The electronic signboard at a Hebron Road bus stop was out of order for a few hours last Monday morning.The stop, located at the junction of Hebron Road and Rivka Street, serves quite a few lines, including some of the east-side bus companies connecting the southern Arab neighborhoods such as Sur Bahir and Beit Safafa with the Old City and the northern Arab neighborhoods. It is one of the most packed and busiest stops, and the sudden disabling of the board showing timetables seemed a real burden for the passengers waiting there.At one point, a middle-aged woman standing there said, half to herself and half to the passengers surrounding her, that “it is not fair to get us used to a service and then deprive us of it” – uttering what everyone there was thinking. A year or so has passed since the electronic boards – part of the tremendous change in all aspects of city public transportation – appeared, but for many residents it is as though the boards have always been here.In the year 2025, or perhaps even sooner, significant physical changes will occur in Jerusalem in all aspects of urban life. In addition to more high-rise buildings and a clear policy giving precedence to dense housing construction (time to say goodbye to any dreams of a nice little cottage surrounded by a garden), a major change will be felt in traffic and transportation.After a few years of back and forth over the issue, Jerusalemites – at least as far as planners and policy-makers see it – will have to live like residents of any other big city in the Western world, making extensive use of public transportation, mostly light rail, and using their private cars primarily for excursions out of the capital. Until that stage is reached, a few years of extensive roadwork and tremendous difficulties in daily routine along the paths of the planned additional lines are to be expected, not to mention significant damage to businesses along the streets that will host the light rail lines until they are ready for use.THE TRANSPORTATION management team that developed the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan was established in 1968, a year after the reunification of the city following the Six Day War. From a population that then numbered about 200,000, today’s Jerusalem population is already nearly 900,000, closing in on the first million residents within a few years – and nothing indicates that its growth will stop there. Such a large city (the largest in the country) requires and deserves a seriously planned solution in all aspects – transportation being one of the most important.The JTMT is in charge of developing a transportation system based on data from transportation surveys as well as the accumulated experience of other cities, mostly in Europe. In all these surveys and various cities, the aboveground light rail seems to be the winning solution. True, in other cities, underground transportation is also available, but in Jerusalem, right from the beginning of the planning, it was clear to all parties that users of public transportation should not be “punished” and therefore would have the right – and the pleasure – to travel on the surface and enjoy the sights. If any tunnel or underground byway will be considered, it will serve private cars – as occurs in the tunnel connecting Route No. 1 (near Damascus Gate) with IDF Square opposite Jaffa Gate. The light rail on that path runs past the Old City walls.At the end of this journey, Jerusalem will have nine light rail lines, which will cross and connect the entire city – from Neveh Ya’acov and from Ramot to Gilo, from Mount Scopus to Malha, from Hadassah University Medical Center at Ein Kerem to the Old City, including the Mount of Olives. All the lines will cross each other, moving through the city center, enabling passengers to change lines – just as in the big world outside.
