THE JERUSALEM Central Bus Station and its iconic clock face..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Those who regularly use buses and trains didn’t need this week’s State Comptroller Report to tell them that public transportation is in a crisis. And it was already amply clear to those who commute between cities to work or school every day that the roads are overcrowded, leading to increased traffic jams over the years.
But State Comptroller Joseph Shapira’s report showed just how extreme the problems have become, due to low investments from the government.
Israel has the most-congested roads among the developed countries making up the OECD – over three times worse than the Western average. The number of private cars on the roads increased by 25% between 2009 and 2017, and the comptroller cited inadequate public transportation as the reason people have grown increasingly dependent on their cars.
The report found that despite a 2017 government investment of NIS 4.8 billion in transportation subsidies, there were significant barriers to the development of bus services, such as a lack of infrastructure, a severe shortage of drivers, and Transportation Ministry failures to monitor bus operators.
Regarding railway infrastructure, failures to accurately forecast the growth in demand in recent years, inadequate planning and interministerial communication led to a shortage of engines, carriages and other equipment. The result was coach crowding, train delays during peak hours and cancellations.
The simple fact is that buses and trains do not come often enough, and large parts of the population have difficulty accessing stations on their daily commutes.
This report came during a week when train conductors went on strike, with dozens of them mysteriously getting sick at the same time. Another time this week, all the trains around the country stopped simultaneously for five minutes. Thousands of people’s evening commutes home were disrupted.
Conductors went on strike because of increased work hours – although even with the increase, they were getting two and a half hours off in an eight-hour workday, the reasons for which can be understood from the comptroller’s report.
In addition, the expansion of the train lines is happening very slowly, like the electrification of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem express line, which took over a decade to build. The addition of a fourth train track along the Ayalon expressway in Tel Aviv is expected to take another seven years; a fifth track is already needed.
Transportation Minister Israel Katz has appeared on all the top TV and radio news programs to defend himself, saying he is playing catch-up on a system that is a century behind the times. That may be so, but Katz has held the transportation portfolio for a decade. He can’t credibly blame the Ottoman and British empires for the failings when he has had ample time to remedy the situation.
Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu like to boast about all the intersections that they have built around the country – and it’s true that some of the intercity highways have been greatly improved – but public transportation needs to be higher on their list of priorities.
Good public transportation is better for the environment and creates more opportunities for citizens across the country, allowing them easier and cheaper access to more workplaces. It also saves lives; fewer cars on the roads will reduce traffic accidents. And the economy lost a potential NIS 15m. each year due to inadequate transportation, which is expected to reach NIS 25b. annually, with overcrowding worsening.
It also appears, from the report, that better public transportation can also help coexistence. One point Shapira made was that there are significant gaps between Jewish and non-Jewish communities in this area. Construction on the Haifa-Nazareth light rail has been delayed for years. It would behoove politicians who talk about better integration of the Arab sector to look at these factors as well.
With less than a month away until the election, we need to hear more from our potential and incumbent leaders about how they will turn the tides on this important social and economic matter. Commuting is never going to be the most enjoyable part of the day for most, but there’s no reason for it to be torture.
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