En route to a smooth ride?

‘In Jerusalem’ maneuvers through the evolving public transportation maze.

traffic in jerusalem_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
traffic in jerusalem_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
We can all agree that the past 10 years have been a nightmare for the residents of this city. The seemingly never-ending roadwork. The impossible traffic that wasted our precious time while we squeezed into crowded buses or, worse, waited in the hot summer sun or the cold winter wind for a bus that was always delayed. The horrifying costs of taking a taxi when the buses couldn’t come – a taxi that inevitably got stuck in traffic.
Well, there is now a glimmer of hope. August is the date to remember since, unless something really bad happens, that is when the light rail will begin to transport passengers, and the ludicrous traffic setup downtown, especially on Agrippas and Hanevi’im streets – with 18 bus lines (600 buses) on each – will cease to exist and make way for a saner public transportation system.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at the best (well, almost) routes the new rapid buses have to offer, and then take a deep breath and delve into the insane situation in the city center.
So far, the only route that vaguely resembles the one outlined in the Transportation Master Plan is the Gilo-Derech Hebron axis, where the special bus lane and the elimination of the left turn for cars at the Khan Theater have really made a difference. The new rapid buses can whiz along the length of Derech Hebron in a few minutes and encounter no traffic except for a short part toward the end of the road near Abu Tor.
As for the lines that connect Gilo and Ramot (71 and 72), their frequency is (usually) high and efficient (six to eight minutes), and once downtown traffic is left behind, the buses can pick up speed.
At noon on February 10, a trip from Gilo to Ramot on the 72 took me 55 minutes, and an hour and five minutes back to Gilo on the 71 (going along Agrippas and Bar-Ilan).
The 72 arrived from Gilo almost empty at the bank junction on Derech Hebron but filled up quite quickly. It went a little slowly on the last part of Derech Hebron that has no bus lane until the turn to the left. From there on, past the Khan Theater, the ride was smooth. I sat in the second row in the rear of the bus, near the third door (these buses have four doors), and it was clean and comfortable. The ride was definitely rapid, at least on the segments of the road that have bus lanes.
The first problem arose on King George, right after Hamashbir, where we sat at the traffic lights at the corner of Jaffa Road for seven minutes to allow a light rail train to pass. That will be the situation forever, as the light rail has right of way.
Rehov Straus was relatively traffic-free, but as we reached Kikar Shabbat and Geula, things got worse again. There are no bus lanes there, and the narrow busy street is not friendly to the mass transit plan. In fact, the same goes for the entire segment until the Sanhedria junction. But once that was behind us, the bus sped to Ramot, bringing its passengers to their destination at the opposite end of the city.
Conclusion: The rapid bus is a fair option. What we still need to do is encourage residents to stop using their cars in the city and add a few more bus lanes. That would be perfect.
Thursday, 3:30 p.m., Rehov Agrippas. At one end of this narrow street, the view from the bus window was surreal: A long line of buses, bumper to bumper, extended to the other end of the street, leaving tiny – and hazardous – passages for people rushing from one side of the street to the other, carrying bags, pushing shopping carts, some elderly people hobbling with canes. They crossed the street without even looking at the buses inching perilously close to them as they tried to reach their destination amid the noise, the pollution, the honking and the nervous drivers.
Supervisors from the parking department of the municipality checked if cars – forbidden on this street since the new regulations came into effect – were trying to edge their way in. Within less than 20 minutes, three cars were stopped – adding more to the already congested traffic – and asked to turn around.
“There is no other choice,” explained the supervisor. “Agrippas is not for cars anymore.”
Yossi, the young driver of the 32 bus, said, “Every day I come to work with an increasing feeling of frustration and despair. For example, according to my schedule I should have been close to the end of the line already. Yet I am stuck here for at least another 15 minutes, and I’ve already been here 20 minutes, crawling my way up Agrippas. I will get to the next shift of this line late, passengers will be angry at me and I will not even have time, excuse me, to go for a pee, not to mention stretch my legs or have something to eat. It is absolutely against the rules, yet we are totally helpless. Sometimes I wonder about these people who make the decisions about traffic in this city: Do they ever go out of their climate-controlled offices and take a look at reality?”
Inside the crowded bus, people realized I was a journalist and asked me to write about “this disgrace. Tell the world how we are treated, how nobody cares about us, about our time being wasted.”
Naomi, a middle-aged woman who lives in a moshav near Jerusalem, said that when she started to be late for work, her boss was very angry. “At first he didn’t believe me, so one day I took him with me part if the way on the bus. After only 10 minutes, he got off. So I leave the house at least 15 minutes earlier than before, but I still get to the office late. I stay at work a little later, at my own expense, and I try not to get too angry because it doesn’t help.”
Eitan, a veteran Egged bus driver, drives the No. 8 toward East Talpiot. He said that on average he and his fellow drivers spend 25 to 40 minutes on Agrippas, “depending on the day of the week. It’s worse on Fridays and the worst if it rains.”
At the lower entrance to Agrippas, Eitan announced on the loudspeaker that there were no stops until the end of Agrippas, adding with some irony, “It could take at least 25 minutes, so I suggest that those who are in a hurry get off now and enjoy a little walk.”
A foreigner sitting nearby asked me what the driver said. A tourist from France, Flezie said she’d been in the city for a week and still could not figure out when the rush hours were. “Maybe you don’t have rush hours here and it’s like this all day long,” she ventured.
