In Israel, the car is still king

Kugel Square Holon credit: NTA
Kugel Square Holon credit: NTA

Despite huge investment in public transport projects, commuters will prefer their cars because plans prioritize cars and ignore pedestrians' needs.

Billions of shekels have been spent on public transport projects but the investment won’t provide passengers with the service they need. Israel’s urban planners have preferred to continue prioritizing cars and transport experts insist this will make things tough for commuters; those who can, will continue to opt for their own cars.

At a conference last month, organized by Transport Today & Tomorrow - The Israeli Organization for Sustainable Transportation, Prof. Karel Martens of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, presented an overview of some of these transport projects. One is the Heinrich Heine - Shalabim highway in Tel Aviv. Prof. Martens demonstrated that, although 52% of the road has been allocated to green transport, it does not serve public transport users adequately. "A street that provides space for everyone does not necessarily provide service for everyone," he explains, and it is clear that this is just one example among many.

"The road consists of four car lanes, two bus lanes, bicycle paths, sidewalks, and a grassy median strip. The street is beautiful, and though it has a bus lane, bus users won’t go there, because the street is designed for high-speed traffic, and the experience of waiting for a bus is like standing next to a major highway. It is a fast highway, with no intersections that is great for cars but bad for pedestrians who have to get to the bus stops by crossing between the traffic lanes.

"Most of the time traveling by public transport, from door to door, is spent on walking and waiting for the bus, not sitting on it. So, fast roads don’t translate to fast buses, because the lack of intersections requires a longer walk next to a busy road; people simply will not walk there, those who have a choice won’t use it, while those who don't will opt to give up on commuting, or rely on a family member with a car."

"Prioritizing public transport means taming cars"

According to Prof. Martens, good public transport in cities should be developed in areas where the streets are interesting, speed limits are low, junctions and pedestrian crossings are many, and sidewalks are wide and pleasant. "In order to make public transport a priority, cars must be 'tamed' by removing them from some city streets, reducing their speed, eliminating some traffic lanes and narrowing those that remain, prohibiting left turns, and other measures recommended by the OECD," he says.

Similar examples can also be seen along the light rail projects in Jerusalem and the Gush Dan (Tel Aviv Metropolitan) region. In Jerusalem, the light rail runs along Jaffa Road where lively pedestrian traffic encourages commercial activity. But in other areas, construction of grade separations, tunnels, and interchanges have made it difficult for pedestrians to cross, and so a project intended for public transport is actually a threat to its passengers - all in order to continue maintaining a high level of service for cars. Moreover, construction of huge parking lots was factored in to the Jerusalem light rail construction project budget.

There are many examples in Gush Dan as well. "The Bat Yam-Petah Tikva Red Line runs alongside high-speed roads with few intersections. In other cases, the light rail improves access to the urban area, but the tracks prevent cars from crossing at high speed," says Martens. To maintain car speeds, underpasses will be built at Kugel Square in Holon (nicknamed "The Square of Tears"), at the Aluf Sadeh interchange, and more.

The expectation is that people will switch from their own cars to public transport, but project planners continue to maintain a preference for serving cars, thus eliminating the competitive edge that public transport is supposed to have.

One clear example is how the Ono Valley light rail has been planned. The Purple Line will not enter the towns of Or Yehuda or Yahud, and its stations will be situated on Highway 461, a very wide roadway that will include four lanes for cars, two lanes for public transport, a light rail in both directions, bicycle paths on both sides of the road and narrow sidewalks. This type of crossing, intended for use by both adults and children, will require a great deal of walking to get to the stations where people will wait next to the expressway. On the face of it, more that 50% of the road is allocated to public transport, but using it will be an unpleasant experience that does not measure up to using a car.

"Train stations are detached from the cities they serve"

Transport planner Jonathan Rosin, member of the executive board of the Israel Planners Association, explains the phenomenon. "The clearest example is most of the train stations in Israel. Most are located outside the center of the city they serve or - as in the case of Kiryat Malachi - far outside the city and surrounded by parking lots. Access by public transport is mediocre and accessing by foot is hard. The Eastern Railway stations, the Nof HaGalil-Haifa light rail and the Kiryat Shmona line, were designed to be detached from the cities."

