Is Jerusalem trying to fix the city's transportation, traffic issues?

But are all possible efforts really being made? The facts on the ground tell a difficult story.

 CAR HORNS, already a familiar sound in Israel, create an ever-present din in Jerusalem due to frequent traffic. (photo credit: Sara Kurfess/Unsplash)
CAR HORNS, already a familiar sound in Israel, create an ever-present din in Jerusalem due to frequent traffic.
(photo credit: Sara Kurfess/Unsplash)

Officially, the Jerusalem Municipality is aware of the difficulties of transportation and traffic in the city and does its best to make it easier for the residents.

But are all possible efforts really being made? Allegedly only, say some activists monitoring the issue of traffic in the city. The facts on the ground tell a difficult story.

The municipality broadcasts that it is in control of the situation and that everything is planned and calculated, but the feeling among the public is that the system has lost control and that the situation on the city roads has become unbearable for both pedestrians and drivers. And the only advantage that was expected – the preference for public transport – does not exist in the field; on the contrary.

Over several months, the city has become one large construction site, which includes building towers, demolishing old buildings in favor of yet another tower, and the infrastructure for the various light rail lines.

Lion's gamble

Mayor Moshe Lion took a big gamble when he decided, about three years ago, to carry out all these works at once, assuming that it is better to go through a hard but short period than to drag out the works for 10 years or more. He calculated that if it were all over by mid-2023, he could come to the next municipal election (scheduled for October 2023) with impressive achievements – a clean city, an increased cultural budget and good, advanced public transportation.

As of today, the gamble seems to have been too big. As things are now seen in almost all of the city’s neighborhoods, work on the new light rail lines will not be completed any time soon, even if, at least for now, too great a delay is not foreseen.

 HEAVY TRAFFIC on the Ayalon Highway. Last year saw the highest number of road traffic accident deaths since 2017, with 361 Israelis killed. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) HEAVY TRAFFIC on the Ayalon Highway. Last year saw the highest number of road traffic accident deaths since 2017, with 361 Israelis killed. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

For now, it seems that Lion will arrive at the elections with his main calling card – a clean city and a reasonable return to cultural and leisure life, as the city streets, including the Old City, are once again full of tourists. However, what hasn’t been taken into account is the level of disappointment and anger among the public.

What happened?

WHAT HAPPENED to the bright plan to drag the capital in less than five years to an optimal state of a city that is clean, is vibrant in terms of cultural events, and also offers a mass transit system worthy of the 21st century, with serious and worthwhile alternatives for use of private cars? What happened to the vision of a number of light rail lines, non-polluting transportation, added to a fleet of high-capacity hybrid buses?

That was the plan and the vision, but today, on the ground, about 18 months from the elections, what Jerusalem offers its residents and visitors is mainly frequent changes in the bus routes, blocked major roads and a very weak response to help residents face all these difficulties.

To a detailed post earlier this week on Facebook from Lion about the municipality’s preparations for the US president’s visit, many residents reacted angrily, and their main gripe was what about the difficulties and changes in the city’s daily life, even when there is no foreign president’s visit? “How about informing us about alternative routes to those canceled due to infrastructure works across the city?” and “Why do we not receive a minimum service of regular updates regarding all these changes?” were only two of the many responses – all angry or at least very critical.

On the ground, the major issues at stake are the traffic jams caused by the practically nonexistent enforcement on public transportation routes only. Here and there one can find already a few marked lanes for public transport only. The problem is that no one enforces their use, and the absurd spectacle of buses stuck because of lots of private cars in the road that was meant to be just for public transport is part of the daily reality in the city.

Another issue is the changes required for heavy roadwork. One of these cases is at the junction of Ish-Shalom Road. Four months of preparation for the shutdown of the light rail – yet the public lane on Ish-Shalom is not ready. The shutdown caused by the work on the light rail in the section between Mount Herzl and the central station has been known for many months. The alternative, a bypass on the way to Ish-Shalom, was planned but still isn’t ready. This week, almost three weeks after the light rail was shut down from the central station, the bypass is not ready, and the municipality offers neither a satisfying explanation nor a serious forecast. And the residents of Beit Hakerem, Bayit Vagan and Kiryat Hayovel ask “Until when?”

