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Praguescape: Tunnel vision

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The verb “to tunnel” in the Czech language acquired a nasty ring to it in the 1990s, when the term became synonymous with corrupt business practices. “To tunnel” came to mean to covertly siphon – under the guise of legality – the assets of one company to another.

As a noun “tunnel” rarely inspires the same degree of controversy. Tunnels are trendy in Prague these days. A new railway corridor now passes under Vítkov Hill, allowing a greater number of passenger trains in and out of the main train station. At Letná in Prague 7, the Blanka tunnel, which is still under construction, promises to speed up the flow of traffic, allowing more efficient transit through the city. And the long-planned tunnel below Wenceslas Square – to be created by submerging a section of the magistrála motorway underground and moving it behind the National Museum – promises to reduce noise levels and reconnect parts of historical Pragues 1 and 2. Joining this tunnel trinity, could be yet another structure that would essentially be a continuation of Blanka from where it ends in Troja. According to a study by the architectural studio VHE, which introduced the project to city hall in mid-July, the tunnel would further help ease traffic flow in Prague 7. The cost is estimated at CZK 500 million. The date of construction has yet to be set.

But can tunnels really serve as a panacea for all of the city’s traffic problems? Good urban planning shouldn’t bring intercity traffic into residential areas, which is what some locals fear will happen with the tunnel under Letná. Once completed in 2011, the nearly CZK 26 billion structure will be the the longest tunnel in Prague, connecting Špejchar in Letná, Prague 7, to the Pelc-Tyrolka intersection in Troja, Prague 8.

In theory the 5.5 km tunnel should serve some of the traffic passing from Letná to the city centre, easing up congestion. But some worry that the tunnel will also bring in new intercity traffic, some of which today passes around Prague rather than going through it.

In the case of the magistrála, the tunnel seems the most benign and the plan has not been attracting as much criticism as some of the other projects. That could be partly because the magistrála is so bad to begin with that any change will seem like an improvement. Since its completion in 1978, the magistrála has brought volumes upon volumes of transit traffic into Prague’s historical downtown, and, along with it, exhaust fumes, daily bottlenecks and noise. It severed the National Museum from Wenceslas Square, obliterated the main train station’s original front entrance and, perhaps worst of all, cut off the neighbourhoods of Vinohrady and Žižkov from the centre. City hall has been promising to reduce the impact of the magistrála since 1989.

But although the planned CZK 10 billion project, which is scheduled for launch in 2011, would benefit Wenceslas Square, it will not do much for Žižkov or the I.P. Pavlova area, at opposite ends of the tunnel. One could even argue that those who will benefit most from the tunnel will be the drivers: no more traffic lights to slow them down near the National Museum section of the motorway. Perhaps it’s too early to be cynical, though. And city hall is promising to reduce the number of cars that use the magistrála each day from 85,000 to 50,000.

In all instances, the intentions behind the tunneling are basically good: to make driving through Prague faster and more efficient. But why should car travel through the city be sped up? Prague is a city to live in, after all, not a thoroughfare.

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