Fast Forward, Slow Backward: The Future of Israel’s Public Transportation
In Israel as well as in other parts of the world cars that inch along crowded highways, sit in traffic jams and spew out noxious gases that pollute the atmosphere may one day be as obsolete as the horse and buggy.
They are being replaced—or will be in the near future—by modes of transportation from the ultramodern, such as Sky-Tran (oval vehicles that travel high above the ground) and the light rail (sleek and silent urban transit) to the retro and revamped, such as bicycling and high-speed trains. These are not futuristic fantasies or the dreams of ecological idealists. They are the means of travel setting the pace in Israel.
Skytran is the most futuristic of the systems in the planning. Its transportation pods are gleaming ovals that look as if they come straight out of a science-fiction blockbuster. Designed by NASA engineers and a privately owned company with headquarters at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the two-seater pods use magnets to hang 30 feet above the ground from a network of elevated tracks. “They are a…high-speed, low-cost rapid-transport system,” says SkyTran CEO Jerry Sanders. “Tel Aviv is the first city in the world to announce plans to build the SkyTran system. We are waiting for final approval.”
They are not expected to replace public transportation but rather to provide service for those who order and determine the pod’s destination online. They will run from Tel Aviv’s high-tech center across Yarkon Park to the center of the city. “Our goal is to reduce the number of private cars by developing public transportation,” notes Meital Lehavi, Tel Aviv deputy mayor. “We are looking for alternatives to private gas-guzzling vehicles. The world wants a cleaner, greener environment.“
Tel Aviv does have some challenges in developing an efficient public transit system. A city without boundaries, it spreads south into Bat Yam, Holon and Ramat Gan. And there is no intercity authority that could establish a centralized infrastructure. But, because Tel Aviv embraces both the modern and the retro, bicycling has become an option for many commuters. The city has 180 bicycle rental stations and special bike lanes throughout.
“There are 20,000 yearly subscribers to the Tel-O-Fun bike system, and the Tel Aviv municipality is planning to double the amount of stations,” says Lehavi. “We are also trying to re-educate children to more ecologically friendly means of transportation,” she adds. “There is now an educational pilot program in schools to encourage bicycling and walking.”
Commuters often combine bus and bicycle travel. Ayala Schwartz, a Jerusalem-based musician working on a master’s degree in piano at Tel Aviv University, packs her bicycle into the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv No. 480 Egged bus twice a week, unloads it at the Arlozorov terminal and cycles the half-hour to Tel Aviv University and back after her class. “I feel free as a bird. It inspires my playing,” says Schwartz.
New modes of transportation have also surfaced in Haifa. The city’s Metronit system of quiet and low-to-the ground high-efficiency buses are popular models of urban sustainability, since they significantly reduce private car traffic, according to the Israeli Union of Environmental NGOs.
The Metronit’s long, high-capacity buses run in special lanes and cover most of the city’s metropolitan area. “They are easy for the elderly to board and for taking on carriages and babies,” notes Dina Levi, a young mother, as she wheels a carriage onto the bus. What is perhaps most amazing is the comeback of the train, which had played important religious and political roles in the Middle East at the end of the Ottoman Empire.
According to historian Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, “Before the 1870s, the journey from Jaffa to Jerusalem was usually made by Christian and Jewish pilgrims on donkeys and mules under difficult and dangerous circumstances.” Ben-Arieh points out that early Jewish sources talk of a “community official” who would organize caravans of donkeys, horses and mules for Jewish pilgrims going up to Jerusalem from Jaffa, much as today’s travel agents organize tourist buses for pilgrimages.
On September 26, 1892, the steam train was inaugurated on this Jaffa-Jerusalem route. It took three and a half hours. A high-speed electric train, called the Jerusalem High Speed Link, now being built, will travel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in half an hour. At peak times, four trains will operate per hour. The tracks will extend to Jerusalem by December 2017, says Boaz Tzafrir, CEO of Israel Railways.
Today, Israel Railways operates 461 trains daily, serving 45 million passengers a year. One particularly Jewish touch is that morning trains from Beit Shemesh to Tel Aviv, which carry computer experts, financial analysts and other professionals, have an en route minyan and Torah readings from a scroll written especially for the train. Train routes also connect Tel Aviv to Haifa and Beersheba.
