The road not taken

Despite having been modernized, stretched and multiplied, Israel’s highways are increasingly clogged, begging a public transportation overhaul that might take decades to mature

Cars come to a standstill as the light rail passes outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Cars come to a standstill as the light rail passes outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
“THE ROAD climbing from Jaffa to Jerusalem is all but complete,” reported in 1869 an excited Ha-Levanon, the Promised Land’s Hebrew daily, following an engineering effort that took a decade and sparked a transportation revolution: “Two horse-drawn wagons depart and return every day, and the journey lasts [a mere] 10 hours because, at midway, at Sha’ar Hagai, they change the horses.”
Today, that mountain pass cradles a six-lane artery whose western end – where Ottoman horses once trotted in solitude – carries 133,000 vehicles daily, an emblem of an increasingly motorized and congest- ed Jewish state whose roads are the most crowded in the developed world, according to the OECD.
From Haifa in the north to Beersheba in the south and Jerusalem in the east, rush- hour traffic jams have become part of daily life in Israel at an increasingly hefty economic cost. Along Route 1 outside Ben-Gurion Air port, the average midweek driving speed toward 9 a.m. is 14 kilometers per hour, according to Transportation Ministry data. Unlike its role in the Ottoman era, when it served hardly 50,000 inhabitants in the two forlorn towns on its opposite ends, this east-west axis now lynchpins 16 cities ‒ not counting the dozens more lurking just beyond them. Things are even worse on the north-south axis that intersects Route 1 ‒ the eight-lane Ayalon expressway that runs through Tel Aviv and carries 750,000 vehicles daily. In this thoroughfare’s southern part, between the city of Holon and the Hagana train station, rush-hour traffic averages 12 kilometers per hour. The situation is not much better else- where along the coastal plain. At major interchanges north of Tel Aviv, such as Glilot, Morasha and Poleg, motorists can spend an hour while advancing hardly five kilometers. Inside Tel Aviv, where more than half a million non-local cars arrive daily, daytime driving is a frustrating exercise in labyrinthine deceleration that starkly contrasts the modernity of the surrounding spires of glass and steel. The jams are costing the economy an annual 25 billion shekels in wasted gasoline and work hours, according to the Treasury, and the price is set to spike in the coming years. “A car for every worker,” the memorable election slogan that sounded like fantasy when Shimon Peres coined it in 1965, is now a reality as well as a curse.
ISRAEL’S TRAFFIC jams are not of the dramatic sort, like Germany’s during Easter 1990 when families from its former East and West flocked to visit each other, creating 50-kilometer-long lines at some border passes; or the Woodstock Festival’s in 1969, when half a million people clogged upstate New York’s highways; or Chicago’s in 2011, when a sudden 50-centimeter snow-fall trapped drivers for 12 hours in hundreds of frozen cars along Lake Shore Drive.
Israel’s jams are neither momentary nor local; they are national and endemic, plagu- ing not only the coastal plain, but also places well to its east, such as Umm el-Fahm, where Route 65 approaches the Jezreel Valley, and Jerusalem, where employees can waste 45 minutes crawling from the Begin Expressway’s Har Hotzvim exit to the near - by campuses of Teva, Cisco and Mobileye. The reasons for Israel’s congestion crisis are clear. The first is demographics. Israel’s population is the developed world’s fastest growing. Moreover, most teenagers get licenses while many Israeli retirees never had licenses. This means the driving population grows even faster than the overall population.
Then there is geography, whereby an already small country’s already growing population converges on a narrow urban strip that, besides being minuscule, is flanked by the sea on one side and the mountainous West Bank on the other. Then there is prosperity, which has made car ownership soar nearly 80% since 2000. In the past year, Israelis bought an average 25,000 new cars and trucks each month.
