Urban renewal: Will Jerusalem rebuild old bus terminal?

Inside the terminal connecting the capital to the country.

THE JERUSALEM Central Bus Station and its iconic clock face. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE JERUSALEM Central Bus Station and its iconic clock face.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem is currently in the midst of constructing a major new transportation “gateway” anchored by the exciting “glass box” train station and the incongruous “David’s Harp” sculpture/bridge, but what is missing but sorely needed is a new central bus station to replace the current one, which is only 16 years old.
Of course, while the new high-speed train to Tel Aviv that stops at Ben-Gurion Airport will probably be used by those of every economic class, intercity buses are for poor people and soldiers, so who cares what the bus terminal looks like or how it makes you feel, right?
That must have been the attitude of those who planned and approved the present central bus station, because on a recent intercity bus trip, it made me feel not like a dignified human being but on the way out of town like an animal being herded for slaughter and on the way back like a criminal being abandoned in a dungeon.
THE BEST and most iconic feature of the Jerusalem Central Bus Station is the big old-fashioned clock face on its outer facade, making it readily identifiable to those who may need to get off of one of the 100-odd local buses that travel past its city-center location. But if, like me, you took one of those buses which discharges passengers on Sderot Shazar Street, you must still slog across the light rail tracks and a plaza that smells of urine and cross Jaffa Street to arrive at the charmless main entrance to the station. There you deposit your bundles on a security x-ray conveyor that looks like it was salvaged from a broken-down third-world airport.
You then enter a tawdry atrium hall with a confusing jumble of shops and advertisements that make it difficult to find the signs informing you that the intercity buses are actually two levels up via narrow escalators that don’t line up and thereby force you to trudge past the maximum number of stores. You can also use the grubby stairs or the take-forever-to-arrive elevators if you can find them.
Along the far wall of the third floor are the 20-odd bus departure gates, before each of which a maze of railings that look like cattle chutes herd the waiting bus passengers in something resembling lines. If you are lucky, your gate may be near a few unoccupied metal benches where you can rest your feet if you are willing to risk a last-minute scramble for a seat on the bus.
Because of smog concerns, airtight automatic doors at each gate remain locked until your bus is ready to board. When the departure gate door opens, you shove your way out onto a narrow strip of dirty concrete and try to get on the bus without being mowed down by the horde of passengers behind you with their backpacks, baby carriages and machine guns.
The only good part about all this is when your bus pulls out of the station and you feel an instant sense of exhilaration and relief.
But when you arrive back at the central terminal by intercity bus, the misery begins again. You are unceremoniously disgorged onto a long dark platform that looks like a tunnel of terror in a horror movie. Following the crowd past soot-blackened padlocked doors, you stumble into the rear entrance to the lower two floors of the bus station, totally unguarded when I was there and with no indication of how to reach the outside and fresh air through the interminable commercial chaos you now have to plow through.
When you do finally make it to the street, you exit the Jerusalem Central Bus Station as unceremoniously as you entered. Good luck in finding the pedestrian passageway under Sderot Shazar Street as you schlep with your luggage to the local bus stops.
THE JERUSALEM Central Bus Station is actually the rented out lower floors of a privately owned office building that is unlikely to be replaced anytime soon. But now under construction is a new Central Bus Station at the remote location of the Golda Meir Interchange where Rt. 436 crosses Rt. 50 well north of the City center.
According to the Ministry of Transportation, this new terminal will be an underground warren of pedestrian passages and loading gates topped by a huge bus parking garage. It sounds every bit as unpleasant as the present Central Bus Station. But the Transport Ministry is hailing it as “green” because an unseen roof of the bus parking lot will be covered with sod.
So it looks like for at least the next 20 years, we will be stuck with a new central bus station that is no longer central and no better in design than the horrid one it is intended to replace. But around 2040, when the building housing the current Central Bus Station is ready for redevelopment and the northern Central Bus Station is old and worn out, here is my vision for what a proper Jerusalem Central Bus Station at or near its present location would be like:
First of all, it would not be rented space in a private real estate operator’s commercial building, but would be planned, built and operated by the Jerusalem Municipality.
The station would essentially be a simple and elegant cube or rectangle of fine Jerusalem stone about five stories high. The roof would have tinted glass panels to admit light without creating glare. There would be large arches for entrances and exits with modern security scanning equipment included as an integral part of the plan.
The interior would consist of a single large open space with dedicated aisles on each side for a limited number of vendors serving the needs of bus travelers, and operating from storefronts with consistent and understated signage and interior design. On the opposite side from the main street entrance and exit, a continuous series of arched gateways would lead into the bus loading hall, which itself would be a glass-topped vault with planted walls. Since by that time all buses will be electric, there will be no need to worry about poor air quality caused by combustion engines.
In front of each loading gate, you would find comfortable seating so that all waiting seated passengers would be guaranteed a place on the bus and there would be no need for shoving when the bus was ready to board.
Arriving buses would unload on one side of the terminal with passengers proceeding directly to the street through a sky-lit vaulted hall where a chorus of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” and other joyous melodies would be playing to welcome them. On the way out, travelers would pass under an arch inscribed with the shehecheyanu prayer, an appropriate blessing for those fortunate enough to be entering Jerusalem for the first time or re-entering it for however long away.
Such a central bus terminal would be reminiscent of great public transit terminals in other major cities throughout the world. The virtue of such a station is that it would add dignity and enjoyment to the lives of the people using it rather than degrading and depressing them as the present terminal does.
Will such a Jerusalem Central Bus Station station ever come to exist? As the man who has a mountain named after him here once said, if you will it, it does not need to be a fairy tale.
The writer has written on design for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among other publications. Among his health-oriented design innovations were the first combination yogurt-and-granola container, the first treadmill-and-computer “walking desk” and a line of “environments for health” floor-based home and office furniture. Formerly from the San Francisco Bay area, he now lives in Ma’aleh Adumim.