Atlanta banker Charles Green and attorney Daniel Kolber were impressed by Switzerland's sustainable transportation systems during a visit last November.

As leaders weigh plans to keep traffic from choking economic growth in Atlanta, they shouldn’t underestimate the value of popular consensus, Swiss Ambassador Urs Ziswiler told GlobalAtlanta.

Transportation projects that can take decades and cost billions of dollars to complete must have “public support” from two sides, said Mr. Ziswiler. Governments must lead the way with funding, but the people whose taxes ultimately bankroll the government must also buy into the projects ideologically.

Mr. Ziswiler’s country is known for efficient transportation systems, especially its trains, which are so punctual that they can be used to set a watch, he said. The ambassador visited Atlanta Jan. 20 to speak at a sustainable transportation forum at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

He was reluctant to offer a one-size-fits-all solution for Georgia, but he said projects like commuter rail, which has been discussed by officials for years, can only come about through the conviction of politicians and the will of citizens dissatisfied with the status quo.

“If you stay hours and hours in traffic jams, maybe you’ll come to the conclusion that’s not the best way to handle traffic,” he said.

In Switzerland, a country where referendums are a natural part of political life, the people’s voices come in loud and clear. Over the years, they have spoken overwhelmingly in favor of trains over cars, he said, in stark contrast to the U.S.

The Swiss predilection for rail is in part due to the country’s geography and terrain. The landlocked country, similar in size to Kentucky, is tucked in the mountainous Alpine region between France, Germany and Italy. A road-based freight system would lead to bottlenecks as trucks try to negotiate steep hillsides, Mr. Ziswiler said.

“The best way [to move freight] is on the rail and not on the roads, because otherwise we would just have one traffic jam from Germany to Italy,” he said, adding that the country is currently blasting the largest tunnel in the world to make way for new track.

Trains aren’t just good for freight, though. They’re also the preferred transportation method for people. Advanced metro systems do the job in urban settings, while other lines lead to remote regions of the country that would otherwise be largely cut off from tourism and economic development, Mr. Ziswiler said.

Swiss trains are also helping the country gain notoriety in its efforts to reduce the country’s carbon footprint, a point the ambassador emphasized as essential. The entire train system runs on electric power, and improvements are funded in part by taxes on gasoline, he said.

Though the $3 per gallon tax could cause an uproar in the U.S., the Swiss citizenry approved it in a referendum. That’s because the transportation system is structured so that public options are quicker than driving anyway, Mr. Ziswiler said. Nearly 60 percent of residents of Zurich, Switzerland’s most populous city, decide not to own a car.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently announced that the Obama administration is to make it easier for cities and states to spend federal money on public transit projects, especially light-rail systems.

Mr. LaHood said that the administration would establish new guidelines that take environmental, community and economic benefits into account and not just evaluate projects by how much they shorten commutes.

Mr. Ziswiler spoke with GlobalAtlanta in a wide-ranging interview that touched on banking issues and a recent referendum in which the Swiss population favored a ban on minarets, the towers at mosques from which clerics call the Muslim faithful to prayer.

He said he met with Gov. Sonny Perdue during his visit and invited him to visit Switzerland to call on companies. Novartis, a Swiss company, owns CIBA Vision, which employs more than 3,000 people in Georgia.

The invitation is part of Mr. Ziswiler’s efforts to spread the word about his country, which he said has much more to offer than its most famous exports of watches, cheese and chocolate.

“One of my challenges is to put Switzerland on the map,” he said, noting that nation of only 7 million people is the sixth largest investor in the U.S., and its companies are responsible for sustaining about a half-million jobs. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...