From ghost town to a valley of giants

How the light rail will revitalize Emek Refaim.

An Emek Refaim eatery owner posts a sign saying ‘No!!!’ to the light rail on the street (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An Emek Refaim eatery owner posts a sign saying ‘No!!!’ to the light rail on the street
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Emek Refaim Street, in the heart of the German Colony, is steeped in history. First occupied by the German Templers in the 19th century, the street is dotted with architectural landmarks and reminders of a time gone by.
Much has changed since Emek Refaim was first established, as it has gentrified and become a convenient location for shopping and dining. Lately, however, the street has been the subject of controversy.
A few months ago, the Ginot Ha’ir community council unveiled a proposal to redefine and reinvigorate Emek Refaim and Jerusalem as a whole. As part of the extension of the light rail network, the municipality plans to run the Blue Line from Ramot to Malha, passing along the storied road. According to the plan, most residents will live no further than 500 meters from a station and an estimated 10,000 riders will take advantage of the line during peak hours.
The proposal envisions Emek Refaim divided into three segments:
The first, Northern Emek Refaim, from the top of the street to Masaryk Street, will comprise a single track for the light rail and a one-way car lane. Central Emek Refaim, will include two light rail tracks and will be closed to traffic between Masaryk and Rachel Imenu streets. Southern Emek Refaim, the widest part of the street, will have two light rail tracks and one car lane.
The uneven, cracking sidewalks – currently peppered with obstructions like trees, planters and utility poles – will be cleared, making them more walkable and handicap-accessible. A new square will be added to the intersection of Rachel Imenu and Emek Refaim, and the overall space will be cleaner, greener and more pedestrian- friendly.
The plan has been met with fury from local residents and business owners who believe that the changes will hurt them and destroy the neighborhood entirely. A campaign to prevent the transformation of Emek Refaim is under way, and most of the businesses along the street have placed anti-train posters in their windows.
Others point to the potential dangers of a light rail. A recent fire near the track of the Red Line raised concern when firefighters were quoted questioning their ability to fight a future blaze without disrupting service. Yet procedures for all emergencies already exist and protocols for the light rail are frequently improved upon and updated. Because the light rail is fixed, responses can be calculated and easily reproduced.
This outright rejection of the plan is shortsighted and self-serving. Few have discussed the value that the light rail will bring to the area or why changing the infrastructure of the city might be a positive transformation.
A walk down Emek Refaim Street today does not inspire hope. Spread along the cramped sidewalks are countless empty storefronts and “For rent” signs. Once a thriving alternative to downtown Jerusalem, the street is slowly dying.
Many have cited the nearby First Station, that has been attracting tourists and residents alike since its opening as a cultural and entertainment venue in 2013, as a primary cause of the reduction in foot traffic. Others cite the exorbitant rents that shops are forced to pay. Whatever the cause, continuing to ignore the need for change is not the solution.
BEFORE CARS, cities were planned around the needs of people. Streets were viewed as valuable public spaces meant to be shared by everyone. As vehicles became popular, people were forgotten in favor of maximizing traffic flows and parking spaces. Lately, however, major cities around the world are once again giving preference to the public. Former intersections and traffic funnels are being converted into public squares.
Emek Refaim is a textbook example of a street that once fulfilled pedestrian needs but rapidly began to cater to cars. Vehicular traffic became favored, and the street originally intended for locals on foot became a dangerous and polluted artery for commuters. Today, pedestrians crossing the street struggle to avoid cars barreling along at high speeds. The addition of the light rail will give the street back to the people.
The light rail is also seen as Emek Refaim’s best chance at economic recovery. The Red Line along Jaffa Road is touted as an example of the local prosperity that can come with the addition of a light rail. Once its construction was completed, the downtown area quickly began to grow and flourish again. True, the installation period hurt many businesses, but the addition of the train made it easier for more people to be transported downtown, and businesses are now thriving.
The need for change on Emek Refaim is not lost on all, and many individuals have suggested alternatives to the light rail proposal. A bus-based rapid transit system (BRT) has been a popular recommendation, but this has similar road space requirements to a light rail and, despite greater route flexibility, has been shown to attract fewer riders than light rail systems. Additionally, BRTs can actually cause greater, more widespread traffic disruptions and have little effect on how land along the route is used. Light rail transit offers larger capacity, a smoother ride and a greater economic impact on the areas served.
Even with this knowledge, for many, owning a car outweighs the benefits of a light rail. But studies show that cars are not the future of personal transportation, and inhabitants of densely populated cities around the globe are already being weaned off automobiles in favor of alternative forms of transportation.
When the light rail is completed within the next decade, the definition of what a car is and how people interact with such vehicles will be completely changed. Eventually, car ownership will become less relevant and roads will become a driverless domain.
Many local residents are seeking to divert the discussion from Emek Refaim and have the municipality consider placing the light rail on Harakevet Street. After all, they argue, it already has the Ottoman-era track in place and would not require the intense conversion process that a road would.
The problem is that Hamesila Park, a major recreational area built along the tracks, has become so popular that the outcry over its removal would surely prevent it. Additionally, the suggestion offers nothing to relieve the economic woes of Emek Refaim Street.
To deny the need for a change on Emek Refaim is to deny the neighborhood an opportunity to grow and thrive well into the future. What may be painful in the short term will be a boon for generations to come.
All those interested in making their voices heard on the Blue Line issue can attend the July 26 meeting at the Ginot Ha’ir community council on 12 Emek Refaim Street. For more information: (02) 566-4144 or The writer authors Jerusalem Construction News. To learn more about light rail projects and to sign a petition in favor of the Blue Line on Emek Refaim, visit