Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
A Swiss funicular that has run on waste water for over a century shows no signs of slowing down.
It almost seems paradoxical that the pristine, picturesque town of Fribourg, Switzerland, has a means of public transport powered by human sewage. The Fribourg funicular connects the city’s center, located at the top of a steep hill, with Basse-Ville (“lower town”). It’s been somewhat stinkily carting people to and fro since 1899 with barely a break.
Nearly all funiculars built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used water to move cars up and down. An employee at the upper station would fill the descending car’s tank with water. “From the moment the descending car became heavier than the ascending car, the brakes were loosened and both cars were set in motion powered solely by gravity,” writes Kris De Decker for Low Tech Magazine. When the car reached the bottom of the hill, the tank was emptied and the process started again.
Over time, engines—first steam and then electric—replaced water power. Today, there are only a few water-powered funiculars left, and Fribourg’s is particularly green because of the type of water it uses. It’s connected to the city’s sewer system, already flowing from city center to Basse-Ville, which means that no pump is required to move water back up the hill. “It makes use of the natural flow of water along the track, more specifically the waste water infrastructure which connects the upper and the lower part of town,” writes De Decker.
According to Swissinfo, Fribourg’s funicular first came into existence because of a brewery. The Brasserie du Cardinal built the conveyance to ease its workers’ commute and managed it until 1965, when the city took it over.
Commuters still use the funicular, and tourists enjoy its quirky appeal and views. For about $3, you can take the two-minute ride as many times as you like over the course of an hour. Some seem more affected by the smell than others. One TripAdvisor reviewer reported only a “bit of a funky odor,” while another exclaimed, “Boy does it smell like a toilet!”