In the right direction?

City Hall believes improving infrastructure, educating drivers and a sophisticated public transport system will make our roads safer.

accident traffic 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
accident traffic 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Entertaining the age-old question concerning why the chicken crossed the road loses its luster if the chicken gets hit before he can make it to the other side. It's no laughing matter that if the chicken lives in Israel, he is twice as likely to be hit crossing the road than if he lives in Western Europe. The roads in Israel are dangerous. Bad driving, pedestrian carelessness and even poor weather conditions can all be mitigated by the physical infrastructure of the roads, traffic experts say, but Israel's infrastructure hasn't been able to keep pace with the growing number of motor vehicles on the road. Dr. Moshe Becker, a well-known expert in the field of transportation and traffic safety, explains that while 100,000 new vehicles enter the fleet on our roadways annually at an estimated 5 percent growth rate, the infrastructure is only growing at about 1.5 percent, creating a problematic gap that makes the density of cars on Israeli roads one of the highest in the world. Yet there are only 300 motor vehicles per 1,000 people on the roads in Israel compared with 600 and 800 vehicles for every 1,000 people in Western Europe and the United States, respectively. The slow pace of growth in infrastructure, however, creates a dangerous situation with too many cars, buses and people sharing the same roadway space. "Only places like Hong Kong and Singapore have a similar density," Becker notes. "The impact of infrastructure on the safety of pedestrians is generally very very high. The notion is that we always point a finger at the human factor, but this is a mistake." Although there has been much attention paid to some of the significant drops and spikes in road accidents that have occurred annually in recent years, experts caution that any real trends in traffic have to be examined over a period of at least five years. Jerusalem's standing in comparison to other cities in Israel is up for interpretation. Even though Jerusalem has the largest population in Israel, its level of vehicle motorization is less than half that of Tel Aviv's and significantly lower than Haifa's. In terms of raw data provided by the National Road Safety Authority, the average total numbers of pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries that have occurred in Jerusalem since 1999 are just slightly higher than the numbers in Tel Aviv. Relatively speaking, given that Jerusalem has almost double the number of people but less than half the vehicles on the roads means the city could be interpreted as being about even with its northern neighbor. Not all roads within Jerusalem, however, are created equal. Sderot Herzl is the most dangerous road in total number of pedestrian deaths; the largest number of overall injuries has occurred on Derech Hebron, and Rehov Beit Hanina takes the prize for the greatest number of total accidents. The five most dangerous sites for pedestrians - Rehov Beit Hanina, Sderot Golda Meir, Sderot Herzl, Derech Hebron or Jaffa Road -could prove more deadly than crossing other roads within the city. According to data provided by the Jerusalem police, these top five accident spots have produced a combined total of 58 accidents over the past four years, with 30 of them involving pedestrians. Clearly the speed at which vehicles travel on these roads and the frequency of their use creates a dangerous combination, but experts agree that an important factor in pedestrian safety is ultimately finding ways to separate pedestrians from motor vehicle traffic. "The city of Jerusalem knows very well that a lot of improvement in infrastructure can atone for mistakes made by humans," explains Dr. Dan Link, head of the Infrastructure and Traffic Safety Unit with the National Road Safety Authority. Efficient infrastructure can be achieved through numerous methods, not all of them as obvious as making physical changes to the roads. The presence of a strong public transportation system, well-engineered traffic patterns and the advent of new technologies all play a fundamental role in improving the safety of roads. In recent years, the municipality has embarked on a number of these initiatives, most notably the Light Rail system. Already delayed but set to debut in 2009, experts agree that the project has the potential to dramatically improve pedestrian and road safety if executed properly. Becker, who studied the effects of public transportation on road safety in various US cities for his dissertation, believes that an effective public transportation system is a highly effective tool for bettering road safety. "There was clear cut evidence that cities with higher use of public transport had fewer accidents, fatalities and injuries," Becker reports. The city is hoping the light rail will achieve that goal, and with its inauguration has plans to completely transform traffic patterns for vehicles and pedestrians in the center of town, currently one of the most congested areas within Jerusalem. Based on a European model, the city plans to close off many of the streets in the city center to cars entirely, creating pedestrian thoroughfares, through which only the light rail would be able to travel. The idea, according to city officials, is to prevent cars from being able to use the roads in the city center as a means to travel from one side of the city to the other. The new traffic configurations will only allow persons who actually want to take advantage of services inside the center of town to drive there, explained light rail project director Shmulik Tsabari. "Our order of priorities for the city center is going to be very clear: we are putting pedestrians first, public transportation second and private vehicles third," Tsabari emphasizes. Although the city believes these plans will ultimately help revitalize the city center, some drivers were clearly pessimistic. "I want to be able to take my car right to where I want to go. I just won't shop in town now," says Nosson Mandel, a business analyst who uses his car to get to his job in Petah Tikva daily. With these changes, the city will create narrower streets and wider sidewalks, particularly on Jaffa Road, currently one of the