Recently, Sderot, the Negev town that suffered missile attacks from Gaza until the implementation of the ceasefire after Operation Protective Edge, has been upgraded by a fast train from Tel Aviv. Another exotic railroad route is being resurrected. In 1914, the Jezreel Valley railway was constructed from Haifa to Beit Shean, as part of the Hejaz Railway to bring Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca and Medina. Turkey sought to unify the Ottoman Empire, including the area that was then Palestine.
Today, as shipping through Syria becomes increasingly problematic, Israelis hope that cargo will be moved by boat to Haifa and then by the Jezreel Valley train through Afula to Jordan and maybe beyond.
Many of the old railroad routes were enhanced by handsomely built train stations. These stations are now being recycled into charming malls. In Tel Aviv, the old train station, Hatachana, built in the European-Templer style near the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, houses upscale boutiques and restaurants. The old Jerusalem railroad station near the German Colony neighborhood was conceived by German architect Conrad Schick and Jewish philanthropist Moses Montifiore and built with Ottoman money about 120 years ago. It was the last stop on the Jaffa-Jerusalem line.
The train ran until 1998, when the station began to fall into disrepair. It was refurbished as an urban meeting place for all segments of the society, religious and non-religious, Jewish and Arabic. Reopened in 2013, The First Station has kosher and nonkosher restaurants, open- air markets, chocolatiers and cheese stores. It hosts events such as the international Jerusalem Ice Festival and the biannual Jerusalem International Book Fair. There is also a gallery with changing exhibits.
Emerging from The First Station, the Train Track Park, a joint project of Israel Railways and the Jerusalem municipality, is one of the great pleasures of Jerusalem in recent years. Boasting a walking and cycling path, it is built over the tracks of the old Jaffa-Jerusalem railroad tracks laid at the end of the 19th century. Theodor Herzl rode in a train over these tracks from Jaffa to Jerusalem to meet Kaiser Wilhelm II to convince him to support the creation of a Jewish state. Here the vitality of the people of that state is palpable.
“It is always busy, and it is packed on Shabbat, with people of all kinds of head coverings,” observes Leah Rose, who lives in Jerusalem and works for a nonprofit organization. “A woman from Beit Safafa wears a hijab and speaks Arabic to her children while black-hatted haredim rush to shul. Bicyclists, youth on scooters whiz by wearing baseball hats. If something is well planned and maintained, people appreciate it and use it.”
That has also been the case with the Jerusalem Light Rail. Introduced in August 2011, it took nine years to build. “There were many birth pangs,” notes Shmuel Elgrabi, spokesman for the Transportation Master Plan.
However, Nadav Meroz, director of the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan, points to the light rail as a model for the whole country. “It has returned urban spaces to the people,” he says. “Although it only began three years ago, it has already changed the air quality on Jaffa Street, the most polluted in the city. The center of the city, which had deteriorated in the 1990s, is being revitalized. Entrepreneurs are building luxury apartments downtown. In a survey it emerged that since the light rail began operating, 60 percent of those surveyed said they left their cars at home. It decreased travel time 8 to 10 percent.
“Ten to 20 percent of those who ride the light rail are people with disabilities,” Meroz continues. “It is also a great way of unifying the city. It helps Arabs from Shuafat as well as haredim from Neve Yaakov get to the center of the city.” Qatar-supported news agency Al Jazeera had even dubbed it “The Peace Line.”
Unfortunately, peace is a fragile commodity in Israel. When violence erupted last summer, the light rail became a target and both rails and stations were destroyed during riots in two Arab neighborhoods.
Once things calmed down, work immediately began on repairing the damage and the light rail was running again within weeks. There is one difference: Crowds waiting at the stations are being watched by unmanned aerial vehicles from Bladeworx aeronautics company, hovering above the stations. Stills from each station are downloaded from the UAVs to a police and municipality data center, and streaming video allows officials to keep an eye on activity in real time, so they can handle small problems before they turn into big ones. However, smooth operation of the light rail has been further disrupted by additional riots in September.
There are still plans to extend the light rail to connect Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus to Hadassah’s Ein Kerem campus as well as to Hebrew University. “It is a new world,” says Lehavi, “but it also demands new types of safety regulation between vehicular traffic and pedestrian traffic.” The variety of transportation options in Israel can indeed create new worlds—reducing congestion and expanding accessibility to jobs, schools and vital services. It is a gift to future generations.