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Why free public transport is illegal in some Swiss cantons

Making public transport free is illegal in some Swiss cantons, but not in others. Here's why.

A tram weaves its way through the Swiss city of Zurich. Public transport can technically not be free in Switzerland due to constitutional rules. Photo by Abdul basit on Unsplash
A tram weaves its way through the Swiss city of Zurich. Public transport can technically not be free in Switzerland due to constitutional rules. Photo by Abdul basit 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. 

EXPLAINED: How where you live in Switzerland impacts how much income tax you pay

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


Must I have a ‘CH sticker’ on my car when I leave Switzerland?

Some vehicles in Switzerland display the 'CH' sticker, while others don’t. But what exactly are the rules when you cross the border(s) in your car? This is what you should know.

Must I have a 'CH sticker' on my car when I leave Switzerland?

You may be surprised to learn (or perhaps not, as this is Switzerland, where there is law for practically everything), that the CH sticker is a requirement, not an option.

Article 45 of the OETV (Ordinance concerning the technical requirements for road vehicles) clearly states that all motor vehicles must display the oval, black-and-white sticker when leaving their home territory.

According to this legislation, all vehicles, including motorcycles, trucks, and trailers traveling abroad  “must bear a distinctive sign of nationality, i.e. the CH sticker, clearly visible on the rear of the vehicle”.

In other words, just as you must have a proof of your nationality when you leave the country, so must your car. Just be thankful that your passport or ID card are carried in your hand and not affixed to your rear.

To be clear, this legislation applies only to cars that travel abroad; if you never leave Switzerland at all, the sticker is not a requirement.

Actually, to be fair, the Swiss can’t be blamed entirely for this rule.

This obligation stems from the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, passed in 1968, which Switzerland has also ratified.

“This international treaty provides for the possibility of integrating the distinctive sign of nationality into the registration plate”, according to Touring Club Suisse (TCS) motoring organisation.

It appears, for reasons we are not privy to, that the red cross that is embossed onto all plates “does not meet the requirements of the Convention, so it is not recognised as a distinctive sign”, TCS added.

Therefore, “the CH sticker remains compulsory”.

READ MORE: Why does Switzerland use ‘CH’ and what does it mean?

What format should the sticker have?

This is what the law says:

  • Height x width of the oval: 11.5 x 17.5 cm
  • Height x width of the letters: 8 x 4 cm
  • Line thickness: 1 cm

This means the smaller versions of the sticker that you sometimes see on cars are not compliant.

Your car’s ‘passport’. Image: Wikicommons. 

What about the placement?

This too is regulated by law:

It must be affixed at the rear of the vehicle, horizontally to its main axis, between 20 cm and 1.50 m from the ground, depending on the type of vehicle.

It must also be clearly legible and unobstructed.

An important point to keep in mind is that while you yourself may have two passports, your car cannot be a dual national and have other stickers. If it resides permanently in Switzerland, it should bear the CH sign only.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How visitors to Switzerland can avoid driving penalties

Where can you purchase these stickers?

They can be bought for about 5 francs in a variety of places, such as petrol service stations, motoring sections of hardware stores like Hornbach and Jumbo, or do-it-yourself sections of Coop and Migros.

What are the fines for driving without a sticker abroad?

There is no official data about this, but according to TCS, “we know of people who have been fined during their stay abroad for the absence of a distinctive sign on the back of their vehicle. Complying with the law therefore makes it possible to avoid unpleasant surprises abroad”.

Is the CH sticker the only one required to be affixed to a Swiss car?

For foreign travel, yes.

But if you drive on Switzerland’s motorways, you must have a ‘ vignette’ on your windshield. It costs 40 francs.

The vignette must be replaced each year from January 1st, whereas the CH sticker is valid for life — the car’s, not yours.

READ MORE: Swiss vignette: What you need to know about Switzerland’s motorway charge sticker