most difficult spots for pedestrians to navigate - due in part to over-crowding on the sidewalks. According to engineer Koby Bar Tov, who is director of the municipality's traffic department, narrower streets do more than just give pedestrians more sidewalk space - they help slow cars down. Although the idea that narrower streets will decrease roadway hazards might seem counter-intuitive, Bar Tov explains that the narrow streets force the driver to change his or her behavior. "If two cars are driving next to each other in narrow lanes, it is proven that they will automatically slow down as they get closer to each other," Bar Tov explains. The municipality is employing this tactic in overly crowded neighborhoods throughout the city. Work has already been completed in the Kerem Avraham neighborhood where the city significantly expanded the sidewalks to create areas for pedestrians to walk, sit and play and less room on the road for vehicles to maneuver at fast speeds. Similar renovations are expected to begin in Geula next year, Bar Tov says. The creation of narrower lanes on major roads is also an integral part of the light rail project. Drivers can expect the width of lanes on major non-highway roads, such as Sderot Herzl, to be narrowed by as much as half a meter with the construction of special bus lanes that will eventually be used exclusively by the light rail. Some drivers also had mixed reactions about these changes. Deborah Lotstein, an attorney with a legal outsourcing company, endorsed the plans on the condition that the light rail provided a viable alternative to travel around the city. "If the narrower streets are a means to prevent accidents, then I agree with them, but as a driver it is obviously going to slow down the ability to get to places, especially since the public transportation system isn't in place yet," she says. Some growing pains of the project are already evident, as the newly created bus lanes have become a chief source of confusion for pedestrians. With traffic traveling in both directions within these lanes, many pedestrians fail to anticipate the various directions from which traffic will be heading on the street overall, often being forced to look both right and left at more than one point when traversing the street. Major accidents have occurred as a result of this confusion, most recently on Jaffa Road, where there were 10 serious accidents last year. Organizers insist, however, that such bus lanes exist all over the world, particularly in Europe, and that in time people will adjust to them. Although no one was able to specify what that time frame should be, Jerusalem's problem might be temporary as the end goal of the reconstruction is to eliminate buses from these major roads entirely. At least 6 km. of bus lanes created in the past few years along Jaffa, Herzl, and Hebron roads will eventually be replaced by the light rail, says Tsabari. Rather than taking people between major locations throughout the city (often when buses travel at their highest speeds), buses will be used to collect people throughout the neighborhoods and feed them into the light rail system, which will then transport people around the city. Tsabari believes that the rail system has inherent advantages over buses when it comes to pedestrian safety. For starters, the speed of the train (which will travel at around 20 km. an hour), will be controlled not only by the driver of the train, but also by a central control center that will monitor the speed of the rail in real time. "If the driver is moving too fast, he or she will have immediate feedback from the control center," he says. In addition, Tsabari explains that the precisely timed frequency of the trains (4.5. minutes apart) will discourage pedestrians from racing across busy streets to catch the train as they know another one will be coming shortly. Concurring that the frequency of trains can prevent accidents, Link nonetheless notes a number of other potential dangers that the light rail could bring to pedestrians. The opportunity for people to walk or bike along the tracks, fall when boarding or disembarking or failing to realize that the train itself is wider than the tracks and standing too close to the tracks could all create accidents, he theorizes. "All of these things will have to be taught to the public," he explains. Although project directors believe they are going to great lengths to protect pedestrians with properly designed infrastructure - such as the creation of bike lanes precisely to keep bikers out of the path of the light rail - they also acknowledge the importance of educating the public. As a result, the light rail project has been coordinating with the Bloomfield Science Museum to educate teachers about safety procedures. The sixth session of courses is now under way, with each session accommodating around 30 teachers, Tsabari said. Educating at-risk populations about road safety, specifically children and senior citizens, has long been a strategy of the municipality, explains Diana Kogan, director of the city's Road Safety Division. Part of the city's efforts include nominating "safety ambassadors" within the schools and old-age centers to communicate safety messages through curriculums and materials prepared by the city. Even within these at-risk populations, the city's efforts are complicated by the Arab and haredi sectors whose populations are disproportionately affected by traffic accidents. Although the city has hired specialists to handle these sectors exclusively and has seen steady gains as a result, inroads into the communities have been slow, Kogan acknowledges. These factors, Dr. Becker explains, combined with other unique characteristics of Jerusalem such as its status as a capital city, all impact the flow of transportation. "The trouble with Jerusalem is that it is an ancient city on the one hand, and it houses all the major national and political institutions on the other hand." As a result, the city must handle traffic inconveniences created by special events and visiting dignitaries on roads that were built almost a century ago. Nevertheless, the number of motor vehicles on Jerusalem's roads only stands to increase within the next 10 years and only time will tell if the city's latest efforts will be able to keep pace. Concludes Becker: "Road accidents are not something that we should consider as fate. We can actually do a lot to reduce them ourselves."