I am not against public transportation. In fact, I am very much in favor. As a person who lives in Tel Aviv and does not own a car, I am completely dependent on my bike and the bus and train systems. What’s more, it often seems like the half a million vehicles that enter the city every day are all stuck in traffic right underneath my apartment, honking away at each other. Anything that can reduce traffic in the city has my support.
But let’s face it – Tel Aviv’s light rail is not just around the corner, and in fact it has never looked further away.
Right: A computer rendering of the underground section of Tel Aviv’s future mass transit system. (image via skyscraperlife.com)
This should not come as a huge shock. After MTS repeatedly failed to meet deadlines for securing financial backing for the project, the world financial crisis hit, taking out some of the key players: Bank of Scotland, a major lender, was nationalized, AIG, the insurer, collapsed, and the rest are now demanding fundamental changes in the tender, in light of lessons learned from Jerusalem’s light rail project. MTS will find it very difficult to make the next deadline in late January.
Tel Aviv’s light rail/subway, which has been in the planning stages since Golda Meir was in power, does not seem likely to be built in this generation. It’s time to start thinking outside the box.
Right: Light rail tracks under construction in Jerusalem. (photo via skyscraperlife.com)
In Jerusalem, people have taken to calling the city’s light rail the “blight rail” (rakevet klala, a play on raveket kala). Meant to be up and running by 2006, the project is now on track to open in 2011.
From day one, the project was a headache for everyone involved. Engineering problems meant that tracks had to be ripped up and replaced. The company that won the tender claimed that the city wasn’t cooperative in issuing permits, sued the city, and won. Cost overruns had to be covered by taxpayers. The Calatrava bridge at the city’s entrance, planned without seeking the public’s input, ignited plenty of controversy. Jaffa Street, running through the center of downtown Jerusalem, looks like the site of an archaeological excavation. Jerusalemites are fed up of the traffic nightmare in their city. Shopowners on Jaffa Street have lost much of their business, and have started their own protest movement against the light rail. Former mayor Uri Lupolianski, who once thought he would time the opening of the light rail to occur just before the city’s elections, miscalculated and lost to Nir Barkat.
True, when the light rail finally starts running, it will be a huge benefit to the city – the air will be cleaner, it will be easier to get around, the city center might even come back to life. But the painful and incompetent process of planning and construction will likely deter other Israeli cities from building their own light rails. Haifa, for example, opted instead for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, based on extended buses in exclusive lanes. Newly elected Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has proposed that new lines in Jerusalem be based on this technology as well.
Left: Future subway and light rail lines planned for metropolitan Tel Aviv. (image via Wikipedia.com)
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, the city is still struggling to set up its first mass transit line. The Red Line, from Petach Tikva to Bat Yam is supposed to be part light rail, part subway.
At conference after conference, speakers harshly criticize the Tel Aviv Municipality. This is perhaps one of the only issues where the green organizations, the Treasury, the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Transportation Ministry and numerous citizens’ organizations are in absolute agreement. They all agree that Mayor Ron Huldai’s insistence on building transit lines underground inside Tel Aviv’s city limits is what is holding up the project. A subway is several times more expensive to build than a light rail, and the technical issues are infinitely more complex.
City officials counter that a subway is the only solution that satisfies technical requirements. Meanwhile, the city continues to widen roads, build new highways and dig underground parking lots for the approximately 60,000 new cars added to the road every year in metropolitan Tel Aviv.
While the discussion about mass transit in Tel Aviv continues to stagnate, circumstances have changed. The global credit crunch has made huge mega-projects unrealistic, at least for the foreseeable future. Shai Agassi’s Better Place Project, with its leased electric cars, and car-sharing programs like Car2Go are beginning to change the way people think about their relationship with the private vehicle. In response to the expected economic downturn, the Treasury is preparing plans for an economic stimulus package based on transportation and infrastructure projects (although, unlike Obama’s stimulus package, Israel’s will not contain much in the way of green thinking).
Let’s learn from Jerusalem’s mistakes. Tel Aviv doesn’t need an expensive subway and light rail system that will snarl traffic for the next decade, only to start running someone around 2020 with technologies that are already obsolete. If the city wants more breathable air, less traffic jams, less noise and traffic accidents, an immediate solution is needed. If only we had someone in City Hall capable of connecting the dots.
A City for All’s team, now part of the City Council. (image via www.city4all.org.il)
But wait – we do. Now the largest faction on the city council, A City for All has a plan to reduce car traffic and create mass transit called “Mobility for All” (Hebrew link). Drawn up by a citizens’ forum, the plan is still being developed, but the idea will be to create immediate, comprehensive solutions to get people around the city. Despite being one of the only factions not to join Ron Huldai’s coalition, and therefore effectively the opposition, A City for All is thinking pragmatically about how to get things done based on finding common ground with coalition factions (more on this in future posts).
Faced with similar choices in the 1970’s, the city of Curitiba, Brazil used sheer ingenuity to create solutions to its transportation problems. There is absolutely no reason why Tel Aviv, which is blessed with one of the greatest concentrations of creative minds in the world, cannot come up with immediate and effective means of rescuing itself from the traffic jam it has been stuck in for over a decade.