On September 27, the citizens of Geneva rejected an initiative for the construction of a short tunnel to join the two banks of Lac Leman. While several explanations have been given for the resounding defeat of the proposal – too expensive during a period of economic belt tightening or more enthusiasm for an ambitious, larger construction away from the center of town – no one with a fleeting knowledge of Geneva history should have been surprised at the result. Since the construction of the Mont Blanc bridge in 1862, there have been numerous attempts to build another crossing, but all have failed.
What is the problem? There are obviously aesthetic, economic and urban issues involved. Any construction threatens the beauty of downtown Geneva. Any construction – bridge or tunnel – would be extremely expensive and more and more expensive as time goes on. And any construction would obviously favor either cars or bikes/pedestrians/public transportation which adds a political/environmental dimension to the quagmire.
There is another element here that I find fascinating, and that is time. A second crossing of the lake in downtown Geneva has been tossed around since 1896 - 34 years after the opening of the original bridge. For over 100 years, there has been debate in Geneva about how to go from one side to another. With increasing traffic, with increasing centralization in downtown, with new highways leading into the city, the problem has become more and more acute. But the pressure of time has not facilitated a decision, as witnessed by the latest vote.
Although rather quickly after the Mt. Blanc bridge’s opening there were discussions of enlarging the crossing, a comparison with a bridge in New York is revealing. The George Washington bridge was opened in 1927. It crosses the Hudson River and connects New York with New Jersey. What is most pertinent here is that the architect, Othmar Ammann, had anticipated expansion by making the original design strong enough for an eventual lower deck. The lower deck, which increased the capacity of the bridge by 75%, was opened in 1962, making the bridge the world's only 14-lane suspension bridge, with eight lanes on the upper level and six on the lower deck. The original design allowed for more traffic in the future.
The Swiss pride themselves on taking their time and planning for the future. But this saga is getting out of hand. After all, it took Odysseus only ten tortured years to return home after the Trojan War. This discussion has been going on ten times as long and the traffic congestion in downtown only increases.
One of my favorite stories that I often use to compare the Swiss attitude towards time with that of impatient Americans is the following: A pregnant woman goes to her doctor to ask when the baby will be born. He replies that there is no hurry. After nine months she asks again and he replies in the same manner. After one year, two years, ten years, etc. there is still no baby delivered and always the same answer. The woman finally dies of old age and an autopsy is performed. Inside the womb are found two adult twins arguing with each other. “After you,” says one. “After you,” says the other. While the Swiss element of politeness is praiseworthy, the element of not being in a hurry is worrying.
I will not reveal how I voted on the initiative. It is not important. What is important is that there be a resolution to a traffic problem that is crucial to the development of the city and canton. The huge bottlenecks downtown are not worthy of a city that prides itself as a world leader. While we all must respect popular votes and empowering democracy, there are moments when one loses patience. The birth of a consensual solution is long overdue.