Big orange, big chaos

After a century of failed planning, Tel Aviv makes way for a metro system in a brave effort to finally seize its future.

A sign warns of upcoming light rail construction on Tel Aviv's Hamasger Street (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A sign warns of upcoming light rail construction on Tel Aviv's Hamasger Street
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
 In 1929, with their adolescent creation fast maturing and already bustling with markets, buses, schools, hotels, theaters, beachside cafés, and some 40,000 inhabitants, Tel Aviv’s self-congratulating founders set out to celebrate their town’s 20th anniversary.
The press derided the idea as what it already then had detected as Tel Aviv’s “enthusiasm for celebrations,” but, in fact, it reflected a belief that the town’s improbable emergence was part of civilization’s assault on chaos, says historian of Tel Aviv Hizky Shoham.
Alas, chaos not only survived Tel Aviv’s challenge, it became its hallmark, as what began with a cacophony of jammed markets, honking buses, snickering horses and jaywalking pedestrians later became one of earth’s most gridlocked patches of urbanity.
Now, as work on its subway finally begins, the city that prides itself on never sleeping is waging war on chaos ‒ a war that will last many years, hassle millions and cost billions before hopefully proving that the chaos that animated Tel Aviv’s first century is not a curse of fate.
Like other great wars, Tel Aviv’s battles with gridlock have been raging for generations, featuring successive rounds of plotting, spending and lamentation.
The city’s first attempt to impose order on its future was made in 1925, when legendary mayor Meir Dizengoff, faced with an immigration influx no one foresaw, ordered a master plan for Tel Aviv. The plan was as quaint as its failure was predestined.
Limiting Tel Aviv’s skyline to two stories and leading six main streets at the town’s epicenter into a roundabout with a water fountain, the founders were not thinking of a metropolis, or even a city; they were thinking of a suburb.
The young town, whose first mayor rode its streets on horseback and was once ticketed for bathing nude on its beach, was envisioned as a “garden city” surrounded by farms, a quaint suburb with no shops ‒ a laid-back neighborhood with tree-lined parks slicing its main streets. Thoughts that Tel Aviv would someday shoulder skyscrapers, glitzy shopping centers and a large army’s high command – crossed no mind.
So clueless was the original Tel Aviv about its future that the 1925 master plan’s east fringe did not even lick the Ayalon stream, now the city’s eight-lane traffic artery. Up north, that long-term scheme ended at the Yarkon River, which now clusters neighborhoods, promenades, and parks. Out west, smack in the middle of where it should have planned a coastal way, the original Tel Aviv planted its first high school, the legendary Gymnasia Herzliya.
THIS FAILURE of vision was nobody’s fault, but Greater Tel Aviv pays its price to this day.
Tel Aviv’s founders could not predict the following decade’s world war and Balfour Declaration, and, therefore, also not the immigration that suddenly swamped their unassuming housing project. They also could not foresee the rise of Nazism, which precipitated yet another immigration that within a few years trebled Tel Aviv’s population to 150,000.
Much less could anyone in the 1920s anticipate Tel Aviv’s emergence as the commercial heart and transportation hub of more than eight million people. Yet, that is what happened.
Tel Aviv’s original planners not only failed to see the future, they obstructed it by confining their city’s boundaries; by failing to plan intercity arteries; by building close to the waterfront, and by letting workshops and garages line the Ayalon stream, thus turning that natural turnpike into a sewage path.
Worst of all, the rest of the coastal plain’s Jewish settlements were planned and developed in disregard of each other, already in the 1920s when Ramat Gan grew rapidly to Tel Aviv’s northeast and, in 1937, when the town beyond Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva, became a city.
It was more than just a failure to plan or predict, however. Ideology also contributed to Tel Aviv’s deformities. Scornful and fearful of the urban habitats where exilic Jews emerged and thrived, Zionism’s founding fathers believed that the “New Jew” they were out to mold should be a farmer, and that the New Zion they were out to build should be mostly rural. That is why the Zionist enterprise did not plan even one city, let alone a metropolis, until the 1950s.
The people, however, had other plans.
The entrepreneurial citizens of Tel Aviv ignored the founders’ prohibition on opening stores and it quickly became a shoppers’ mecca, as well as a burgeoning industrial zone. Meanwhile, the vision of a rural society was ignored by the thousands who flocked to Tel Aviv and, by 1939, made it the home of nearly half of British Palestine’s Jews.
Added up, these circumstances were ideal for the evolution of an urban monstrosity with a confusion of apartment blocks, factories, skyscrapers, suburbs, malls, markets, and slums where more than three million inhabitants now crowd 20 cities in a 90 kilometer- long and 20 kilometer-wide plain that embodies Israel’s troubled relationship with planning.
