Příběh dvou tunelů (anglicky)

8. 1. 2008 – 13.22 | 559x

Zdroj: Prague Daily Monitor, 8.1.2008

The Czech verb tunelovat acquired a nasty ring in the 1990s, when the term became synonymous with corrupt business practices. „Tunnelling“ came to mean covertly siphoning one company’s assets to another under a veneer of legality.

As a noun, „tunnel“ rarely inspires the same degree of controversy. It’s not so surprising, then, that two examples, being dug on either side of the Vltava River as you read this, have stirred up no scandal and only a modicum of debate. And yet the effect of the railway corridor under Vítkov hill and the tunnel through Letná on their respective surroundings could end up being positively scandalous.

Never mind that in both instances the tunnelling is being carried out with the best intentions: making driving and rail travel through Prague faster and more efficient. Equally commendable, developer Skanska announced last week that Vítkov railway tunnel will be completed by the end of 2008, two years ahead of schedule. Not bad for a CZK 8 billion job some are hailing as the country’s most important railway project since World War II.

The work actually encompasses two tunnels. The one closer to Karlín is 1,316 metres long, while the one on the Žižkov side measures 1,365 metres. Some 27 kilometres of new rails will also connect various stations around the city – Masarykovo nádraží with the Holešovice station, for example, and Hlavní nádraží to Holešovice, Vysočany and Libeň.

The project promises more efficient train service, which city representatives say will prompt more people to ride the rails, even for intra-city travel, easing some of the pressure on public transportation.

The unfortunate flipside of this expansion is the massive concrete railway overpass that’s going up over Husitská Street, where Žižkov meets Karlín.

Few are as outraged about this as my mother, whose apartment sits less than five minutes on foot from the mouth of the Vítkov tunnel. „Look at all the debate over Kaplický’s octopus on Letná,“ she often says. „But no one seems to care about the disgusting, concrete octopus growing between Žižkov and Karlín. And it’s just as close to downtown.“

She has a point. The railway overpass will create a sort of dead space between two predominantly residential neighbourhoods. And like the four-lane magistrála that went up in the 1970s, it will serve as yet another obstacle between Prague 3 and Prague 1, further cutting off Žižkov from the city centre.

Good urban planning shouldn’t create dead spaces between neighbourhoods. It also shouldn’t bring inter-city traffic into residential areas, which is what some local residents fear will happen with the tunnel under Letná. Once complete in 2011, the nearly CZK 26 billion structure will be the longest inner-city tunnel in Prague, connecting Špejchar in Prague 7 to the Pelc-Tyrolka intersection in Prague 8-Troja.

In theory the 5.5-kilometre tunnel should serve some of the traffic passing from Letná to the centre, easing congestion. But some worry it will also bring in inter-city drivers who now pass around the city rather than going through it.

City officials argue that the benefits of both tunnels will far outweigh the drawbacks. And they could be right. We won’t really know until both structures are complete and in full use.

If they’re proven wrong, it will be after having spent billions of taxpayers’ crowns on projects that were preceded by almost no public debate.

Most would agree, I think, that for a historical town, Prague caters far too much to its car traffic and neglects its pedestrians. With the exception of tourist thoroughfares in the historical core, much of Prague still bears the urban-planning scars of the communist era, when, in the name of modernisation, many crosswalks disappeared. They were sometimes replaced by pedestrian underpasses, so that people wouldn’t get in the way and slow down traffic.

The tunnelling of Letná seems like a throwback to this earlier era, when misguided planning transformed too many parts of the city into dead zones of zooming traffic (just consider Flora or I.P. Pavlova). Why should car travel through Prague be sped up? This isn’t a place to pass through; it’s a city to live in. That’s why pedestrians should always have the right of way – not just on crosswalks, as is the current case. If you don’t like getting stuck in traffic, take the metro.

To city planners’ credit, that mode of transit is being expanded by three stops this year and remains fast, efficient, relatively cheap and pedestrian-friendly. Sometimes tunnelling can be a good thing.

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