Why Israel became the road traffic capital of the OECD in 2022 - opinion

Radio broadcasts often report never-ending traffic jams and TV programs give us precise details of those jams while reminding us how inefficient public transport is.

 Tel Aviv traffic (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Tel Aviv traffic
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

The first conversation between people who meet up in Israel is, “how long did it take you to get here?”

Radio broadcasts often report never-ending traffic jams, and TV programs give us precise details of those jams while reminding us how inefficient public transport is.

Endless preoccupation with traffic jams leads nowhere, however. They are the result of planning bias toward private vehicles, leading to more roads, more cars and more traffic jams.

Conversely, if road planning put people first, we would have fewer roads, fewer cars and less traffic jams. People would be able to reach their destinations by cycling, walking or public transport. Private cars would not be banned, but instead restricted to certain areas, thus allowing public transport in designated lanes alongside bicycle lanes.

The future is now in Israel with bicycles

Heavy traffic jam on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv due to construction work, on June 11, 2020 (credit: FLASH90)Heavy traffic jam on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv due to construction work, on June 11, 2020 (credit: FLASH90)

The main problem with bicycles is that they are the future, and humans find it difficult to imagine the future. When Motorola conducted a market survey in Israel in the 1980s, for example, in order to ascertain whether there was a market for mobile phones here, the conclusion was that the average Israeli would not buy one. Israeli consumers are trapped in the present and are unable to imagine the future, it is thought.

Today, Israelis cannot imagine life without their mobile phones. Just think what happens to you when you forget your mobile at home or when the battery is about to or has run out and you don’t have a charger.

Attitudes toward wearing seat belts in cars or the ban on picking wildflowers are the result of public education that has shaped the future. If you think about the slogan “Israel is drying up” you will see that the public can be educated on new behaviors that shape the future. 

Another major problem with bicycles is the language surrounding them. In Israel, for example, we have “bicycle trails” although the definition of a trail is, “a narrow path used for the passage of people or animals.” 

Here we “killed” the bicycle as a means of transportation. But what would happen if we use the English term “bicycle lanes”?

Bike lanes can “liberate” cities from private cars if the decision-makers prioritize bikes over cars by implementing a network of bike lanes instead of building additional roads.

Most importantly, bike lanes should be built so that bikes become more useful than private cars in urban areas. For example, if the distance to the local supermarket from a residential area is 2 km., planning should favor the bicycle so it becomes easier, quicker and cheaper to ride there rather than drive. The bicycle path should be safe, wide, flat, properly lit, shaded and separated from traffic.

Whereas people who live in Paris, London, Brussels, Oslo or the Netherlands are already familiar with the bike lanes in their cities and use their bikes on a regular basis, Israelis still have a lot to learn about cycling.

European cities slowly eliminated the use of private cars

FOR SOME years, many European cities have slowly eliminated the use of private cars by building a network of bicycle lanes, at the expense of existing roads.

As far as biking goes, Israel has a lot of catching up to do. Israel in 2022 is the same as the Netherlands in the 1970s. Transportation planning is biased in favor of the private car with more highways and roads being built all the time.

This in turn leads to more private cars and terrible congestion on the roads causing traffic jams all day long.

The main problem is that decision-makers make political decisions in favor of cars, not bikes; it’s not that we don’t know how to implement bike lanes and encourage their use by introducing congestion fees.

One radical school of thought is to create lanes for public transport on all intercity roads to encourage the decision-makers to progress public transportation a priority.

For real change, decision-makers should have no fear of the political fallout from their decisions.

Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris since 2014, has set a good example, which others should follow as she took the brave decision to free Paris from cars by promoting cycling lanes.

The writer, a cycling-lanes expert, is a traffic consultant for cities and a holds a master’s degree in sociology.