Finally, there is personal finance. Faced with an increasingly confident middle class, auto dealerships have been offering car-purchase loans at near-zero interest rates. The owners of some 700,000 vehicles in Israel are believed to collectively owe the banking industry 40 billion shekels. Still, all these conditions are surmountable from the viewpoint of traffic planning. The problem is that the infrastructure of re- cent decades focused on road construction and neglected public transportation. The turning point was 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin made transportation modernization a national priority – an unprecedented policy aim for an Israeli prime minister. The consequent doubling of existing roads such as those between Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the construction of new highways like the cross-country Route 6, the proliferation of spaghetti junctions throughout the country, and the completion of the new Ben-Gurion Airport – collectively reflected a new resolve to close the transportation gap between Israel and the rest of the developed world.
A quarter century later, this part of Israeli transportation’s journey to the future is approaching its terminus. New highways become clogged soon after being festively opened. That, for instance, is what happened after January’s inauguration of the Harel tunnels outside Jerusalem, uphill from that Ottoman horse-replacement station, where the high- way now drills through the Castel Moun- tain and then crosses a multilane bridge that replaced the notoriously sharp Motza curve in the underlying ravine. These changes, along with the highway’s expansion at the mountain pass, have made driving considerably safer and smoother but did not undo the rush-hour jams at Jerusalem’s entrance. That is also what happened following the completion last April of Route 531, a 14- km east-west artery that links the Cross- Israel Highway with the coastal Route 2. Though it is an impressive continuum of 12 interchanges and 36 bridges and tunnels, the jams remained unimpressed. Technically, congestion persists because car purchasing outpaces road construction. Over the past half-decade, new car purchases by Israelis grew an average 4% annually, while new road construction grew only 1.8% a year, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. This prism is misleading, however, because in the Center there simply is no room for new highways. Outstanding mega-proj- ects still in the works – like a tunneled shortcut from Motza to southern Jerusalem or the Cross-Israel Highway’s extension to the Upper Galilee – are the exceptions. The road construction revolution that Rabin launched and his five successors continued has exhausted itself. The last of those successors, Benjamin Netanyahu, has paved more than 1,000 km. of highways, which may explain his frustration when he told staffers during a Passover-eve toast ceremony last spring, “Where they [the media] see traffic jams, I see new interchanges.”
Understandable though it is, Netanyahu’s self-congratulation echoes a 25-year road-construction drive that has reached its twilight and must now be replaced by a new revolution. The situation whereby thousands of cars containing just one person cram the roads because public transportation is slow, crowded, infrequent and poorly located – has brought Israeli transportation to the brink of catastrophe.
THE NEW GOAL will be a mass-transit revolution aimed at sharply reducing private-car usage. This will be about fast trains, each of which will remove as many as 1,000 cars off the highways, and light-rails, super-buses and subways that will remove drivers from urban arteries. This quest is now accepted by all, as reflected in the budgetary shift from road construction to public transportation through a cluster of projects with a collective 50b. shekel allocation. The good news is that the launch of this revolution is already underway on both its levels: intercity trains and urban metros. The bad news is that it will take decades to complete. The intercity revolution will be announced with a bang in a year, when Israel’s first fast train will swoosh from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
An internationally unique project due to its need to climb an altitude of more than 700 meters along a path of hardly 50 kilo- meters at a speed of 180 km/h, the 28-minute ride will leave every 15 minutes and carry 70,000 passengers daily. While siphoning thousands of cars from Israel’s busiest east-west highway, this event will be pivotal, both mentally and politically. Mentally, affluent people who have not used public transportation for decades will return to it, thus providing it new respect- ability. Politically, commuters voting by their feet will convince elected officials that the people want modern transportation and may reward those who deliver it.
Even now, it is clear that Rabin’s record as a highway builder is the part of his leg- acy that all Israelis admire. Transportation Minister Israel Katz is earning political capital for having built more roads during his eight years in this office than any politician in Israeli history.
