Taken for a ride

Jerusalemites stuck on buses, courtesy of the preparations for the light rail, find it hard to believe this is leading to life in the fast lane.

Jaffa road bus 18 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jaffa road bus 18 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘Oh, look! There’s the light rail train – where does it go?” asked a very enthusiastic policewoman of no one in particular across from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station.
I was, it seems, the only one with enough energy left to answer her.
“Nowhere,” I said. “It goes nowhere.”
The policewoman gave me a strange look and, still convinced that miracles happen in the Holy City, asked: “What do you mean? It has to go somewhere.”
Taking pity on the two of us, another passerby backed me up: “No, it really goes nowhere.
It goes up and down Jaffa Road – with nobody in it.”
“But how can that be?” asked the woman in blue, who unlike most of the people waiting to board a No. 18, whenever it arrived, had obviously not yet had the experience of sitting on a jam-packed bus waiting for the empty tram to make yet another test run – testing our nerves, along with everything else.
“You’re not from Jerusalem, are you?” I ventured.
“Listen, take my advice: Don’t mention it to Jerusalemites.”
But the damage was done.
As we board a bus that has finally managed to reach the station, the passengers can’t help but mutter about the light rail program – again.
For the regulars, almost nothing can distract us from the subject of the Jerusalem tram that is going nowhere, not particularly fast.
A camaraderie develops – as you might expect when you’re stuck in a tin box travelling slowly on roads so old and narrow that even in the days of horse and cart they were considered the scenic option rather than the fast route.
A former Jerusalemite – “Well, there’s no such thing as a former Jerusalemite really” – notes that friends and relatives had laughed at her when she moved to Ofakim in the South 20 years ago, “but at least we don’t have traffic jams there.”
We briefly discuss mortgages, real estate, jobs and corruption.
Claustrophobia and chagrin combine to produce conspiracy theories.
The most upbeat man on the bus thinks the light rail might be part of an elaborate plot to get us to ride bikes to work – like the bicycles for rent known, after London’s colorful mayor, as “Boris bikes.”
Almost anything would be healthier than sitting on the bus, being driven slowly crazy.
I try to find something positive to say. “My education has been enriched,” I offer. My bus in the morning creeps so slowly down Shivtei Yisrael and Hanevi’im streets – before it even gets to the infamous gridlock on Agrippas – that I have a chance to read the blue plaques on the walls outside the splendid stone buildings.
“Did you know that Rachel the Poetess spent a year living on the grounds of the home of the English painter William Holman Hunt in 1925?” I have found poetry in non-motion.
We express sympathy for the storekeepers on the eerily empty Jaffa Road. Since the street was closed to traffic to enable the light rail to run up and down, they have lost the last remnants of their customers.
Taxi drivers, too, have lost their income, with fewer people than ever willing to risk getting stuck in this sort of traffic with the meter running and a frustrated driver.
We sigh at the sight of an ambulance struggling to get through to Bikur Cholim Hospital, itself on the endangered list.
We are, I think, collectively the type of people songwriter Naomi Shemer meant by “Anashim tovim be’emtza haderech” – good people in the middle of the road. But it’s taking its toll. We wish we were somewhere else.
Thank heavens for mobile phones. One after another, we call to cancel meetings, apologize for being late or update waiting families. Some use the time to conduct business or what passes for romance in the iPad era.
We begin to crack jokes. We start to crack.
A week ago, Yediot Yerushalayim, a local paper, ran what appeared to be a cross between a bad joke and a math test: A bus, an antique car and a Segway leave Binyenei Ha’uma for Kikar Davidka at the same time.
Which one will arrive first? (You guessed: The Segway took nine minutes; the 1965 Peugeot 403, 13 minutes; and the No. 18 Egged bus, 23 minutes).
A few days later, from the privacy of my office, I call the strategic adviser of the light rail. Shmuel Elgrabli manages to maintain both his sense of humor and his optimism and makes the future plans sound more like a promise than a threat. “What you are focusing on are the birth pangs,” he says. “Instead of concentrating on the labor, you should wait for the baby to be born.”
With obvious patience he answers my questions, all of them raised by my fellow travelers.
Ultimately you will be able to travel on buses and the light rail using one ticket, he explains. Altogether, the light rail is part of an integrative plan that will revitalize Jaffa Road as a pedestrian mall and provide a modern means of transportation in an ancient city.
And contrary to our suspicions, Elgrabli says, the fact that the buses and trams don’t run on the same route is partly to avoid wasting public money by duplicating routes.
Listening to Elgrabli, I could almost see a time when I might come to appreciate the light rail.
But back on the bus that evening, I realized we still have a painfully long way to go.