During this week’s holiday travelers to the Negev will benefit from the two additional sections of Highway 6 which were finally opened in the south of the country last week.
The section from the Beit Kama Junction almost to Shoket Junction has now been completed, cutting the journey to the center of the country by another five to 10 minutes. The physical distance remains the same, but the speed of access makes it that bit easier for those of us who spend much of our time traveling from the Northern Negev to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or other places further north.
There is also an excellent and improved train system which connects Beersheba to Tel Aviv, along with an additional line linking the towns of Ofakim, Netivot, Sderot and Ashkelon to Tel Aviv, enabling more residents of the region to find employment, go shopping or enjoy an evening at theaters or concert halls in the Tel Aviv region.
The improved rail system has had a double impact: not only does it enable more of the country’s population to find employment in the Tel Aviv region without having to relocate, but it has also enabled residents of the center of the country seeking to improve their living conditions the opportunity to purchase detached housing and single- family plots in the towns and communities along the new road and rail systems, and to travel in to work each day while enjoying better living conditions in places and communities outside the densely populated and expensive urban centers.
As the center of the country becomes more accessible to the residents of the periphery – in both the Negev and the Galilee – the idea of Israel as a city state, with the Gush Dan metropolitan region being the single city in the center and the rest of the country becoming the metropolitan hinterland, has become a reality. If, in the past, a basic principle of regional development was the idea that the periphery would be populated by development towns with their own sources of employment enabling people to live and to work in their own communities, the realities of economic life in a small country have dictated otherwise – and Israel has become transformed into one large commuter belt, with hundreds of thousands commuting from the country’s suburbs and peripheral regions into the Tel Aviv metropolitan center on a daily basis.
The rapid extension of Highway 6 in the south of the country during the past three years has also been assisted by the fact that large sections of the IDF are in the process of moving to this region. The new Camp Ariel Sharon, or “Bahad City,” the eventual end destination of Highway 6, is up and running and some units have already completed their move. Other units, along with personnel and their families, will be moving over the next five years and this will have a major impact on the social and economic development of the south.
As many of this week’s holiday travelers benefit from these latest road improvements, there will be others frustrated and angry as they get stuck in the huge traffic snarls leading into Jerusalem, as tens of thousands seek to visit Jerusalem during Passover. But this too is coming to an end as the massive transportation improvements – both road and rail – leading into the country’s capital are scheduled to be completed over the next couple of years.
Many of us who travel regularly in and out of Jerusalem are waiting with bated breath for the completion of this project, which includes the expansion and widening of existing roads, along with the construction of impressive road and rail bridges and tunnels which bore deep into the mountains surrounding the city.
Despite environmental opposition to some of these projects, it is recognized that it is essential to have these improved links, even if it comes at the expense of some environmental degradation (hopefully as limited as possible).
Environmental rehabilitation and the restoration of natural landscapes figure highly in the construction projects, while it is also expected that the completion of a high-speed train line from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, linking the two in less than 45 minutes, should result in a significant decrease in the number of people using their private cars for journeys along this route.
The new train station, some 80 meters below the existing bus station at the entrance to the city, will link the public transportation networks to each other, while there is also talk of extending the rail link underground as far as the Old City at the other end of Jaffa Road. A traveler being able to get on a train at Arlozoroff Station and emerge, without having to change trains, opposite Jaffa Gate less than an hour later, is not so far in the future.
Add to this the construction of the internal light rail system in Tel Aviv, the planned expansion of Jerusalem’s light rail system (which after years of delays and increased costs now functions smoothly and efficiently), the expansion of the rail system in the Jezreel Valley (along the course of the old line running to Damascus), the expansion of roads from single- to double-lane throughout the country, the construction of bridges and tunnels, and the constant improvement in the country’s transportation system.
The sophisticated Rav Kav card, enabling people to pre-purchase tickets on the many different transportation systems throughout the country, has also made it much easier to travel without having to wait in long lines to purchase individual journey tickets.
At the same time, we remain a country of car consumers, buying newer and better cars constantly. As soon as new roads have been constructed or expanded, they are filled with traffic and the traffic jams are simply relocated to the next junction. Too many Israelis still insist on using their private cars to travel into work each day, and are prepared to suffer the nightmare of the traffic holdups in and out of Tel Aviv, morning and evening, sitting in stationary vehicles, waiting for the traffic to move another few meters.
Ironically, it can be quicker for a worker from Kiryat Gat or Beersheba to get home on the train than for his/her colleague to drive the much shorter distance back to Rishon Lezion or Herzliya.
Much greater effort is required on the part of government in persuading people to use the new transportation infrastructure as an alternative method of daily transportation.
The recent reform of the pricing system has made it cheaper to use the buses and the trains but, unlike the situation in Europe, there is still a stigma attached to the public transportation systems among many middle class Israelis, although this attitude may be beginning to change.
Greater use of public transportation is good for the environment, as well as for the individual peace of mind of most travelers. But it requires the strict adherence to timetables an even greater increase in the frequency of the buses and trains. This should now be a national priority for any government in determining annual budgets.
But how exactly we achieve this is a bit of a mystery.
The tax on cars makes Israel one of the most expensive countries in the world for their purchase. Petrol rates, which fluctuate along with world oil prices, also remain high, even in comparison with Europe. The cost of comprehensive insurance, car repairs and the annual license fee are high, and yet we continue to purchase private cars as if our very survival depended on it. Cars remain a status symbol in Israel where, in much of the developed world, the reverse effect has taken place.
Example must start from the top. It is not uncommon in London, for example, to find many of the members of Parliament arriving to work incognito on the underground system or even on bicycles – the most famous bike user being the Conservative MP, Mayor of London and potential future prime minister Boris Johnson. Within Israeli towns, especially Tel Aviv, there is a welcome increase in the use of bikes and motorcycles, which can be rented on a daily basis at the main train stations, but it is clearly not yet enough.
This is a small country. There are only so many additional roads which can be constructed without taking away the little that is left of an open landscape. New highways, such as Highway 6, while improving accessibility and ease of travel, create ugly concrete edifices where there were once fields and open space, and this too is slowly reaching its limit. Successive governments, and especially Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, should be congratulated for the improvements, and it is now up to the rest of us to make full, and efficient, use of the improved transportation network, both inside and outside the cities.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.