Israel's cable car revival

Impression of Haifa University cable car station  image: Yefe Nof
Impression of Haifa University cable car station image: Yefe Nof

Jerusalem, Haifa and Nazareth all plan cable car routes, but are they genuine transport solutions, or just showy and costly tourist attractions?

Once upon a time, Israel had only one cable car with two gondolas in Rosh Hanikra, one cable car taking tourists to the top of Masada, and one cable car in Haifa to the Stella Maris Monastery. A longer cable car was then built for tourist purposes on the Manara Cliff in Kiryat Shmona.

In recent years, with next to no public attention, cable cars have been undergoing a revival. The municipalities of Haifa, Jerusalem, Herzliya, Netanya, and Nazareth Illit are pushing plans for cable cars in their jurisdictions. The official reason for these plans is severe traffic jams and the absence of conventional solutions, but it is also undeniable that cable cars are very visible. A cable car is not just another road or railway track; it's a public show at a time when municipal elections are looming.

The value of cable cars as a transport solution is disputed. Prof. Erel Avineri, head of the MSc program in engineering and infrastructure systems management at Afeka Tel Aviv Academic College of Engineering, points out the great difficulty in all types of cable car ventures. "It's a tourist attraction," he says. "It gives an undeniable ego boost that cannot be ignored. As a transportation solution, I believe that its infrastructure and operation are very expensive.

"One of the main problems with cable cars is that the infrastructure is inflexible. If people decide after a few years that they want to change the route, add stations, or increase capacity, it's impossible. There a certain risk that if there is no demand, we'll be stuck with a white elephant. If there's a natural disaster or an attack, it's very hard to fix it. A bus can be switched to a different route."

Avineri, who was a partner in research initiated by the Ministry of Transport on elevated transit systems, is very skeptical about the economic viability of a cable car as a transportation solution. "In most cases, cable cars don’t solve the last kilometer problem; i.e. how people can reach their final destination. Will a bus being waiting there to take them? If it doesn't provide a door-to-door solution, it might not be the best alternative. At the Technion, for example, which is a huge campus, a person getting off the cable car may have a 20-minute walk to his or her destination. A bus has five or six stops. Another consideration is that only eight people can get into one cable car; a bus can carry a lot more people."

Jerusalem: From the German Colony to the Western Wall

The National Infrastructure Committee is now enthusiastically promoting a cable car plan in Jerusalem. According to the plan, the railway route will begin in the area near the Khan Theater, move east above the Hinnom Valley towards Mount Zion, and descend from there to Silwan near the Old City Dung Gate and the Western Wall. At a later stage, it will continue towards the Mount of Olives. The project is a joint initiative of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Jerusalem Development Authority, and the Ministry of Tourism. The project's cost is estimated at NIS 200 million.

Yossi Saidov, founder of the 15 Minutes organization for improving public transportation in Israel, believes that the planned Jerusalem cable railway is a poor transportation solution. "When the Jerusalem municipality declared the Old City a private vehicle-free zone, it should have made the road surrounding the Old City walls a public transport lane and should have arranged high-speed bus lines to all parts of the city not going through the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) areas. Instead, they’ve come up with a solution that just creates a mess. Why should we have to take a bus and then switch to a cable car? Why not a bus going straight to the Western Wall? If you're going from one central place to another, why should you have to change buses? The changing system doesn't work."

Architect David Kroyanker, who has documented and researched the architectural heritage of Jerusalem, is unenthusiastic about the initiative and hopes it will be shelved. "The cable car project was first proposed in the 1970s. These projects periodically arise and are shot down. It should also be dropped in this case. What does Jerusalem need it for? The justification is supposedly transportation, and further justification is Jerusalem's appearance above ground. I don't think that Jerusalem should become Disneyland. Jerusalem won't become a more attractive place and more tourists won't come. It's a bad idea and it should be killed off in its infancy," he says.

Kroyanker adds, "Planning in Jerusalem has been political since 1937. This proposals is designed to consolidate the status of the Ir David Foundation in the Dung Gate area. I don't think they will accept this abroad. It has many consequences, because both Mount Zion and the Mount of Olives are holy places, and not just for the Jews. It's also a tough sell on the international level, regardless of my political opinion."

