Going nowhere slowly

Despite aggressive road-building policy, plan to boost public transport, traffic is only growing.

traffic 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
traffic 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'It takes me 25 minutes in the morning to go 250 meters to get on the Begin highway at the Golomb intersection," complains a Gilo resident. "In the mornings, it can take from half an hour to an hour just to get out of Pisgat Ze'ev," says a frustrated commuter. Regardless of where you live in Jerusalem today, traffic has become a major problem. Countless time - and money - is being lost as Jerusalemites are increasingly finding themselves stuck in jams. Much of the blame for the city's traffic problems lies with the light rail's infrastructure work - work that has wreaked havoc with countless roads and made driving a nightmare. Also at fault is municipal transportation policy. Statistically, Jerusalem is in much better shape than Tel Aviv when it comes to public transportation. According to Lanooa, the Jerusalem Public Transportation Union of the Society for the Protection of Nature, the city has the highest use of public transportation - 250,000 riders per 24-hour period - of any city in Israel (see box). And as for the number of cars, Jerusalem has only 160 per 1,000 residents compared to 272 in Tel Aviv. Since the 1980s, the municipality has embarked on an aggressive policy of road planning and building that has given Jerusalem the Begin highway, Road 1, the Eastern Ring Road and Rehov Harakevet, among others. Some say it is actually this road-building policy that has laid the foundation for today's congestion problems; like added closet space, new roads fill up. "If we want to go downtown, we don't know what to do. Rehov Bezalel is always clogged and so are all the other roads even during non-rush hours," says a retired couple from Ramat Beit Hakerem. "A trip into town that used to take 15 to 20 minutes has turned into 35 to 40 minutes," complains a city cab driver. "To travel just 2 km. from Rehavia to town takes half an hour." The key to solving Jerusalem's traffic problems, experts say, is improving public transportation. "Jerusalem decided to go with the American model of accommodating private cars," says regional and environmental planner Moti Kaplan. "So the municipality built more and more roads. "Planning in Jerusalem was given over to transportation planners who focused on traffic flow and not on making life more pleasant for people," he explains. "New neighborhoods were planned around major thoroughfares and not around residents' needs. These thoroughfares create noise and pollution and reduce the quality of urban life. They create a city that is a series of highways but it is not a nice place to live in. He adds: "But you can never build enough roads for private cars. The more roads built, the worse the problem gets. And not only did Jerusalem planners do a poor job of planning for people, they also did a poor job of planning for transportation. "If you want to transport people you need a different strategy and that strategy has to be public transportation. But the municipality first filled the city with cars and only then started to think about public transportation." ABOUT A decade ago, the municipality decided to undertake a major mass transportation upgrade and build a light rail system. The NIS 4.2 billion project includes an inaugural 14-km. line that will run from Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl via Jaffa Road. This line will be coupled with special public transportation lanes and the use of high-grade buses. For the past five years, as construction on the light rail's infrastructure has gotten under way, Jerusalemites have suffered the consequent growing pains, particularly downtown. Jaffa Road, Rehov Hillel, Rehov Ben-Yehuda, Rehov Hahistadrut, Rehov Hahavatzelet, Rehov Schatz, Rehov Keren Hayesod, Derech Hebron, Derech Beit Lehem, Road 1 and Sderot Herzl have all recently undergone or are undergoing major construction. "It used to take me 10 minutes to go into town by bus," says a woman from Kiryat Moshe. "But for the past year, that ride has been between 20 and 30 minutes." Originally scheduled to open in 2004/2005, the light rail is now slated for completion in 2010. The bad news is that the major construction work - the laying of the tracks - is still to come. On Sderot Herzl, only 1 km. of track on the 14-km. line has been completed, 100 meters of which had to be ripped out and relaid due to incorrect installation. The laying of the track, coupled with the completion of the Calatrava Bridge (an overpass that will enable trains to cross without disrupting traffic near the city entrance), will see intensive construction on Jaffa Road, Sderot Herzl, Road 1 and Sderot Moshe Dayan in Pisgat Ze'ev - work that is sure to have major ramifications on the flow of traffic throughout the city. "We are only meeting now to discuss laying the tracks on Jaffa Road, Road 1 and Pisgat Ze'ev," admits light rail spokesman Shmuel Elgrabli. "We do not know exactly when we will start or how long the work will take. It depends on whether we will be able to work only during the day or also at night. Plus the work needs to be coordinated with the municipality, the Transportation Ministry and Egged. We intend to work in parallel on all locations. An exact timetable will be available after the High Holy Days." Pisgat Ze'ev residents, however, insist that work on Sderot Moshe Dayan be delayed until an interim solution for the expected traffic problems is provided. "For years, there has been an ongoing problem in exiting Pisgat Ze'ev in the morning," says the neighborhood administration's director, Yehiel Levy. "Light rail work was scheduled to begin in August 2007, but we reject this as long as there is no short-term solution to the traffic problems it will engender. The light rail work will involve