Like many metropolises worldwide, Israel's cities are becoming increasingly gridlocked. Half a million cars enter and leave Tel Aviv every day, resulting in rush-hour tailbacks and uncountable wasted man-hours. Even Jerusalemites have learned to accept traffic jams and air pollution as part of daily life in a modern capital.
Everybody knows that the solution is greater reliance on public transportation. How to enact such a change is another matter.
"A car is like a mother-in-law if you let it, it will rule your life," says Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba, the capital of southern Brazil's grain-rich Parana state.
City planners worldwide marvel at the success of Curitiba's rapid transit system, comprising concentric circles of local bus lines linked by five lines that fan out from the city center in a spider-web pattern.
"We started with 25,000 passengers per day. Nowadays, over 2 million people use the buses every day. The buses perform as well as and sometimes better than a subway. Double articulated buses can carry up to 300 passengers. With a one-minute frequency, we can cater for up to 50,000 passengers an hour," says Lerner, 64, widely acclaimed for introducing the most successful urban transportation model anywhere.
Earlier this month, Lerner was guest speaker at a conference sponsored by the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership at Tel Aviv University (TAU) on public transportation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Opening the September 8 conference, Dr. Dov Khenin, a fellow of TAU's Porter School of Environmental Studies and chairman of the Israeli environmental umbrella organization Chaim V'sviva ("Life and Environment"), unveiled an in-depth report entitled "Transportation and environmental policy in Israel where are we heading?"
"The question of transportation has far-reaching implications on our environment and culture. The need to have a private car is seen as freedom to choose endless opportunities. We are all becoming more dependent on private cars, whether for taking children to school, commuting to work, for shopping or recreation. The central problem is to free citizens from the need for automobiles, but because of how our society is constructed, the citizen has no chance," Khenin told the overflowing auditorium.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 1,567,021 private cars plied Israel's overcrowded roads at the end of 2004 (out of 2,037,715 motor vehicles altogether).
Transportation experts note that the ongoing expansion of Israel's railway system should help alleviate traffic congestion in the short term, but for all its lip service to mass transit, the political establishment remains subservient to a powerful pro-automobile lobby. Finance Minister Ehud Olmert recently decided to gradually reduce purchase tax on private cars from the current 95 percent to 72 percent by 2010, and a 10% cut in compulsory insurance rates will be introduced from October 1.
While the political establishment does little to reduce long-term dependency on the internal combustion engine, academics and environmentalists are urging a new paradigm.
Hillel Shoken of TAU's Azrieli architecture center noted that the initial cost estimate of a road tunnel planned under the Netivei Ayalon highway is NIS 300 million. "It would be better to invest the money in Segway vehicles [an electric single-person standing scooter] to make the city more inhabitable. Highway 6 and the light railway are systematic of a lack of foresight. The rail system is doomed to fail in the competition with the private car. The light train is the heaviest vehicle I can think of. I sincerely hope that Mr. Lerner's visit will have an effect on government policy," said Shoken.
"We can learn much from Lerner's experience," Yehuda Elbaz, a senior department head at the Transportation Ministry, told the conference.
"Until now, the ministry has felt alone when trying to encourage greater use of public transport. The challenges before us are great. The state is at a critical stage in its development, and we have to know how to push urban development forward in the next decade or two with an emphasis on public transportation. Enormous amounts have been and will be invested in sustainable public transportation," said Elbaz, to a few muted guffaws in the audience.
Not all the participants were as skeptical.
"We're moving in the right direction," insisted Dutch-born Dr. Karel Martens of Transport Today and Tomorrow, a society founded in 1998 to promote sustainable transportation in Israel. "The question is whether we can sustain this direction."
Martens described how Dutch urban planners adopted new mindsets in the 1970s and 80s, designing innovative mass transport policies that incorporate interconnected bus and rail services, and a substantial network of bicycle lanes.
"The design of a city is like a strange archeology. A city grows like an organism. It is a structure of living and working together a mix of functions. A city is like a family portrait you don't tear it up if you don't like your uncle's nose," said Lerner, who served three terms as Curitiba's mayor.
Rather than dissuade car drivers, Lerner encouraged increased bus usage in Curitiba. In 1974, the mayor introduced delineated (not painted) bus lanes.
"We didn't have the money to build a subway system. The bus system is not subsidized. It pays for itself. Private enterprises invested $250 million in a new fleet of buses, with affordable tickets for low-income travelers but not too low prices as the quality of the service would drop. Alternative public transport must be frequent and fast. Buses should stop every 500 meters, but not every street corner, with sheltered bus stops."
Lerner himself designed the city's trademark plexiglas tube bus stops, where passengers pay their fares, enter through one end of the air-conditioned tube and exit from the other end. (Small elevators for the handicapped negate the need for special ramps on buses). The system allows rapid boarding and disembarking, and a sheltered place for waiting not that passengers have to wait for long.
"New York has been planning the Second Avenue [subway] line for the past 50 years. It should be started this year and completed in 2021 at a cost of $4 billion. This line will not carry more passengers than our bus system. Bus routes are a hundred times less expensive. You have to deal with the surface anyway even Paris, with the best subway in the world, has some dedicated lines for buses. The future is on the surface. Density is not a bad thing. Diversity, sustainability and mobility make a city human. We have high-rise, high-density buildings only where good public transport is available," he emphasized.
"Everyone should have a choice of modes of transportation," Lerner told the conference. "The one condition is that they should not compete for the same space. [Road] tunnels are the quickest way to travel from one traffic jam to another. No city can be feasible only for private cars. In Curitiba, 25% of former car owners have transferred to public transport that means 25% fewer cars on the roads. It took over two decades for Bogota to adopt our ideas, but now dozens of South American cities are doing so."
Lerner, who is Jewish, has visited Israel several times over the years to visit family members. "It's quite different from when I first came here 30 years ago," he told The Jerusalem Post after the conference.
"There are some positive aspects to development in Tel Aviv," he said. "I particularly like the tree-lined boulevards and scale of some of the neighborhoods. It's a good city, but one thing worries me: it is too centered around the private car. If they could think more about public transport immediately not about a subway in the future they will see a rapid improvement. Fewer cars in the streets makes a city better both for cars and people. To start, people need to shake their fear of leaving the car behind, and change their routine to using public transport if there is a good alternative. It can be done immediately."
Lerner urged Israeli planners to be more daring. "To make it happen is to propose a project that the majority of people find desirable. A desirable design will always be more successful than an undesirable one. The demonstration effect is important when you do something fast you avoid your own bureaucracy, governmental objections and your own doubts," he said.
"Creativity comes when you cut a zero from your budget. If you cut two zeroes, you must become more creative."