Turkey gets a first-of-its-kind tunnel to help ease Istanbul's congestion

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I thought the chunnel was a big deal. It is, but it's not linking two continents the way the ‘Iron Silk Road’ is. Today, the world's first underwater rail link between two continents opened for business. Turkey unveiled its new 8-mile long tunnel, linking Europe and Asia via the Bosphorus straight.
Sibel Bozdogan is a Turkish-American architect. So there are bridges across the Bosphorus, right, but a tunnel just seems really important. So what is it going to do that bridges have not done so far, for the whole geography and society around the Bosphorus and Istanbul?

Sibel Bozdogan: Well, the shift towards rail system from cars and buses is a very important accomplishment that has already started with the subway and the light surface rails. So the tunnel will complete that, so to carry… when it comes to maximum capacity according to their estimates, when it carries one and a half million people per day. You know, that is a major help to Istanbul's traffic, in ways that the cars that cross the bridges are not. But the larger question about bringing cultures together, that I believe is a bit more tricky. At the moment, we don't know many technical details about how that will actually be done. If it is meant to enhance trade between Europe and Asia, what will be logistics of that transit traffic of goods? In other words, will actual freight trains be running through the tunnels? How will Istanbul's commuter traffic will overlap with transit traffic of this dreamed of 'new Silk Road.' I really don't know at the moment.

Werman: What about just, kind of, cross-fertilization of cultures? I mean, when you have greater efficiencies between people, they start exchanging ideas.

Bozdogan: Yes, but I also think that there is a difference between the idea of an economic and a geopolitical bridge, and the idea of a cultural bridge on the other. I mean, the first one is more pragmatic and instrumental; the other has to do more with shared visions of life. Trains and tunnels may suffice with, say, connecting with China and doing business, but if we are talking, let's say, about truly connecting with Europe, it needs more than rail infrastructure. It needs a democratic culture, an openness to differences, and as you know, we know, in a lot of these areas... the distance between Europe and Turkey has been increasing, rather than decreasing lately.

Werman: I hear some Turks are also angry that 2.8 billion has been spent on this tunnel. What are Turks exactly upset about?

Bozdogan: More than the cost, I think the broader criticism is this government's, and in fact, personally, the prime minister's political and rhetorical use of infrastructural mega projects. You know, for them, roads, tunnels and bridges are unquestionable instruments of progress. Any criticism or concern regarding, for example, historical heritage, environmental, or social justice, or in this case even safety. As you know, questions of safety were raised. All of these are dismissed as subversive.
Erdogan loves this image of the prime minister in a hard hat. You know, he was the one doing the excavations, when archaeological finds were found in Yenikapi. These were amazing treasures of Emperor Theodosius from the 4th century, the sunken port. It was Tayyip ErdoÄŸan who said that people are delaying progress for the sake of a few pots and shards.
So, continents are crossed. Bigger, deeper, taller structures are built, and we are all expected to be grateful. Never mind the lack of transparency, lack of oversight. So this government, I would say, is unable to understand why many people are not bending over in gratitude.

Werman: Are you at least feeling a little bit of pride today?

Bozdogan: [Laughs] Yes, I can say that as an engineering feat, first intercontinental tunnel, the deepest one under the water, 60 meters under the sea level. But I don't think pride can be isolated from all the concerns that come with it, because, you know, people demand participation, transparency, accountability. So those cannot be put aside just to applaud this important engineering feat, I think.

Werman: Architect and architectural historian, Sibel Bozdogan. Thanks so much for your time.

Bozdogan: Thank you.

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