A man sitting next to her answered bitterly, “Here it’s rush hour even during the night.”
She and her three friends decided to get off the bus and walk. Flezie remarked, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea for us tourists, but what about the other passengers?”
Other than going by car or taxi, the only option that residents of Gilo, Talpiot and Baka have to reach Mount Scopus is with a combination of two buses. One of them must be taken from the city center – one of the worst places to be at rush hours (and, in fact, most of the day). The option is to get to King George (with the 7, 71, 72, 74, 75 or 7) and from there take the 19, one of the most crowded lines, which runs from Hadassah Ein Kerem to Mount Scopus, through the city center, or else the 4-alef.
On a particularly cold day, icy drops of rain were falling as a large group of people stood at the bus stop at the bank junction on Derech Hebron waiting for any of the 71, 72, 74 or 75 buses. On that particular day, not one of the buses, despite their being relatively frequent and efficient, appeared for at least 20 minutes. Finally they arrived, all together, of course.
I took the 72, planning to go to the stop in front of Hamashbir on King George Avenue and take the 19 to the university on Mount Scopus. For some reason, this line has not been treated to some of the recent improvements of the public transit system, such as the new and larger rapid buses that connect remote neighborhoods, thus transforming a long ride into one of the local transportation nightmares.
“This line serves two different kind of users – students and the patients of the two Hadassah hospitals,” said Yossi Saidov, a prominent activist in the residents group 15 Minutes, which monitors the conditions of public transportation in the city. “But nobody seems to really care about their needs, since there is no direct line connecting the medical school in Ein Kerem with Mount Scopus.”
The 19 arrived after 12 more minutes, while the few drops turned to sleet, and the wind got stronger. When the bus arrived, it was already packed with students, patients from Hadassah in Ein Kerem and many religious residents who take it to the Shmuel Hanavi neighborhood.
I noticed that two rows of seats remained empty near the haredi passengers, even though there was very little room to stand between the seats. Only after the bus reached Ramot Eshkol, even though it became much less crowded, did all the seats become occupied.
I checked my watch. From the time I started waiting for a bus at the bank junction in Talpiot until I finally reached the university on Mount Scopus, one hour and 22 minutes had elapsed. I asked the driver of the 19 how long the trip would take if there were one direct bus and less traffic. He said it shouldn’t take more than 20 or 25 minutes.
For residents of Arnona, Talpiot, East Talpiot and Baka, there is no other way to get to King David Street or Kikar Safra, not to mention Ramot Eshkol, French Hill and the university, than a combination of the two lines.
A direct bus did exist once but has been withdrawn. Residents of those neighborhoods first have to go to Emek Refaim and then transfer to the 18.
Monday, 7:40 a.m, on Road No. 1, toward the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus.
Since public transportation includes taxis, I hail one, hoping to get to an early appointment at the university on time. The traffic is so congested that my driver allows himself to glance at the newspaper beside him from time to time. I was told by a friend that to get from Talpiot to the university, one should leave home at 7:10 at the latest.
“If you leave after 7:15, a ride that should take no more than 14 minutes will take you at least 40, sometimes even more,” she said.
I took the taxi at 7:20, and it was even worse than I had expected. Along the way, we passed a car, and I could hear the driver talking on his cellphone, explaining that he couldn’t say when he would reach his destination, adding with a deep sigh that I could hear despite the honks and the noise of the traffic, “My life is wasted in traffic jams.”
The taxi driver and I looked at each other in the mirror and agreed with our own sighs. “Sometimes I feel so sorry for my clients that I stop the meter a little before we end the ride. It can reach incredible sums for relatively short rides,” he told me. I ended up paying NIS 52 and being eight minutes late for my appointment.
As of August a considerable change – and hopefully some great improvements – will take place. At that time, 15 lines (600 buses) out of the current 18 that run through Agrippas and Hanevi’im will be eliminated and three will be added, leaving only six bus lines going through Agrippas.
And within five years, there will be another major improvement, with two new light rail routes in the offing. One will connect the two university campuses (Givat Ram to Mount Scopus), and the other will be an addition to the first line, extending from Mount Herzl to the Ora junction at the end of Kiryat Menahem, thus establishing a continuous light rail route from Pisgat Ze’ev in the north to Kiryat Hayovel and Kiryat Menahem in the southwest.
All the bus lines that connect the northern neighborhoods – between Pisgat Ze’ev and French Hill – will be eliminated and replaced by the tram. The same will happen with the lines connecting Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menahem and Ir Ganim with the city center. All these lines will stop at Mount Herzl.
According to Shmuel Elgrabli, spokesman for the Transportation Master Plan, CityPass may start to take off some of the lines crowding Agrippas and Hanevi’im streets even before August to alleviate the traffic situation as much as. A final decision will be made by the end of May.
Since the light rail began testing the line, there have been three accidents, with damage to the cars involved but no casualties. All three accidents were the result of drivers flagrantly attempting to cross the tracks on a red light. The first case occurred at the junction leading into Pisgat Ze’ev. The second occurred at the junction of Sderot Eshkol and Ammunition Hill. The third happened near Shuafat.
As a result, the Jerusalem police have announced that police officers will take immediate action against drivers who cross the tracks on a red light. The law states that in such a case, the driver’s license will be revoked.
Regarding Rehov Agrippas, the police only have information about accidents involving casualties, but according to a Jerusalem Police spokeswoman there have been three accidents in which passengers or pedestrians have been injured since the road was closed to private vehicles.