously have no idea how Switzerland works and what’s going on in the country,” criticised Thomas Egger, director of the Swiss Association for Mountain Regions.

According to Egger, commuting is also a consequence of the concentration on major job centres. Limiting the tax deductions would mean doubly punishing commuters.

Egger also sees the planned increase in fuel taxes as an attack on the people living in remote areas with less transport infrastructure: "This affects the commuters who indeed depend on their cars."

"Roadworthy" candidates

The Swiss Association of Car Importers is also against any suggestions to make driving more expensive. It has launched a campaign against the planned price hikes to coincide with the start of the International Motor Show in Geneva.

"The road is the main mode of transport. Nothing would function in our country without cars and commercial vehicles,” said the group’s president, Max Nötzli.

For this reason, the group wants to prepare a list of “roadworthy” candidates for the federal elections coming up in autumn – the idea being that they would better represent the interests of consumers.


Leftwing politicians are also dissatisfied with the cabinet’s proposals. Members of the Social Democratic Party have complained that they would put too much of a burden on public transport. In addition, they would jeopardise the goal of transferring traffic from the roads to the railways.

The party wants to charge motorists more money and therefore supports an initiative from the Swiss Association for Transport and Environment. It would require that half of the fuel taxes (as opposed to the current quarter) would go toward public transport.

It also wants to optimise funding for public transport through an increase in corporate profit taxes and debt relief to benefit public transport coffers.

The Swiss Business Federation (economiesuisse) does not agree with this at all. It finds that the economy gives enough support to public transport. In fact, it has said that the contribution via fuel taxes and corporate income tax is disproportionately high.

Commuter nation

According to the Swiss census of 2000, 6 out of 10 people work outside their home community – compared with 5 out of 10 in 1990.

Since the first study on mobility in 1910, the number of commuters has risen continually. It was 51.7% in 1990 and 57.8% in 2000.

Despite this increase, the time spent for commuting time has remained virtually stable since 1970.

The automobile remains the preferred means of transport, even if the train gained popularity in the 1990s.

In Switzerland 65% of commuters travel by car, compared with 85% in the US and 23% in Japan.

One in five workers around the world spends more than 90 minutes travelling to and from work each day.

In Switzerland, only 4% travel more than 60 minutes each way.

The average time spent in each direction 25 minutes globally and 22 minutes in Switzerland.

(Translated from German by Susan Vogel-Misicka), swissinfo.ch



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