June 01, 2002

MIDDLE EAST UPDATE: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM’S NEW LIGHT RAIL PROJECT IMPEDED BY POLITICAL TURMOIL

An international tender for the project has also been hampered. It seems that some of the companies that expressed in interest in putting in a bid for this $400 million project were dissuaded by Arab countries threatening to boycott bidders. Only two companies will submit competitive bids; and they too have been hesitant to send representatives to the country out of fears for their safety.

There has also recently been talk of rerouting the light rail so as to avoid the Arab neighborhoods at the north end of the line. There was always debate about these lines. On the Israeli side, some on the Right were insistent that a system spanning Jewish and Arab Jerusalem was a way to unify the city, while some on the Left argued that it was wasteful to build East Jerusalem sections of the project that would soon pass over to Palestinian sovereignty as part of a peace agreement.

At the same time, while some Arab residents of these neighborhoods were concerned that the project would be an emblem of Israeli sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, others looked forward to formal public transport services, which effectively ceased once Israeli buses feared entry into Arab areas at the beginning of the Intifadah. However, as the divide between East and West Jerusalem becomes more tense, it becomes less conceivable that orderly service can be operated across this border in “unified” Jerusalem.

Indeed, one of the destinations of a proposed future line, the Israeli industrial area of Atarot, which is surrounded by Arab neighborhoods, has been largely abandoned; suppliers and workers fear to travel there, and even insurance companies refuse coverage.

Planning in such a tense and changing setting presents a unique challenge. A Jerusalem Council member remarked in a recent interview that planners of Jerusalem’s light rail should not be getting their guidance, as they do, from planners in Germany and France, but from Belfast and Nicosia.

IMPROVING PARATRANSIT IN EAST JERUSALEM

With Israeli bus services not daring to enter Arab East Jerusalem following the outbreak of the first Intifadah, formal public transport to Arab neighborhoods has been virtually abandoned. In its place a massive system of paratransit has arisen, served by over a thousand six to eight seater minivans. These run along more or less fixed routes, but leave their origin as soon as they are full, and let off passengers on demand.

Though considered a “pirate” form of transport by the authorities, the system is remarkably effective in some ways, with extensive coverage, frequent service, and prices lower than the formal transport it replaced. At the same time, users complain of several problems. Many of the drivers lack insurance, so passengers are on their own in the case of accidents.

And since the drivers often lack training, and tend to be rough-and-ready in their driving, and vehicles not always roadworthy, these accidents are too frequent. The services also tend to be involved in drug dealing, and women complain frequently about sexual harassment by drivers.

Transport Today and Tomorrow, a local transport advocacy organization in Israel, gave a small grant to one Arab neighborhood to study the problems and come up with a set of reforms that retains the best aspect of this service, while reducing the problems. ITDP’s Yaakov Garb is assisting this effort.  The Israeli Ministry of Transport is also planning their own set of reforms of the paratransit system, and the community recommendations will, in part, be a response to these.

TEL AVIV AS A TRANSIT METROPOLIS?

What makes a “transit metropolis” – a city which mass transit is a viable, respected alternative to the car? This is the question posed by Robert Cervero, a Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, in his latest book, The Transit Metropolis. Cervero examines 12 cities that seem to achieved this goal, and asks how they did it.

What these places have in common, he finds, is the adaptation of the urban landscape to transit, whether it is forming a high density of offices, homes, and shops around public transport nodes, finding novel ways for transit to serve more spread out form of land-use or through some combination of these strategies.

And he presents several of the factors that increase the likelihood of this kind of successful adaptation (regional institutions and governance, a vision of land-use/transport development, transit times that compete with car travel, and others).

The planned NTA light rail project for Tel Aviv: one important component of improved transit for the metropolis. The red line has a planned completion time date toward the end of the decade.

This April, Cervero will visit Israel to describe his findings and their relevance to a city sorely in need of guidance towards improved transit: Tel Aviv. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, assisted by ITDP, have arranged a series of meetings with decision-makers, and public forums with planners, NGOs, and academics.

Cervero’s international studies raise a set of pointed questions for the city. Will some form of metropolitan institutional structure for transport planning get off the ground? Will transit stations of the light rail and commuter rail serve as foci of more intensive development, or will this potential be wasted, as it is around many stations today. Can the coordination between rail transit and bus feeder lines be improved?

Can the bus system itself be improved: the system as a whole has not been overhauled since the 60s, and seldom enjoys an exclusive right-of-way or priority. Will some for of transit develop to serve all the areas that the rail system will not reach for decades? Will Tel Aviv’s center stop giving priority to the entry of traffic, to make way for people and public transport?

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