“The aim is to create a means of transportation that will be an attractive alternative to owners of private cars,” explains JTMT director Nadav Meroz. “The government has approved a budget of no less than NIS 25 billion to finance this huge project, which is already one of Jerusalem’s largest construction projects.“While Jerusalem was the first to be chosen for this large project,” he notes, “there are quite a few other cities – first, Tel Aviv – that would like to see anything that might drop the project from the capital to deposit it like a ripe fruit in their hands.”Today, five years after the launch of the first line (the Red Line), figures tell the story of its success among the city’s residents and visitors. According to the JTMT team’s data, 15 percent of light rail users have renounced the use of their private vehicles – considered a high result. This line – the first light rail line installed in the country – connects Pisgat Ze’ev through the city center, and will end up at Kiryat Hayovel, Kiryat Menahem, Ir Ganim and Bayit Vegan (these last stops are under construction, with the current last stop on Mount Herzl).The Red Line will also have two extensions for the Hebrew University campuses, one toward Givat Ram and the other toward Mount Scopus. Altogether, this line serves neighborhoods that are inhabited by some 110,000 residents, even before the additional line to Hadassah University Medical Center becomes operational, which serves tens of thousands of local and outside users, and altogether reaches and transports 250,000 people along 13.8 kilometers and 23 stations.In its first two years of operation, the number of passengers grew from 100,000 to 140,000 passengers a day. Today, more than 150,000 passengers a day – Jews, Muslims and Christians, religious and secular – continue to use it, even through tense security times. The next two lines planned are the Blue and Green lines. The Green Line will connect the Mount Scopus campus through the city center to Malha, Talpiot and Gilo, with 18 km. of line serving 33 stations at a frequency of 7.5 minutes in each direction at peak hours, transporting as many as 160,000 passengers daily. The Blue Line will connect Ramot through the city center to Gilo – a 20 km. route with 31 stations, at a frequency of every three minutes at peak hours with 200,000 passengers expected daily.All these magnificent plans are based on one major assumption: That Jerusalemites will agree to use only public transportation and avoid driving their cars in the city center. In addition, large parking lots are planned along the lines (and planned bus rapid transit, located on city outskirts to enable car owners, locals and visitors from outside the city to park for free and use the public transportation system. There are already three such “park and ride” lots – at Mount Herzl (500 parking slots), Pisgat Ze’ev (300 slots) and Ammunition Hill (700 slots) – but according to Meroz, there will be even more parking along the next lines’ paths.Yet also according to JTMT figures, while Jerusalemites now own some 150,000 cars, by the year 2020 they are expected to own no fewer than 320,000 private vehicles – possibly undermining some of the hope that Jerusalemites will finally admit public transportation is preferable.
“Unless,” remarks Arik Cohen, chief architect of the entire project, “by then the switch in residents’ minds will happen and they understand that a private car should not be used inside the city anymore. We believe that this change will come, even if slowly.” Cohen and Meroz emphasize that the project is much more than just proposing a different means of transportation. Businesses, quality of life, less pollution and a general upgrade of Jerusalem are part of the plan. More information, based mostly on data from Western countries, indicates that an increase of some 25% in the profits of businesses along the path of the light rail is to be expected here as well.This is what has happened, albeit in lower numbers, along Jaffa Road, although most of the businesses there offer mainly low-cost merchandise, while some of the more prestigious ones – like restaurants and souvenir shops – are still closing down, and almost no branch of the big chains is present there.What has been largely achieved, however, is the improvement in air quality. This year, for the first time since it has existed, the monitoring of air pollution along Jaffa Road has been shut down, after indications that it is no longer significant, with the NOx (carbon monoxide emissions levels) dropping from 500 units to less than 100 since 2012. “This is what is awaiting us on the other lines planned,” affirms Meroz.Cohen points to another achievement – a rise in the number of people who simply walk (instead of using cars or any other form of vehicular transportation) since the Red Line began operating along Jaffa Road, with 11 streets around the main road turned into pedestrian zones. The results are clear, he says.“Between 2011 and 2012 we noted an 11% average increase in the number of people walking the city streets. With pollution reduced, more trees planted, building facades cleaned and restored, real-estate values are going up and there is a sharp rise in the number of coffee shops.”The JTMT team stresses, “Every place we’ve touched is left with better infrastructure.”YET WITH all these positive and promising perspectives, no one has any miraculous option for the “in between” days – during the heavy roadwork required to make all these plans come to fruition.Despite many attempts, all the parties involved know that the months and years of construction will be lethal for many: Firstly, for the businesses along the paths, with many not making it through – hence the fiercest opposition to the plan for the Blue Line to run through the German Colony’s Emek Refaim Street is coming from the owners. While Meroz admits this is inevitable, and adds that the municipality and his team are looking for any option that could minimize the expected damage, he also concedes there are some hard times coming.To the question of whether the work will be done in one piece all along the path, or segment by segment to ease the daily routine, neither Meroz nor Cohen has a definitive answer for the moment. Various options are still being scrutinized. One alternative – to hire a large number of foreign workers on a special government permit to greatly shorten the roadwork period – has been proposed, but so far nothing indicates it will be implemented.