Should Tel Aviv emulate London?

Tel Aviv is a commuter's nightmare. London's deputy mayor has some advice for her Israeli counterparts.

traffic metro 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy, SPNI)
traffic metro 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy, SPNI)
It's not that easy being green when it comes to public transportation in Tel Aviv. As the reasons to deride the outdated, inefficient transportation system pile sky-high, why bother to leave the family car at home and ride the bus to work in the city center if, in addition to waiting for the bus and walking to and from the depots, you'll have to sit in exactly the same traffic as you would in your car? But what if there were almost no private vehicles in the city center - and those that entered had to pay based on their emissions efficiency? And what if the buses were clean, reliable and fast, the air was clear of pollution, and pedestrians and cyclists could roam the city breathing freely? This is what London is trying to achieve under the leadership of Deputy Mayor Nicky Gavron and controversial Mayor Ken Livingstone. Gavron is one of the founding architects of the English capital's ongoing public transportation overhaul, and the draconian restriction of private automobiles in its city center instigated in 2003. Gavron began her first term under newly-elected Mayor Livingstone in 2000. Knowing full well that London was headed for gridlock, Gavron and Livingstone launched the congestion reduction campaign at a time when reelections were on the city's mind. "[The reduction campaign] took enormous courage on the part of the mayor," Gavron told an audience of Israeli environmentalists last month at a lecture organized by Israeli environmental umbrella organization Chaim v'Sviva ("Life and Environment") in Tel Aviv's ZOA house on Ivn Givrol. "Mayors of other cities would ask 'Are you mad? You don't think you'll get reelected, do you?'" London was up against a range of obstacles: from the deteriorating "Tube" underground railway system to the social stigma of being seen on a bus-exemplifying former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's saying, "If you are seen on a bus after [age] 30, you are a loser in life." Furthermore, commuters in London were getting nowhere fast - the average road speed in 1997 wasclocked at a frustrating 9 mph, "which I think is about the speed of the horse and carriage that the car replaced," quipped Gavron. Since the reforms, the number of cars entering Central London every day is reportedly down by one-third. Nearly 60 percent of London commuters have switched over to public transportation, and another 25% have found new alternatives such as biking or walking. In London, the changes were so profound that the bus schedules had to be reworked because of how much faster the buses could reach their destinations. "When Gavron and Livingstone took office in London," noted Chaim v'Sviva chairman Prof. Danny Rabinowitz, "they already had a very strong infrastructure in public transportation. They had to overhaul it - they didn't have to invent it." Though one Tel Aviv municipal official told Metro that plans for a public transportation overhaul on the scale of London's were in the works, he could give no further details. Rabinowitz corroborated that several organizations were considering new plans to revamp public transportation in the city, yet neither Rabinowitz nor the municipal official could elaborate. Rabinowitz did, however, indicate that "the issue of public and private transport is likely to become very hot in the next Tel Aviv municipal elections," in less than a year's time. "Traffic could become a decisive issue of the elections," he told Metro. Tel Aviv's much-touted Red Line - the first of four light rail lines - is still in the excavation process, and the line is not expected to open to the public until 2014. Uriel Babzyk, a Tel Aviv urban planner and board member of the Israel for Bicycles non-profit organization, says that alleviating the gridlock is dependent upon the rapid completion of the Red Line. "In Tel Aviv, we need one thing: to create a public transport alternative. We must open the Red Line, and it should come around 2011," said Babzyk. Rabinowitz is trying to be more proactive. "We don't have to sit and wait. We need to start with the buses instead of waiting a decade for the light rail," he urged, noting that an overhaul of the bus system, bike lane demarcation and pedestrian areas would prove far less costly than even one line of the light rail. "I think that bus lanes should not be taken lightly. One thing we learned from Ms. Gavron was that in [London's] early stages, they made bus lanes and protected them rigorously. We're not talking about multi million dollar investments in transport. This is something that can be done relatively easily," Rabinowitz insisted. "I've seen your traffic here," Gavron, an English-born Jew who has family in Israel, told her audience. "Some of your roads look as if they were built for tanks." Israel, a world leader in innovative technologies, once boasted one of the world's finest bus systems. Today, the system is inefficiently decaying across Tel Aviv's metropolis, says Rabinowitz: "We need to spend money to refurbish and enlarge the fleet of buses - and diversify the network by putting smaller buses on smaller streets to bring it back to the way it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when Israel had one of the most advanced systems in the world." If Tel Aviv improves public transportation and rigidly enforces bus and bicycle lanes, the city could reap environmental