Anyone who has ever driven on Tel Aviv's busy streets can attest to the frustration of finding a place to park. We've all been there - spending 15 minutes to an hour circling the block, looking for that elusive spot - sometimes in vain. "About a million people enter Tel Aviv every day," says Shlomo Feldman, director of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality's Transportation Department. "That means 500,000 cars daily." The parking problem was the focus of a conference last week sponsored by the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. Academics, municipality officials, and Knesset members gathered to analyze the situation and come up with fresh solutions. Professor Chagit Messer-Yaron of TAU's Faculty of Engineering opened the conference by noting the cooperation between the university and the municipality, highlighting the academic community's desire to "stay in touch" and help find solutions for everyday problems. Dr. Moshe Tiomkin, head of the city's Transportation, Traffic and Parking Authority and one of the conference's organizers, said that the city had a "vested interest in cooperating with [researchers]; there are a lot of things we can agree on." Research conducted by TAU Prof. Yitzhak Benenson in cooperation with the municipality analyzed drivers' behavioral patterns when parking. Benenson attempted to determine which of two possible parking solutions would best serve the city: constructing a few large, 10,000-space parking structures, or a number of smaller, 200-space lots. Benenson's research concluded it was preferable to spread parking lots out rather than concentrating them, as per the city's current policy. Bigger lots create more environmental strain, as well as drawing too many vehicles at once to a given location, adding to congestion, he said. "As far as the public is concerned," remarked Benenson dryly, "this isn't the 'Parking Conference,' it's the 'Parking Problem Conference.'" The situation must change, he added, warning that the city's economic growth only exacerbated the problem. "The purpose of this conferenceâ€¦ is to provide a balance between what's good for the individual and what's good for the general public." MK Dov Khenin (Hadash), chairman of the Knesset's Social-Environmental lobby, criticized the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality harshly, saying that the conference carried an important message to the Israeli public that was only part of a "greater, worldwide realization, which would eventually reach even Tel Aviv. "In the 21st century, parking isn't part of the solution, but rather part of the problem," Khenin declared. "Environmentally, [cars] are a hazard," he continued. "They are the cause of excess death from health problems. The more vehicles there are, the harder it is to get anywhere and the city is becoming more and more congested. Not everyone can own a vehicle, but everyone ends up paying for it," he argued. Khenin noted that Tel Aviv lagged behind the other large cities worldwide that were shifting to a paradigm that marginalized the private vehicle. "[Tel Aviv] doesn't create or promote a comprehensive public transportation system. In fact, it's obstructing the creation of such a system. The Finance Ministry has suggested turning Ibn Gvirol Street into a major public transportation artery [see box]. The mayor [Ron Huldai] halted it because he wants a subway tunnel there, but building such a tunnel will take time," Khenin said. "So what does the city do in the meantime? It encourages the construction of giant parking lotsâ€¦ against recommendations." "The past decade is a lost decade in terms of transportation issues," Khenin continued. "Important steps that were supposed to have been made were not." Khenin referred to the city's Vision 2025 plan, which predicts that the number of cars will triple, a figure he referred to as a "nightmare scenario." The environmental lobby chair told conference participants about the Parking Proceeds Law, set to be presented in the Knesset within a few weeks. The legislation would compensate people willing to commute via public transportation or carpools, as well as those who agree to give up parking spaces reserved for them by their places of employment. "If change is not achieved now, it must be achieved in the near future under less favorable terms, and that would be to the detriment of us all," Khenin warned. Responding to the MK's statements, Tiomkin said that the municipality had conceived and commissioned research on the parking problem and would continue to do so. "We know that we don't necessarily know what we're doing. One of the goals of this conference is to create discussion and debate," he said. Tiomkin said that the parking issue was "extremely complex" and any solutions would be equally complex. He said that a dearth of parking was not a problem endemic to Tel Aviv. "It's a problem every major city or urban [area] in the world faces. While I accept MK Khenin's criticism, it isn't based on facts," Tiomkin responded. The parking crisis was further complicated, noted Tiomkin, because it wasn't clear whether the problem fell under the purview of the municipality or the Transportation Ministry. "The fact that in 2007 some 207,000 cars were added to the roads is not our faultâ€¦ It's simply not our responsibility," he said, adding that every year there was a one percent drop in public transportation and a corresponding 1% increase in the use of cars. "On the other hand," he pointed out, "When we brought up the bike paths idea, people laughed - but already, 7% of the residents over age 20 ride to work on bikes." Valerie Brachya of the Environmental Protection Ministry touched on the effects that vehicle congestion and pollution had on climate change. "Can a change in concept and behavior be reached?" she asked. "Once the question was how to supply the demand. Today the question is how to reduce the demand. The key answer is in restricting the use of private vehicles. [Public transportation] must be improved." Dr. Karel Martens, a guest speaker from the Institute of Management Research of the University of Radboud in the Netherlands, presented a more practical vision for solving the parking shortage: raise the price of street parking, taking into account how busy a given area is. "If you really want to have free parking, you'll end up with no parking at all. The price difference between parking in the street and in lots in Tel Aviv is enormous - around 18 more shekels in a parking lot." Because this is around what some people make in an hour, Martens said, "naturally, they prefer to cruise around the block looking for free spots rather than waste money on parking in a lot." Martens said that the current minimum quota of parking places should be cancelled and "Parking Proceeds" instituted. Parking Proceeds offer workers a choice between a free parking space and an increased salary. According to Martens, such a course of action would reduce the number of automobiles in the city by one-quarter. Since, he said, it only takes 10% fewer cars on the road to avoid traffic jams, Parking Proceeds would also lead to reduced traffic congestion. Both solutions could be implemented, so long as the minimum-parking quota was removed, Martens added. Martens quoted research conducted in Basel, Switzerland by Prof. Donald C. Shoup of the University of California at Los Angeles for his book The High Cost of Free Parking. Translated into shekels, Martens said, the time spent searching for parking spots was equal to some NIS 16 million per year, while the cost of gas wasted circling the block totaled an additional NIS 19m. While the numbers may be eye-opening, Martens's solution is unlikely to prove popular. "Raising the price will not reduce the number of cars coming into the city," he emphasized, "but will, rather, increase it, since it would be general knowledge by then that more parking could be found. It will also force parking lots to compete for the fare, and the money earned from the raised prices could be diverted to neighborhood needs." Tiomkin, however, cast some shadow on a few of Martens's ideas. "The goal of the city's transportation policy is to allow its residents to enjoy a high quality of life. We don't believe people should be made to pay for a parking place next to their homes, even if they happen to live in a busy neighborhood," he stated. Parking issues, however complicated, are only one aspect of ever-growing citywide concern over traffic jams, pollution and road rage. Everyone agrees that action must be taken, and some might consider the Parking (or Parking Problem) Conference a positive step in the right direction. But it's also clear that the path to solving the problem remains largely congested. Light Rail, heavy concerns As long as public transportation remains ineffective and with the Light Rail still years before reaching its scheduled start of operation, the situation is likely going to get worse. The Light Rail's Red Line, currently under construction, is supposed to finally begin operating in 2013, and will run between Petah Tikva, Bnei Brak, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv along Jabotisky Street and Begin Road. The Green Line, which is supposed to run south from Tel Aviv to Rishon Lezion and Holon, has been stuck for the past two years in its developmental stages because of disagreements between the government and the municipality over its planned route. Since there appears to be an impasse there, the entire Green Line, and perhaps the others in planning stages as well, is threatened with cancellation and may be turned into a high-frequency major bus line instead.