The new fast train will spawn a broader railway revolution. Psychologically, the public will grow to expect similar speed and punctuality elsewhere. Mechanically, the mountainous fast-train’s electric powering – the first in Israel – will spread to the coast. The coastal lines will be electrified by the end of this decade through the 3.2b. shekel purchase of electric cars, thanks to which, next decade, the ride between Tel Aviv and Haifa will shorten from nearly an hour to just over half an hour. Coupled with the recently opened lines from Haifa across the Jezreel Valley to Beit She’an and from Acre through the Lower Galilee to Karmiel, the railway system is planned to stretch further north to Safed and Kiryat Shmona and, ultimately, be crowned by a line to Eilat. When all is completed a quarter-century from now, annual intercity train rides will have multiplied from 60 to 300 million, ac- cording to Israel Railways’ planners. Distant though this aftermath now seems – its completion still seems an eon nearer than that of the Tel Aviv metro system.
TWO YEARS since the demolition of downtown Tel Aviv’s Maariv Bridge, which marked the beginning of its subway’s construction, work is progressing on schedule. Stretching 24 km from Ramat Gan to Bat Yam, what the planners call the Red Line is scheduled to start running in 2021 along 24 stations, 10 of them underground. Coupled with Jerusalem’s lone light rail- way line, these are the forerunners of a metropolitan mass-transit revolution. On the coastal plain, eight lines – five light rails and three rapid buses – will inter connect 17 cities from Netanya to Rehovot along 213 km dotted by 341 stations. In Jerusalem, seven lines, including the existing one, are planned to span 83 km and 180 stations by 2030. However, in typical Israeli fashion, both schemes have seen a continuum of revisions, delays, retractions and alterations. First, the Treasury refused to finance a full-fledged Tel Aviv subway, preferring a cheaper, above ground alternative. The result was the hybrid compilation of sub- ways, light railways and rapid buses that is now being built. Then precious years were wasted on a build-operate-transfer tender for the Red Line, whose winner proved to lack the capiital the scheme demanded. The government then decided to assign the project to the state-owned public works company Neta, which now runs the project with a network of subcontractors. Then controversy flared between the Treasury and the Tel Aviv Municipality, which demanded that the planned line along Ibn Gvirol St. be shoved under - ground. After a period of paralysis, the dispute was finally settled when Netanyahu interfered and imposed City Hall’s demand on the Treasury. Now, a similar struggle is being waged by the Ramat Gan Municipality, which de- mands that the planned Violet Line be taken underground near the Diamond Exchange. At the same time, Jerusalem’s Blue Line from Gilo to Ramot, originally planned for rapid buses, has been changed to light rail. Work on the line has yet to begin.
Meanwhile, coastal plain municipalities are slow to make way for new, public transportation lanes for which the government has allocated 3b. shekels, because mayors preparing for next year’s local elections fear voters will be angry as paving the lanes will become a hassle for residents. Planned to multiply the existing 50 km of such lanes to an aggregate 330 km in cities from Ra’anana to Lod, this design will ease traffic because it will allow buses to drive faster than their current average speed of 16 km/h, which is among the slowest in the developed world. Regardless of all these schemes, Neta is- sued a tender – won in October by France’s Systere – for the planning of three under - ground master lines: a north-south line from Kfar Saba to Rehovot via Tel Aviv, a perpendicular line from Tel Aviv to Rosh Ha’ayin, and a semi-circular line that will allow passage between these future arteries and the light-railway system whose con- struction has already begun. This is besides a 22 km underground line through which Israel Railways plans to lead trains under the Ayalon Expressway, whose existing rail lines will remain active and, in fact, doubled. Israel’s long overdue mass-transit revolu- tion is far more complex than the highway revolution it is to succeed and begs a coordinator whose task will be legally defined as a unified, national project. Empowered to overrule the Treasury when it meddles in planning dilemmas and to sidestep municipalities’ local and personal agendas, such a coordinator will set by law deadlines for all the mass-transit milestones, most of which have yet to be deadlined or even fully approved. Judging by the highway revolution’s precedent, the mass-transit revolution’s pace will accelerate the more it unfolds and likely last through the middle of the century after beginning to mature sometime next decade. Until then, rush-hour traffic will not be much faster than the Ottoman horses that once ambled leisurely between the coastal plain’s empty fields and Jerusalem’s distant peaks.