Israel is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world,
and also the most urbanized, with more than ninety per cent of its citizens
living in cities. Over the last two decades the Transportation Ministry has
consistently invested in mass transit infrastructure within the major
metropolitan regions, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beersheba, in understanding
of the fact that dense cities cannot be served by private cars, because traffic
would inexorably grind to a standstill. Jerusalem has proudly launched its first
light rail line, with an impressive BRT system and a rapidly improving bus
Tel Aviv and Haifa have also taken significant steps in the
In Jerusalem, there is no longer justification to take
our private car downtown, where the city center is increasingly traffic-free and
Why then are Israeli families so often the proud
owners of one, two or even three cars? Again, if we examine the system closely,
we discover that this is not the result of necessity but of public policy that
comes from a different section of government, the Finance Ministry.
famous car expenses built in to our salary slip are the government’s way of
feeding us with a largish chunk of salary that does not contribute to our
This tempts most people to buy a car, even if they don’t intend
to use it on a regular basis. One of the results of this unfortunate strategy is
that when we retire, our pension constitutes 70% of the basic salary we earned,
but a much smaller percentage of our total salary (including car costs and other
benefits) before retirement. In addition, the import of cars is a very good
source of tax income for the government, and it would seem that the sale of
petrol generates yet more income.
One aspect of the transport enigma, is
the impact of heavily polluted air on public health. The clean air law obligates
us to avoid heavy traffic coming in contact with pedestrians, and health risk
assessment experts tell us that many of the cases of hypertension, heart
disease, lymphomas, asthma and many other conditions are severely affected by
air pollution, which stems largely from traffic.
statistical forecasts have warned that within a couple of decades close to 50
percent of the population will be liable to suffer from cancer at least once in
This alarming prediction obliges us to investigate the
causes of this killing disease, and hopefully to take the steps needed to lessen
the odds. As things are now, cancer is cured more easily and successfully than
before, but is occurring with ever greater frequency.
diabetes and hypertension are also vastly influenced by lifestyle choices, and
in this case a lot of the harm is done through being enslaved by the motorcar,
instead of walking, cycling or using public transport.
There are wider
economic implications here, since the large numbers of people who suffer from
these diseases end up in hospital beds, require medical treatment and lose many
work hours due to illness. Here we have another party perhaps overly keen to
sell its wares – the pharmaceutical industry, geared to treating, instead of
These paradigms are an integral part of our modern
and enlightened world, but need not be...
Can we imagine a workplace that
gives a bonus to employees who arrive at work on foot, on a bike, on a bus or a
train? It is highly likely that in such a situation many people would sell their
second cars, and keep the first one for weekend outings only. Supposing an extra
incentive was added, and the bonus was integrated into our salary for pension?
Not only would there be many less cars on the market, but another cause of human
deaths would be impacted positively, since with fewer cars on the roads there
would be many less accidents and fatalities. It is well-known that an appalling
number of lives in Israel are lost as a result of traffic accidents or through
diseases related to air pollution.
The reality I have described seems
tragi-comic in its absurdity, and all the more so since it is we ourselves who
have allowed this unintelligent economic thinking to rule our lives. Two weeks
have passed since our national elections, and nearly half of the incoming MKs
are taking up their seats for the first time, giving an unprecedented injection
of new political blood into our Knesset. It remains to be seen, however, whether
the next government will attempt to repair some of the flaws in our system, or
once again perpetuate the inconsistencies of the past decades.The author
is deputy mayor of Jerusalem.
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