The municipality announced that the roadwork would be carried out almost around the clock, but residents of Beit Hakerem report that this is not the case.

Yossi Saidov, a resident of the Katamonim and a veteran social activist who has focused in recent years on issues of public transportation and traffic in the city, claims that this is true negligence. “Why is what was good for the Tel Aviv Municipality not being done in Jerusalem? In Tel Aviv, because of the light rail works, they immediately set up public transport routes – which also exist here – but also make sure to enforce this thing, which is simply not done here. Therefore, the city is congested all the time, there is no significant and serious action to encourage people to give up the private car and switch to public transport, and the city is congested from morning to night.”

“Why is what was good for the Tel Aviv Municipality not being done in Jerusalem? In Tel Aviv, because of the light rail works, they immediately set up public transport routes – which also exist here – but also make sure to enforce this thing, which is simply not done here. Therefore, the city is congested all the time, there is no significant and serious action to encourage people to give up the private car and switch to public transport, and the city is congested from morning to night.”

Yossi Saidov

STRANGE PHENOMENA are a daily sight in the city. For example, again in the matter of enforcement, which, according to several residents, is either nonexistent or unpredictable and always inconsistent.

Jerusalem resident David R. recalls what happened to him recently. “When they started doing roadwork on the new entrance complex by the Jerusalem International Convention Center, they made a left turn at the intersection of Sarei Yisrael and Jaffa Road illegal.

“At that time, I was verbally told by a worker that drivers could now go straight on Jaffa Road, and past the Central Bus Station to get out of the city and onto the Begin or Golda Meir. We’ve done that ever since, and passing police cars did not stop us. At the intersection – there is a white arrow for going straight – only once you’re past the intersection is there a yellow arrow on the street for going straight, with a white arrow to turn right, but again, I was told that because they blocked the left turn, it was okay to continue straight.

“A few months ago, they began roadwork on Sarei Yisrael – so if you turn right at the intersection, it narrows to one lane and regular traffic jams. Going straight again appeared to be the best, if only, option to get out of the neighborhood without a 20-30 minute wait. But then, suddenly, in the last two weeks, people have gotten fines with camera images of them passing the Central Station – and without any advance warning.”

“The major problem is that the persons in charge of the whole plan have no clue of what it means to use public transport,” adds Saidov. “Maybe if they had to spend half an hour stuck in a bus to travel a distance of 300 meters, because private car owners know the municipality provides them with parking lots, and therefore allow themselves to travel in the city, including on public transport routes – maybe then those who do the planning would understand what the problem is and try to really address it.”

The Jerusalem Municipality responded: “The Ish-Shalom public transportation route, between Farbstein and Ha’arazim streets, is expected to open this week, and will allow for further preference for public transportation, in addition to the established public transport routes.

“For the benefit of the arrangement – on Herzl Boulevard in the direction of the Central Bus Station, a public transportation system will also be opened in the section between Bate Street and Shazar Boulevard and in the direction of Mount Herzl, in the section between Shazar Boulevard and Farbstein Street. Buses No. 27 and No. 29 provide an alternative service to the light rail and allow fast travel on motorways along the temporarily disabled axes.” 

The municipality responded to In Jerusalem’s request for comment: “The appropriate infrastructure has been arranged, including public transportation routes, changes in traffic arrangements at intersections and temporary bus stops. The replacement of a multi-capacity light rail with a bus that holds a smaller capacity produces variability in the passenger loads on each bus. Thus, it is possible that some buses are overloaded, but shortly afterwards free buses arrive. 

This is a temporary solution until the end of the work and the resumption of train travel, in the space in about a month.” ❖