Break out the Champagne! J'lem light rail to start

Cyclists concerned they won’t be allowed to board with bikes.

Jerusalem light rail 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Jerusalem light rail 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Now it’s official.
At 5:30 a.m. on Friday, the first Jerusalem light rail train will leave the station with actual passengers.
The train’s start date received final approval despite bickering between the Transportation Ministry and the Knesset Economic Committee over testing periods, a law that will govern future light rails across the country, a delayed safety permit and arguments over updating traffic lights to give the light rail preference.
Passengers will be able to ride the train for the first few months free of charge, after CityPass worked out a deal with the state to subsidize rides for the first stage of the train’s operation, CityPass announced on Tuesday.
It took nearly a decade for the constant digging, roadwork, intra-agency bickering, headaches and furious demonstrations by frustrated merchants and residents for the light rail to come to fruition, and the city is filled with skepticism ahead of the start date.
“We have to see this as a time of celebration,” Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, in charge of environmental issues and urban planning, said on Tuesday.
“It’s been like a patient on the operating table for a decade, and we were in real danger of the operation being a success but the patient might not have survived.
The patient is Jaffa Road, and if we come through this ordeal, we are going to see a tremendous urban awakening in city center. It’s already begun, but this is a sign for us to enjoy the city, because we’re going to find ourselves ahead of all the other cities in Israel.”
Tsur, who does not own a car, said she planned on taking the light rail from her home in Kiryat Moshe to Safra Square every day, and it would let her easily stop at Mahane Yehuda on her way home from work.
Transportation officials expressed optimism the train will drastically change public transportation in Israel’s capital. After the traffic lights are updated to give the train preference, more than 50 urban bus routes will change in the city to better integrate with the light rail.
Passengers will be able to use the Rav Kav card for both buses and trains, and pay one price for travel on all types of vehicles within an hour and 15 minutes.
But bicycle activists are frustrated with the light rail’s decision not to allow bicycles on the train, which they claim was specifically built to accommodate wheelchairs, strollers, and bicycles. The same light rail train, the Alstom Citadis 302, allows bicycles in other cities, such as Barcelona, Bordeaux and Montpellier, France.
“I think it’s a missed opportunity, because one of the most important things in public transportation is interconnectivity, and here you’re missing the opportunity to connect different types of sustainable transportation,” said Pearl Kaplan, an activist with biking group Cycle Jerusalem and a project manager at the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
“This is a train that was built to encourage multimodal use,” she said, explaining the city chose a train that had plenty of room for strollers, wheelchairs, and bicycles. “[Bikes] fill in the missing links of the light rail.”
The municipality invested considerable money to build a new bike path in French Hill to connect the neighborhood with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This would enable students who live in the center to ride to the train, get on with their bikes, and then cycle to the campus in just a few minutes.
“More bikers means less traffic, less pollution and fewer parking problems,” Kaplan said.
The municipality supports bikes on the light rail, said Tsur.
Both Kaplan and Tsur suggested limitations for bikes, such as only during off-peak hours, or only in every other carriage, similar to bike regulations in other cities.
CityPass spokesman Ozel Vatik said the company had no issues with allowing bicycles on the train, but it was dependent on the Transportation Ministry giving the approval.
Transportation Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia said bicycles would definitely not be allowed during the first few months of the train’s operation. He said the ministry had not received any requests to allow bikes on the light rail, although the activists said they had been in touch.
Kaplan said the activist group was working on submitting another written request.
The Transportation Ministry’s bicycle master plan states that “Bicycles should be allowed on trains and buses as personal luggage.
[Bicycles should be allowed on trains, light rails, and some buses for minimal charge or for free. This could be limited to certain hours.]”