Guest Post: Beware of the French: Linking Geneva to its Hinterland

By William Barbosa.

CEVA: this strange acronym means Cornavin-Eaux Vives-Annemasse, and corresponds to the future underground City Train connecting Geneva directly to its french suburbs by train. Cornavin, the central station of Geneva, the world capital of diplomats and bankers. Eaux-Vives, an intermediate railway station which used to connect Geneva to France. Annemasse, the main city of Geneva's french suburbs, a dynamical and cosmopolitan city crowded by 90 000 inhabitants.

Born and raised close to Annemasse, I remember how complicated it was to go to the center of Geneva. When I was a child, we had to drive through a checkpoint to enter Switzerland's second largest city. In 2008, Switzerland joined the Schengen zone, so train traffic became easier between Annemasse and Eaux-Vives station. Today, due to CEVA works, train traffic is interrupted. But I feel somehow excited: in 2020, I should be able to go directly from the fast growing Geneva Airport to my hometown in France, directly by train!

Since the 1960s, Geneva has been facing a crisis in its transportation system. As in all european cities, the car has become the main mode of transportation in the urban area. Despite a new tramway system that has been inaugurated in 1995, no public transportation connects Geneva to France, after Genevan citizens had refused it by referendum. As a result, pendling fast between Geneva and its suburbs is possible only by car. Every morning and evening, huge traffic jams involving french workers in Geneva (the so-called “Frontaliers”) block the entry points at the border.

To me, the border has become an absurdity. First of all, there is a perfect urban continuity between Geneva and Annemasse, and the two territories are deeply linked. The border has turned from a wall to an interface. Both French and Swiss cross the border daily, the latter ones prefer living in France, to benefit lower housing and food prices. Moreover, the intense economic activity on both sides is largely due to Geneva's international attractivity. Alone, Geneva is just a city of 180000 inhabitants (450000 by counting the Canton of Geneva). However, if we take the functional region, then it becomes a metropolitan zone of about one million inhabitants, making Geneva an important metropole in the european city network.

Geneva is now transforming quickly. Works in Switzerland started in November 2011 and should last until 2019. The route, mostly underground, starts from Annemasse central station, then enters Geneva from the south, and comes above ground at Cornavin station. There, people should have access to a new regional train system, the “RER franco-valdo-genevois” connecting Geneva to the swiss canton of Vaud and France. In the meanwhile, the tramway should also cross the border and come into Annemasse. Urban projects are numerous on both sides of the border: regeneration of poor neighbourhoods, planning of eco-friendly parts, creation of a “green corridor”, etc...

Works in France should start this year, but nothing has happened. How come? The CEVA project shows how urban planning is differently considered in Switzerland and in France. The french planning process is known to be complex, and urban planning law has a decisive importance. Compulsory procedures are numerous: impact studies, public consultation, declaration of public utility, zone opening procedures, etc... But financing sources are also numerous, due to France's complex administrative system: concerned municipalities and inter-municipalities, the County of Haute-Savoie, the Rhône-Alpes Region, the French State, the railway company (RFF), the train company (SNCF), for instance, are involved in the project. It is still unclear to determine who does what, which is likely to freeze the planning process when a problem occurs.

Switzerland has a more pragmatic approach, more Germanic-inspired, based on the reliability of the actors involved in the process. Swiss cities have, compared to their french counterparts, a lot of knowledge of planning processes based on the link between urban planning and transportation policies. Only three actors are involved in the CEVA project: the Canton of Geneva, the Swiss confederation and the Swiss Railway Company (SBB/CFF/FFF). So it goes faster in Le Corbusier's home country!

In order to coordinate both french and Swiss actors, a trans-border structure has been created: “Great Geneva” (Grand Genève). Created first in 1973 as a committee of cooperation between Geneva and its french suburbs, the structure became larger and gained power in the 2000s. From 2007 onward, the main role of Great Geneva is to promote cooperation in urban planning and transport policies as well as in local economic and social policies. However, this structure cannot be considered as efficient in order to promote trans-border policies. First, Great Geneva is rather a federation of Swiss and french local structures. So, the decision process must adapt to a wide range of particular situations, and decisions are not mandatory. Second, Great Geneva is created on the strength of Swiss public law, and the structure is largely dominated by Swiss politicians. Associated french municipalities do not think they have a role to play in this trans-border structure.

The lack of urban governance is not likely to coordinate local urban planning policies in the metropolitan area, especially on the other side of the border. However, the oncoming issues that CEVA should create are numerous. First on housing policies. Nowadays housing prices are one of the highest in Europe on both sides of the border, and it is expected that prices keep increasing while CEVA will connect the suburbs more efficiently. As an increasing number of french workers, coming mostly from the poor northern and eastern regions, are rushing to Geneva, hoping to have a well-paid job and a new start, the french suburbs experience a high housing pressure leading to high prices. Moreover, these french workers generally come back to their home regions after less than one year, leading to a high turn-over in the french suburbs that increases the pressure. The rhythm of housing construction is insufficient to absorb the demographic shock, and municipalities' housing policies can be extremely different: some municipalities decide to densify, whereas others choose to build only individual houses.

More worrying is that CEVA will probably increase the gap between rich and poor. The income gap is not an important debate in Geneva, as poor Swiss citizens are  encouraged to live in the french suburbs: the lowest salaries in Geneva stand for medium salaries in France, so poor Swiss can afford living decently there. But the situation is more alarming in the french suburbs, where an increasing part of the population cannot afford the even more expansive living costs (corresponding to Swedish living costs). Today, the county of Haute-Savoie is one of those with the highest level of social inequalities in the non-Paris France. By 2020, the so-called “frontaliers” would gain in life quality while ordinary french workers in France would lose in purchasing power.

To crown it all, the main question relies on the real capacity of CEVA to reduce car traffic. Urban planning is a beautiful thing, but the main difficulty for planners is to influence mentalities and habits. Due to the lack of public transports in the whole county of Haute-Savoie, car has become an important cultural element that built the identity of the region. In my opinion, the inauguration of CEVA should be also accompanied by a wide range of measures aiming at reducing the car's place in the municipalities. Nevertheless, local politicians may not be ready to lose votes by making such decisions.

Cooperation cannot function if the actors are not equal. The main problem of Geneva is that Switzerland, a country that fears foreigners, largely dominates the metropolitan area. Lately, while walking in the streets of Geneva, I saw a huge advert on a wall warning : “Beware of  the French! They will eat you like delicacies!”. CEVA is an urban project made by and for Switzerland that involved France by accident.