benefits, just as London did after their changeover, says Gavron, noting that before the 2003 reforms, London was the worst polluter in Western Europe. "People changed their behavior," she said of the changes she saw in London. Tel Aviv, which has a population of 370,000, sees the daily arrival of 500,000 commuter cars in the city. "What you get is a city that is congested, slow-moving, wasteful of time, money and roads, and a city that is very dangerous in terms of pollution," said Rabinowitz. According to Rabinowitz, traffic headaches aside, 1,100 Israelis die each year of air pollution-related complications. The World Heath Organization puts the worldwide death toll at 2.4 million people per year due to air pollution - claiming more lives than car accidents. "Vehicle fumes cause asthma, they don't just exacerbate it," Gavron warned the conference. DDemographics experts project by 2050, that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the world's population will live in cities. Today, half already do. And that half of the world's population is responsible for the lion's share of air pollution - 80% of CO2 emissions are generated by cities. However, cities can also take the lead in reversing the global warming trend, says Gavron. "Cities are often the drivers of their national economies, and therefore have the potential to trail-blaze high emissions reduction," she told the Israeli environmentalists. The Mediterranean sun should not be taken for granted, Raed Almickawi, director of Bustan, a co existence environmental watchdog group, told Metro. "In the Middle East, it is particularly practical to use solar technologies: The sun is out, and it is a renewable resource, instead of the non-renewable energies of gas and oil," Almickawi suggested. The biking alternative - which should seem simple in the flat, if humid, coastal city - is virtually impossible in Tel Aviv, where Rabinowitz insists the system is flawed, notwithstanding the 80 km. of bike lanes (projected to reach 100 km. in 2009). "Even 100 km. are not adequate, because they are not running in the right places. They are taking up sidewalks instead of specially-designed lanes on the roads. Cars reign supreme on the roads, without sharing them with buses and bikes. What bike lanes amount to most of the time are just graphics on the ground - they do not change the space of the road. I say this from experience: Tel Aviv is not an easy place to cycle in, and many people are reluctant to do so. [We need] better wheelchair and stroller accessibility, as well as other non-polluting transportation methods such as Segways and rollerblades," he said. The existence of bicycle lanes in Tel Aviv owes much to a successful, concerted campaign launched by Israel for Bicycles (formerly Tel Aviv for Bicycles), a voluntary organization established by frustrated city bikeriders in 1994. At that time, Tel Aviv had no bicycle lanes - not even statutory signposts to signify bike lanes - and city councilors lacked today's environmental awareness. Babzyk is hoping the city succeeds in its current development of green axes for the city: "What the municipality has made is a network of streets and paths that include wide sidewalks and bike lanes to encourage non-vehicle transportation," he said. With wider sidewalks, Babzyk insists that the ease and comfort of walking will encourage more pedestrians. Throughout her speech to Israeli environmentalists and activists - one of whom glided into the bright green lecture hall on rollerblades - Gavron emphasized the importance of overhauling the system, making it accessible and palatable before forcing changes in the number of cars allowed to enter the city. With the proper revitalization of public transportation first, it will not seem to be a punishment to relegate the population to buses and subway cars instead of the comfort and privacy of their own vehicles. Regardless of whether or not Tel Aviv opts to overhaul transportation to the extent that Gavron did in London, the inequality of the system is patent. "If you don't have a car, what equity do you have?" asked Gavron. Almickawi suggested a model he learned on a recent visit to the US: reduced toll costs for carpools. In Tel Aviv, without strictly enforced lanes, buses languish in the same traffic as cars. Bus riders have no reward for their troubles, and have to add the walk to and from bus stops and the waiting time for buses' arrival to their commute. "I think that public transportation must be used by everyone," Almickawi insisted. "Just because you are rich does not mean that you have the right to pollute the air. The environment is a common thing that we all must take care of." Almickawi does not believe that charging an entrance fee to commuters entering the city will spur any changes in the current patterns of who takes public transportation and who uses a private car - it will only widen the gap, he says. "The rich, if you tell them to pay more, will pay more, because they don't care. The poor use public transportation not to save the environment, but because they cannot afford the alternative. Once they have the money for a car, they'll get it. We need to educate everyone to get to the root of the problem." Rattled nerves, general tardiness and gridlock are not the worst of Tel Aviv's traffic issues - social inequality and public health are making public transportation an increasingly important issue. "London cannot act in isolation," Gavron told her spellbound Tel Aviv audience. Time will tell whether Tel Aviv will one day soon join London at the forefront of environmental policy in action on the ground.