On Monday, director-general of the Israel Planning Administration Rafi Elmaleh announced the government’s intention to construct a metro system in Jerusalem in order to keep pace with Israel’s rapid population growth.
According to the Planning Administration, the existing and planned light rail lines in Jerusalem are only expected to meet the city’s transportation demands until the year 2030.
“Today, Jerusalem is already at full capacity in terms of its transportation offerings,” Elmaleh said. “Therefore, the Planning Administration, together with the Transportation Ministry, the Jerusalem Transport Master Plan Team and the Finance Ministry have begun to examine options for building a metro in Jerusalem.”
The construction of a metro may seem like a straightforward solution to the issue, assuming it could actually be finished by 2030 (the Tel Aviv subway has been in development for the last eight years). But it could pose several of its own challenges, according to Professor Erel Avineri, Head of Energy Engineering Program at the Afeka-Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering.
It may not be worth the cost
“It’s a question of economic justification. The main added value of transportation is in helping people get to economic and social activities. If it doesn’t accomplish that, there's no point in investing in it,” Avineri said, emphasizing that transporting people to their jobs would be the lifeblood of the metro, were it to be installed.
“Jerusalem isn’t a very big city, and it’s unclear how many people would actually use a metro to get to work. The city has a significant population, but it lacks the amount and variety of [business] activity that would typically make a metro relevant,” he said.
That lack of vibrant business activity also means that the city itself could likely not afford to construct the subway system on its own, and would need government subsidy in order to fund its construction. Even Tel Aviv, Israel’s business capital, has had to rely on the government in order to fund its own metro system, which is currently under development.
“We haven't yet reached the [economic] equilibrium for justifying a metro in Tel Aviv, but probably we will get there,” Avineri said. “I'm not sure that that's the case with Jerusalem.”
It’s not future-proof
As well, a major problem posed by a subway is its rigidity — once the tracks are laid down, there’s not so much you can do to change them to meet the needs of an evolving city.
“This is probably the most inflexible infrastructure to try to apply to the most changing city in Israel. A metro isn’t a solution just for the next 10 or 20 years, it’s a solution for the next 100 years. You need to have some sort of stability in order to build fixed infrastructure,” Avineri said. “If you look at Jerusalem even 10 years ago, it's changed a lot. So it's a huge risk to plan ahead with a transport solution to a city that hasn't been planned ahead [itself].”
“Financially speaking, we are talking about billions — dozens of billions of public money invested in such a project,” he pointed out, adding that, with such a steep cost, the metro should be guaranteed to make sense in Jerusalem’s long run.
It could alter Jerusalem’s identity
Completely removed from the potential metro’s economic challenges is the question of whether the addition of a subterranean transit system might irrevocably alter the DNA of the Holy City.
“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and there’s a lot of symbolism in its infrastructure,” Avineri said, noting that there’s an argument to be made regarding how the addition of such a static mobility system might change the city’s character. “We need to remember that many cities — even large, financially successful ones — do not have a metro and that's fine.”
“I hope that, in this process, they are looking at several public mobility alternatives,” he continued. “They shouldn't look at whether we should build a metro or not. They should take five, six alternatives — metro being one of them — and look at the future of Jerusalem, and then consider what transportation fits within that future.”