In Switzerland: Cities Safe for Kids


Shortly before our holiday month in Switzerland with my son’s family, our grandson’s fifth-grade class studied transportation — the basics: trains and boats and planes and close to home how to use public transport. In Switzerland trains will take you nearly everywhere. They’re clean, comfortable, and run predictably on time. What you expect of the Swiss, right? Within the larger cities streetcars (trams) take over.

My grandson’s study ended with a capstone project. The 23 ten-year-olds in the class were divided into five groups, each with the task of picking a couple of destinations anywhere in Canton Zurich (one of the “states” within Switzerland) and planning how to get there — schedules, departure points, return options — and back to a central meeting point.

They would travel by themselves with no adult accompaniment.

My grandson’s group decided to go the airport (by train, of course) then return to central Zurich and go by streetcar to one of the university campuses in the city.

To start with the whole class caught the train from their small town at the edge of Zurich to the Hauptbahnhof — the internationally admired central train station — a 10-minute ride. HB to the locals, the station is not small. There are 28 separate platforms from which three types of trains arrive and depart: local commuter runs (including the airport); regional trains to other major Swiss cities; and international schedules, including, among major European cities, a TGV to and from Paris. An almost endless underground shopping mall provides access to the platforms not at street level.

All the kids’ teams set out from the HB. At the airport, my grandson’s team bought snacks and sent a picture by cell phone to their teacher to show their success. After returning to the Hauptbahnhof by train and taking a tram through central Zurich to their destination at one of the university buildings, they sent another picture and then went on to complete their itinerary. They met their teacher and the other groups from their class in the plaza outside one of Zurich’s major churches.

On hearing all this from our Swiss family, we were, of course, proud of our grandson. Surely, it was a great experience for the kids, even something of an adventure. But, at the same time, we were saddened. We could not imagine any small group of ten-year-olds traveling by themselves through Seattle on our light rail and buses or walking through downtown to make connections. No, here it would be deemed too dangerous. Here the kids would be in a world of unpredictable adults, these days some perhaps on drugs or even potentially violent. Here we have lost something, some elements of community that once let us feel our children would be safe out in the city on their own. Once, perhaps, we felt that security. I grew up here and I think we did — back in the ’50s.

Zurich’s main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, decorated for the holidays (Photo: Dick Lilly).

On the streets of downtown Zurich crowded with shoppers, we saw kids everywhere, some younger than our grandson — wearing backpacks of books and stuff just like here — bustling their way through the crowds or riding the trams on their way to and from school. (The school system in Canton Zurich is set up so most kids can go home for lunch which, with the need for a parent at home, largely explains why two-thirds of the working population works part time.)

Zurich is not a large city. With only 447,000 people, it’s significantly smaller than Seattle which has grown to 785,000. (The Zurich metropolitan area is 1.4 million; Seattle metro is 3.5 million.) But Zurich is denser, and the vibrancy of the shopping areas reminded us, too, of what Seattle downtown has lost in the past ten years — among other things that feeling of safety we used to have.

What would account for the difference? Zurich is the second most expensive city in Europe. London is tops, and all the rest of the top five are Swiss. As of last year, by vote, the minimum wage in Canton Zurich was raised to about $27 per hour from the low $20s, following the kind of “living wage” campaign that’s been successful here, though by comparison with the U.S., even Seattle, it was already high. Switzerland has one of the highest median incomes in Europe; nevertheless, one in 20 Swiss was deemed “materially and socially deprived” in 2021. So, poverty is not unknown. But it is less pronounced. (We saw only one person sleeping rough in Zurich.)

Of course, there are material differences in public welfare programs between the U.S. and Switzerland (there’s a childcare allowance that ranges from about $200 to more than $300 per month for grade-school-aged children depending on the canton in which the parents are employed), but the one truly significant difference  — a large contributor to social stability and people’s feeling of security — is health care. Insurance is required, though paid for from a variety of sources: individuals (8% of earnings plus copays), in some cases employers, with government support when necessary. Simply put, the Swiss do not need to fear that healthcare costs will drive them into poverty. Not so for many in the U.S.

And it’s not hard to believe that in contrast to the tight Swiss social net, financial insecurity — jobs, health costs, education debt — have left many Americans with a withering sense of unease, a feeling that our country is not the reassuring community it once was.

Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.


  1. That photo of a lively Zurich street suggests a solution for Seattle’s Third Avenue: slow moving shuttles with wide sidewalks, the trams connecting two intercept stations at Pioneer Square and Seattle Center, thus ridding downtown Seattle of bus-ageddon.

  2. Japanese cities are famously safe places, with low crime rates generally, but though on a typical morning commute you will encounter backpack-toting youngsters taking trains and buses by themselves, there are still concerns about younger children travelling to and from school unattended by adults.

    I last lived in Tokyo in the 1970’s so I did a quick internet search to see what the online commentariat had to offer concerned parents. One suggestion was for a parent to walk to school with her (yes, the parent is 99% sure to be a Mom!) 1st grader for a few weeks to establish a safe route and check out the more dangerous traffic crossings, etc. Another point was to identify shops or houses on the way which would be open during mornings and afternoons, where a nervous might find safe refuge if she feels threatened by someone. (Private homes offering such assistance are helpfully marked by colorful signs).

    Still, there are dangers; young teenaged girls need to be on the lookout for ‘weirdos’ who will try to press up against them in crowded transit. A good safety tip for minors of any age in a large city, is to make the trip with one or two walking buddies, as children walking along make more vulnerable targets.

  3. Nice piece, Dick. Funny to hear Americans talk about “freedom” when kids can’t freely navigate city streets here — as they can in Zurich (and Tokyo, as Rick notes, above).

  4. I second, third, and fourth David’s commentary transportation suggestions (and duck at the return fire from our colleagues who seem to have a visceral disike of trams slow or rapid running.). My regular musical trips include Lucerne, Zurich, Munich, Strasbourg, Geneva and more. They are all navigable by multiple trams lines and intersecting busses.
    Dick Lillys paen to safe places for children sidesteps the fact that nothing in Sitzerland is transferable to the US problems. Begin with 50 US states in a country approaching 350 million people of wide diversity and even wider divison. The Swiss have 26 cantons only two of which (Zurich and Bern have more than 1-million population.) Zurich’s 12 districts and 34 quarters creates a small city by any standard, to say nothing of rich. As Lilly points out, even relatively less well off people poor by Swiss standards, can live a good life in what is arguably a unique country by any measure.

  5. I’ll have to keep an eye out for unaccompanied children here in Portugal. Since I haven’t really been paying attention, I can’t say for sure, but I think even in our little city it isn’t much of a thing.

    Portugal is on the other end of the spectrum in terms of wealthy European countries, but I doubt that has much to do with it. There’s a lot less fear of crime and disorder here, because there is less and who knows what else – Putin hasn’t really turned his propaganda army’s attention to Portugal as much as the US, for example. But parents really dote on their children here, and I imagine their age of independence may just not start as early.

  6. “At the airport, my grandson’s team bought snacks and sent a picture by cell phone to their teacher to show their success. ” A picture of the airport, or of the snack?


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