Even the urban light rail lines give priority to cars. "On the Purple Line and Green Line in Gush Dan, many planning decisions were made that prioritize the flow of car traffic over pedestrian accessibility to stations - underpasses, bridges - a general unwillingness to leverage the light rail and transform main transport arteries, like Aluf Sadeh, into more of a city street.

"Public transport users are first and foremost pedestrians. The more that public transport is accessible by foot to more people, the more its usage will increase. In addition, you have to always remember that street space is limited. Therefore, to truly prioritize public transport, sometimes you have to appropriate the space reserved for cars".

"No wonder people prefer cars"

Yael Dori, Head of Planning at Adam Teva V'Din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, says no one has necessarily learned their lesson from the old plans. "Many of the Ministry of Transport projects, whose intention appears to be to facilitate and improve public transport, such as the expansion of Road 4, are planned in an outdated and incorrect way. The public not only needs to get from point to point. Flexibility and connectivity to other means of transport, like trains, should be enabled. Instead, they plan bus passenger drop-off points in the middle of an interchange, so it's no wonder that people prefer their cars. The Road 4 expansion was designed in a way that goes against the efficient use of public transport - there are large sections where there are four car lanes, and then a tunnel planned for them at the Morasha Interchange, and all the connections to the cities are via ramps and bridges."

Dori says that Adam Teva V'Din filed an objection to the plan and obtained a proviso, according to which bus infrastructure execution would go together with that of cars and not separately, "But even if this is realized - the planning still gives priority to cars, and not to the huge population in the center of the country, which has the potential to use public transport heavily in this region," she adds.

Ministry of Transport: "Procedural approaches are in effect"

The Ministry of Transport is aware of the situation and promises change, wherever possible. Ministry of Transport transport planning division director Shai Kedem, tells Globes that planning has undergone a change "Similar to what is done in the Western world", but noted that "We are dealing with projects based on old plans while planning and execution are lengthy procedures. Sometimes, when they reach their final stages, we find out that they are not suitable, that the policy has changed, that other priorities have come into play, or that the capacity is insufficient.

"The decision-making processes are complex and are dependent on many functionaries and decision-makers at the budgetary and planning level, and in the end, even if the right thing in terms of transport was supposed to take precedence, it’s not always like that. There is a whole set of considerations that create a reality."

According to Kedem, "In recent years, the Ministry of Transport has adopted the approach of procedure and service, and this now leads the planning process. In the past, we didn’t do planning this way. Our infrastructure companies were tasked with planning a mass transit system, and the Ministry did not instruct them to look more broadly at the level of connectivity, for example.

"At the same time, the planners in Israel were unfamiliar with procedures related to walking and cycling, and did not follow them, and subsequently encountered problem areas. For example, on the Green Line near the Holon junction, to get from that light rail station to the Israel Railway station, you have to cross several intersections. In retrospect, the right thing would have been to plan a direct access underground tunnel at the very least.

"However, in recent years, a change has been made. There are plans ready to improve the connectivity of the Eastern Railway stations, which were not designed in conjunction with the city, and we’ve tried to correct this in retrospect. A plan is in the works for the Green Line and Purple Line to improve connectivity, and in the next state budget we will be able to slate implementation projects accordingly. The Shalabim highway is better than it was previously, because there was no public transport lane and bicycle path. Initially, the fast lanes plans did not include public transport lanes, and we added them. Plans in the future will look different, certainly the plans for the Metro, which will require, for example, eliminating exit ramps at the HaShalom interchange to allow for massive pedestrian traffic."

However, Kedem points out that things are not always fixable from the Ministry of Transport’s perspective. "Sometimes, the consequences of re-planning can be worse with longer implementation times and budgets that go elsewhere meanwhile, and sometimes we move ahead and think about how we can improve things in the future.

"We’re working on a supplementary plan for land use around the Kiryat Shmona railway, however, we realized that Highway 461 could not be an urban thoroughfare, and would also have to maintain capacity for cars. There are also other cases where land use is the deciding factor - Shalabim Street is as wide as Ibn Gvirol Street, but the feeling is completely different. Altering land use (residential and commercial rezoning) is very difficult because compensation is required. Often, because everyone wants a plan to be perfect, it fails to be carried out, as in the case of the Israel Military Industries land in Ramat Hasharon, or the Pi Glilot property, where a significant change was required because that’s where we will build the Metro transport hub."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 21, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

 
Kugel Square Holon credit: NTA
Kugel Square Holon credit: NTA
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