For members


EXPLAINED: Why free public transport is illegal in Zurich

Any law or referendum which has the effect of making public transport free is illegal in Zurich. Here's why.

The Swiss city of Zurich. Photo by Tobias A. Müller on Unsplash

From allowing local residents to vote on whether people can become citizens (rejected), or whether to amend the constitution to give people a day off on August 1st, the Swiss like to vote on anything and everything.

Which is perhaps why it is so puzzling that voting on whether to make public transport free is banned in some cantons, but legal in others.

EXPLAINED: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

The cantons of Zurich, Bern and Fribourg have expressly declared that voting on making public transport free is illegal under the Swiss constitution.

Vaud on the other hand has recently declared such a vote to be valid, with a future referendum to be held on the issue.

Neuchâtel also declared such a vote to be valid, although this is currently “under review”, as Swiss news agency Watson reports.

Here’s what you need to know.

Why is voting on public transport illegal?

Under Switzerland’s direct democracy system, people can have an issue put to a vote when they gather enough signatures to do so.

This can take place at a cantonal level, as with a recent minimum wage vote in Ticino, or at a federal level.

With Switzerland’s federal system, some things are regulated at a federal level and some at a cantonal level, with public transport being an example of the latter.

When advocates of free public transport tried to push for a referendum in the cantons of Zurich, Bern and Fribourg, the cantonal authorities all came to the same conclusion: that such a vote was illegal.

Under the Swiss constitution, users of public transport are required to bear the costs “to a reasonable extent”.

It was the opinion of these cantons – or at least the government in charge – that this meant free public transport was constitutionally prohibited, and as such no vote on the matter could take place.

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Why is free public transport considered legal in some cantons?

Put simply, the cantonal authorities – which are given significant scope to decide on the legality of proposed referendum efforts – in Vaud and Neuchâtel did not share the same view as those in Zurich, Bern and Fribourg.

Vaud told Switzerland’s Watson news agency that the constitutional provision was far from clear on whether free public transport was banned outright.

The cantonal authorities referenced the legal maxim “in dubio pro populo” – which loosely translates as “if in doubt, decide for the people” – in justifying their decision.

According to Vaud authorities, cantonal governments have the right to decide whether to fully subsidise public transport for commuters under Swiss law – provided the canton and not the federal government pays the costs.

Authorities in Neuchâtel came to the same conclusion in 2018 when recommending the issue for a vote, but recently announced a review of the decision on the basis of the decision of the other cantons.

What does “reasonable” mean?

Like the cantons, legal experts are split on the issue of what “reasonable” means.

Some argue that commuters already cover the costs through their taxes paid to cantonal authorities, which represents a “reasonable” extent.

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Others, such as Zurich constitutional law professor Felix Uhlmann, argue that while some free travel is justified – for instance for children under six or for tourists as is the case in Basel City – making it completely free would be unconstitutional.

“I see a conflict with the federal constitution if public transport becomes free for the entire population”.

“But if we extend the freedom of charge to the entire population, we have definitely crossed the grey area.”

Uhlmann said that the efforts in Vaud and Neuchâtel will ultimately fail, as the issue is likely to go to the federal Supreme Court.

“Due to the number of initiatives alone, it is to be expected that a committee will contest the declaration of invalidity of the bill and ultimately the Federal Supreme Court will have to decide on the disputed issue,” Uhlmann told Swiss news outlet Watson.

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For members


EXPLAINED: Why PostBuses are true Swiss icons

They may not be as well known abroad as Swiss army knives, but those yellow buses that travel the widths, lengths and heights of the country are true cultural classics. This is why.

EXPLAINED: Why PostBuses are true Swiss icons

If you live outside of urban centres (which have their own public transport system), you have likely seen yellow post buses — 2,400 vehicles covering a network of 936 lines that span almost 17,000 kilometres of country roads, no matter how narrow and winding.

In fact, if you want to go to the mountains but don’t feel like driving, a PostBus will bring you all the way up, practically to the top.

And you should not be concerned that you will have to sit on top of a stack of mail — these days, the buses transport passengers only.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

The first buses took to the roads in 1849, replacing horse-drawn coach services that were used to deliver mail until then. However, the early buses encountered — figuratively and literally — quite a few bumps along the way.

According to an article on House of Switzerland site, ran by the  Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), “the first official PostBus journey took place between Bern and Detligen in 1906. But the buses used up a lot of fuel and had numerous technical issues”.

As more Alpine passes were dug after World War I, including Simplon, Grimsel, Furka, St. Bernard and Oberalp, 40 military trucks were converted into  post buses, gradually extending the  network of postal lines throughout Switzerland.

“PostBus turned from a simple public transport service to a veritable social institution, linking rural folk with the modern life of the towns and cities”, the FDFA article says.

“Not only did it venture into remote and mountainous parts, PostBus also operated in Switzerland’s central plain in order to serve the villages and towns”.

In those days though, “buses weren’t just transporting school kids, villagers and tourists – they also had letters, parcels, milk cans, fridges and even chickens on board”.

A smaller PostBus navigating Swiss towns and villages. Image: Pixabay

A smaller PostBus navigating Swiss towns and villages. Image: Pixabay

You know it’s a post bus when…

Unlike ‘regular’ public buses, postal buses have two unique features: they are bright yellow and have a distinctive three-tone horn.

While in the first half of the 20th century post buses sported different hues, in 1959 they were all painted ‘Swiss Post yellow’, as the colour is officially known.

The next milestone came in 2002, when Swiss Post’s trademark yellow colour was registered and granted trademark protection.

What about the horn?

As the narrow Alpine roads were (and still are) used not only by post buses but also by an ever-growing number of private cars, accidents were frequent. So the Swiss Post decided that its drivers should sound a horn to warn other road users about blind spots.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland’s roads are among the safest in the world

But the post bus’ three-tone horn is distinct and different from the way other horns sound. It is more melodious, and for a good reason: it comes, appropriately enough, from the overture of Rossini’s opera “William Tell”.

You can hear the horn, and see when it is being used, here:

Over the years, post buses have evolved, taking new forms.

In 2016, an electric shuttle pilot project known as SmartShuttle was launched in Sion, Valais.

The driverless vehicles now include on-demand services, allowing travellers to book a shuttle free of charge for the route they want. 

And in 2017, a new convertible coach was unveiled in Chur, Graubünden. It has a retractable roof and is equipped with a fridge to store food and drinks, making it suitable for tour groups.

READ MORE: Postbus launches new open-top coach

Not always a smooth ride

Scandals sometimes befall cultural icons and post bus is no different. Fortunately, it happened only once in its long history.

It was revealed in 2018 that post bus used accounting tricks to illegally obtain at least 90 million francs in state subsidies for the operation of its regional transport services.

READ MORE: Swiss PostBus scandal: ‘It’s much more than the money. It’s a cultural shock’

But this one bump in the road has not permanently tarnished the image of Switzerland’s yellow, three-tone-horned bus.