Repeated assaults on Tel Aviv’s thickening gridlock ended in defeat.
The Central Bus Station that was opened in 1942 was initially considered modern, spacious, and efficient, but quickly proved too small. Improvised stations quickly began mushrooming in the adjoining streets while the entire area gradually became a slum.
The new station that replaced it in 1993, an elephantine fortress of concrete that failed to predict the expanded use of trains and private cars, merely inherited and multiplied the previous station’s dubious status as a symbol of poor planning and a focus of social decay. It is now planned to become a real estate project while the buses move to two other locations.
The Ayalon Highway, which was opened in 1982, efficiently diverted intercity traffic from municipal Tel Aviv, but it split the city itself, planting a noisy, polluting, faceless, and alienating motorway between its increasingly glitzy west and graying east, a raw chasm that multiplied the already yawning gaps between the city’s poorer south and wealthier north.
And, back in 1973, a festive resolution by Golda Meir’s government to build a subway in Tel Aviv was shelved abruptly when the Yom Kippur War sucked all the money it would have demanded and rendered the metro vision as elusive as peace.
“Tel Aviv never foresaw events,” sums up Shoham to The Jerusalem Report, “it always followed them.”
Now, as bulldozers disembowel Yehuda Halevi Street around the corner from where the Shalom drive-through tower buried Tel Aviv’s first high school; and as the nearby Carlebach overpass is demolished to make way for subway stations – Tel Aviv’s gridlock is coming under an attack it has never faced.
Greater Tel Aviv’s mass-transit revolution comprises eight metro lines that will interconnect 17 cities, from Netanya in the north to Rehovot in the south, along an aggregate of 213 kilometers and 341 stations.
Three of these lines will be for rapid buses and five for light railways. Of the latter, two will include underground segments, all in Tel Aviv, crowning an eclectic mass-transit system reminiscent of Boston’s.
Each of the lines has its own color. The most central is the red line, the one on which work has just begun. Running 24 kilometers from Ramat Gan to Bat Yam through downtown Tel Aviv along 34 stations of which 10 will be underground, this line’s construction demands knifing the metropolis at its solar plexus, besides tunneling under the Ayalon.
The idea is to build the stations and then drill the tunnels between them. The shafts into which the drilling machines will be inserted before beginning to approach each other have already been dug in three locations – one south of the Azrieli towers, one near Ramat Gan’s Diamond Exchange, and one outside Bar-Ilan University.
Work on these began four years ago, but from the public’s viewpoint they were like all construction sites, harmless holes in the ground. The stations are a different matter.
Plowing into parts of major streets like Allenby, Yehuda Halevi and Carlebach means inflicting serious losses on hundreds of eateries, kiosks, groceries and landlords, and hassling thousands of residents and commuters.
LOOKING THROUGH her broad window on Tel Aviv City Hall’s 11th floor, Deputy Mayor for Transportation Meital Lehavi fans her hand along the southern horizon’s skyscrapers between the Mediterranean and the Ayalon thruway, and says, “This is our financial sector, where 15,000 people work; they will continue coming during the six years of construction, and we must ensure all this will somehow go on, despite the hardship.”
Lehavi’s department analyzed that population, and learned that nearly half live in Tel Aviv; about a third comes from the rest of the Dan Region, and the rest from further out. Her prescription is that the locals take bicycles, and the outsiders take trains, where the municipality has set up special parking lots and shuttles to central points in the city.
Similar services are offered for car drivers to encourage them to leave their vehicles outside Tel Aviv. The municipality also opened a traffic-monitoring situation room and built protective roofing for businesses near the Carlebach excavation.
Still, municipalities can only do so much in the face of the hardships the public will have to endure before Israel’s largest infrastructure project finally bears fruit. Businesses, as a matter of policy, will not be compensated for lost turnover, due to the arguably Darwinian rationale that those who survive the six years’ downturn will then benefit from the increased business that the metro will create.
Drivers, meanwhile, will face mazes of truncated, narrowed and blocked streets.
Simultaneous construction on the multilane Abba Hillel and Jabotinsky streets on the Ramat Gan side of the Ayalon and on Menachem Begin Street on the Tel Aviv side, at the already bustling Arlozoroff railway station in between them, and at Carlebach south of them will disrupt traffic for years, as will the demolition of the busy Maariv bridge near Tel Aviv’s former wholesale market.
Looking down at the vast Rabin Square’s famous water fountain, Lehavi envisages the future to The Report. “When all will be done, this plaza will be crowded with thousands of passengers approaching and emerging from the Green Line station that will be right under us.”
Yet, just when all will be done no one knows – as of this writing, none of the lines has a deadline other than the Red Line’s in 2021.