taking away two lanes of traffic from Moshe Dayan," he explains. "This will create monumental traffic jams for Pisgat Ze'ev residents. The municipality has long-term solutions, which will be ready in another year or so. But what do people do in the meantime? We need a solution for the time during which the work is planned." The neighborhood administration and the municipality are discussing a number of options including adding another exit lane to Road 1, diverting some traffic to Road 13 - which runs from Pisgat Ze'ev south the Coca-Cola intersection next to French Hill - and adding another lane there, diverting traffic from Neveh Ya'acov and Mateh Binyamin onto Roads 1 and 13, timing the traffic lights at the French Hill intersection to give priority to those exiting Pisgat Ze'ev and adding another traffic lane at French Hill in the direction of Ramot. Levy is also wary of starting work on Sderot Moshe Dayan too soon before the expected opening of the light rail in 2010. "If we begin to work now, it will be finished in January 2009," he says. "Then we will have to wait at least another year for the light rail. In the meantime, the neighborhood will have lost two traffic lanes to a light rail that is not yet operating. "We want to wait another year so that the work in Pisgat Ze'ev will be timed to finish with the opening of light rail service," he continues. "Why make residents suffer an extra year?" Adding to traffic problems is municipal policy, which favors public transportation, especially downtown. According to municipal spokesman Gideon Schmerling, "Municipal policy concerning downtown is to give priority to public transportation... Eventually, private cars will only be able to drive around downtown with access to parking garages." Already at this stage, three years before the light rail is scheduled to begin operating, the municipality has been making it increasingly difficult for private cars to access and find parking in the center of town. For example, Jaffa Road has been limited to bus traffic, while taxis are only allowed to travel from west to east. And Rehov Keren Hayesod has had private vehicle traffic reduced from two lanes to one to make room for public transportation lanes. Also, downtown streets have been narrowed to enable wider sidewalks, while the cost of the city center's increasingly scarce parking has been on the rise. "This is a big mistake. The Jerusalem Municipality is doing exactly what every textbook on public transportation says you should not do - restrict access and reduce parking in a city's downtown area before an adequate public transportation system is in place," says Prof. Avishai Ceder of the Technion's civil and environmental engineering faculty. "Until such a public transportation system is up and running, private cars should be allowed to move freely through downtown," adds Ceder, the Transportation Ministry's former chief scientist. MUNICIPAL POLICY, says city council opposition leader Nir Barkat, has been guided by the light rail at the residents' expense. "The municipality has been adapting the city to the light rail and not vice versa," he says. "This is why the city is forcing private cars out of downtown. This is why Egged has told me that it cannot add more routes or make real changes in bus routes. This is why taxis are not allowed in both directions on Jaffa Road." By making all other means of transportation subservient to the light rail, Barkat says, the municipality hopes to ensure the project's success. "Today, no one can get anywhere in this city," he says. "Even if the light rail is continued and completed, you can't build like this. You can't work everywhere at once, wrecking traffic all over town. Why not do it piece by piece? "I would expect the municipality to [pressure] the contractors and not let them harm the quality of life," he adds. "Instead, the city has let the contractors do what is convenient for them and the public be damned. We are being made slaves to the light rail." To improve the situation, Barkat proposes the creation of an independent inquiry commission to examine the light rail's feasibility and make changes as needed; the adoption of a transportation policy that integrates private cars and takes into account parking and access for them; allowing taxis to travel in both directions on Jaffa Road; and permitting Egged to open new routes lines to meet demand. "What is going on now is insufferable and will not end in 2010 when the light rail is finished because the light rail will not solve city transportation problems," says Barkat. Former Taxi Owners Association head Haim Atar calls it "insane" that the city does not allow taxis to travel freely on Jaffa Road. "Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert, when he was mayor, promised us that Jaffa Road would be fully open to taxis as soon as the initial infrastructure work was completed," he says. "This work was finished some two years ago and we still are only allowed to drive in one direction. "Taxis can provide an important solution for downtown," he explains. "Because we can only drive from east to west, we are forced to go around on a longer journey that costs our passengers more money. "Who uses taxis? The elderly who need to get as close as possible and those in a hurry," Atar continues. "Municipal policy makes it hard for us to get close or to provide quick service. "The city used to inform us about road work so we could plan alternative routes. Today, they no longer do so. We are surprised just like everyone else," he says. "But the most frustrating problem," he continues, "is that all this work has been dragging on for too long. If the municipality had completed it sooner, things would be better. "I appeal to City Hall: Don't drag out the suffering of Jerusalemites. He adds: "I don't believe that the work will be done in 2010. But even if it is, that means the public will have endured a decade of torture."