The 39-kilometer Green Line, whose 61 stations will stretch from Herzliya in the north to Rishon Lezion in the south, includes five subway stations that will intersect with the Red Line at Carlebach Street, thus making it the local version of New York’s Grand Central, or, more accurately, Boston’s Downtown Crossing.
However, the Green Line’s approval process has yet to end. If all goes well, work on the metro’s longest line will begin by the end of the year. “If work on the two is not done simultaneously,” warns Lehavi, “then when the Red Line is done people will ask, ‘What did we suffer for all these years?’” The other six lines are even further from approval, not to mention completion, but as recently as last year the director of the company that manages the entire metro project said all eight lines will be built simultaneously.
This year, regardless of his brave vow, that director, Alex Wiznitzer, was arrested on suspicion of corruption. This brings us to the project’s administrative side and the grim questions its saga raises about Israeli planning.
A CIVIL engineer, Wiznitzer was chairman of Urban Transportation Lanes, the stateowned company tasked with planning, contracting and managing the metro’s construction, when he was forced to resign following allegations he was part of a system that misappropriated public funds and handed out jobs to cronies. Like others among that scandal’s protagonists, the Ukrainian-born Wiznitzer was a confidante of former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman. While he has yet to be indicted, one charge Wiznitzer might face is his appointment of then-absorption minister Sofa Landver’s daughter as the company’s director of human resources.
Whatever ends up happening in the courts, the government’s involvement in the project followed the private sector’s opportunity, and failure, to lead the metro’s construction.
Having won in 2007 Israel’s largest-ever build-operate-transfer tender, an international consortium led by Africa Israel promised to complete the Red Line by 2013. Instead, in a repetition of young Tel Aviv’s failure to predict the Balfour Declaration and the rise of Nazism, this time everyone failed to predict 2008’s financial meltdown, which undid the group’s financial planning and made it renege on its commitments, which led to it being fired and sued.
That is how the government reverted to the current, state-managed and tax-funded model, while the estimated cost of the Red Line’s completion alone has been rising steadily, now reaching NIS 16 billion, as opposed to the defunct private consortium’s NIS 10 billion. The metro project is so disjointed that just as there is no deadline for its completion, it also has no formal price tag other than the arrested Wiznitzer’s quip last year that he believes the eight lines will ultimately cost a combined NIS 100 billion.
In addition, the metro has also suffered from the Treasury’s intrusions, which cut to a minimum the usage of subway tunnels and repeatedly stalled the release of funds while raising assorted demands, like shortening underground passenger platforms.
The metro saga, then, may ultimately monumentalize the reputed Israeli failure to make plans and to follow them. But it could also end up admired as a symbol of the Israeli penchant for improvisation.
Driven forcefully by ambitious Transportation Minister Israel Katz, the metro project may actually move forward faster than most people expect, and within a decade revolutionize travel throughout the Dan Region, while at the same time reducing the usage of private cars.
In such a scenario, all will celebrate the metro’s balanced deployment of fast buses and light trains supplemented by an economic usage of tunnels, all of which was no urban planner’s vision, but rather the unplanned result of endless duels between spendthrift politicians and penny-pinching bureaucrats.
As the government’s contractors stormed Tel Aviv’s junctions to start building the subway, the municipality emerged with an unrelated plan of its own: to roof the Ayalon Highway and top it with a park.
Beginning in the south a few minutes’ walk east of the Carlebach subway hub and stretching north to the Diamond Exchange, the Ayalon Park will be initially three-quarters the length of New York’s Central Park, with the Azrieli Towers roughly at the center of its western flank.
Sporting elegant lawns, bicycle paths, playgrounds, fountains and sculptures, the Ayalon Park will be financed by the builders of the new skyscrapers that will sprout along its margins. At the same time, it will reconnect Tel Aviv’s estranged halves, around the kind of green lung the city’s founders would have adored. Inspired by Manhattan’s High Lane, the Ayalon Park will be far larger, and the role it will play in its city’s history is on an entirely different scale.
Though formally adopted by the municipality, the plan still has a good three years of approval processes before work can begin.
Then again, its price is hardly one-fifth of the metro’s Red Line alone, and building it involves no digging or displacing businesses.
Though at first sounding fantastic, it is actually very realistic. If it happens, the Ayalon Park will make the whole world salute Israeli improvisation, even if the metro project surrounding it costs more, lags longer and unclogs less than everyone hopes.
Standing at the foothills of the Azrieli Towers while surrounded by chirping birds, frolicking children and strolling couples, those who will recall yesteryear’s notorious bustle will feel as if Tel Aviv, as they knew it, has come to a standstill; the way the moon once did when Joshua froze it in its orbit, above the Valley of Ayalon.