Yonatan Mizrahi, CEO of the Emek Shaveh organization, which works on behalf of cultural and heritage rights and the preservation of antiquities sites as public assets, is disturbed about how the project is being promoted in the National Infrastructure Committee. "They decided to take a national project and transfer it to a committee with no understanding of how to preserve the historic city. They know that if we were to look at the city preservation aspects, the plan would encounter many difficulties at the District Planning and Building Commission and wouldn't pass."

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin makes it clear that Jerusalem is a special case. "Beyond the historical and religious significance, the Western Wall and the Old City basin are Israel's number one tourist site. The reality is that access to this place simply doesn't exist. There are huge traffic jams, no parking, no buses, and nowhere to even let people off. There is a very serious problem for people with limited mobility. In addition to a transportation solution, we want to create a much more diverse and interesting tourist experience, including what I think is a very important thing - a tourist experience at night. The cable car is the only thing that solves all of these problems."

"Globes": Aren't you concerned that building a cable car will detract from the uniqueness of the Old City, which is separated from the new city by the buffer zone of the Hinnom Valley?

Levin: "You can always find excuses to oppose the cable car. I don't accept this at all. Of all the possible solutions, this is the best one. A solution involving a few pillars and cable cars is better for the environment than building giant parking lots, certainly as far as air pollution and noise are concerned. Keep in mind that the route doesn't pass over the Old City itself; it goes next to the walls. It doesn't damage the place itself; it offers the chance to see this view from the side."

You chose to promote the project through the National Infrastructure Committee, even though it's a tourist project. Why?

"I say clearly and unequivocally: I think there's a big difference between giving the public a say and leaving a project stuck in interminable planning processes for years. We put on a large-scale display of the project in a special site we built in order to enable people to understand what's involved and in order to receive comment.

"It's absolutely clear that the existing planning processes don't attain the objective in the end. Because of all the agencies and approvals that must be gone through, everything gets stuck and nothing happens. So I pushed through an amendment to the Planning and Building Law that allows promotion of tourism ventures of this type in an abbreviated procedure in the National Infrastructure Committee. Objections can still be filed, but the process is faster."

Could the cable car in Jerusalem have other aims beyond a transportation solution and promoting tourism?

"In Jerusalem, it's a combination of the tourist dimension, with an emphasis on the night-time experience. The cable car will create an enormous change in the Old City basin - it will rejuvenate all the businesses and restaurants. I won't be surprised if we see the Old City market opening at very late hours as a result of this. In addition, it has a significant transportation advantage. Some say that it connects the different parts of Jerusalem, and that's something we would never oppose."

Haifa: From the Check Post to the Technion

The Haifa cable car, construction of which has already begun, is designed to connect the transport hub in Lev Hamifratz with the Technion and the University of Haifa. According to earlier reports, 70 gondolas will run on the cable, each of which can seat eight passengers. The cable car is slated to serve 5,000-12,000 passengers daily. The target launch date is 2020. The Ministry of Transport is funding the project.

Haifa city engineer architect Ariel Waterman is familiar with the criticism of the cable car to the Technion, but dismisses it out of hand. He believes that the cable car solution is excellent for a city like Haifa. He doesn't understand why it wasn't thought of earlier, and he also intends to promote a Skytrain from the southern transport hub at Hof Hacarmel to the Matam high tech park area.

"You have to think out of the box and look for any way to get people out of their private cars, which is the most inefficient thing, and into public transportation. You have to try to promote anything possible in order to create good service. In a hilly city like Haifa, cable cars are very relevant, because the mountain is hundreds of meters above the plain. It's not science fiction; cable cars exist in cities like Haifa - there's nothing experimental about it. It's an excellent and accessible service. It doesn't require using up more land. What's bad about it? It's all good."

Critics of the cable car plan, however, say that it's expensive, has few stations, that its effectiveness in shortening travel times is not guaranteed, and that it will drive people out of Haifa.

Waterman rejects these claims, saying, "First of all, we did a great deal of preparation for new stations in places we expect future development. We can add gondolas according to capacity, a it grows over time. It's very flexible from this standpoint. As for transfers, no public transportation brings you to your door. It's all a question of transfers - of networking. Lev Mifratz is the biggest hub in the north for all modes of transport. From there, you can reach the destinations in greatest demand. I don't understand how people can fail to see how positive this is."

Upper Nazareth: From Mount Yona to Mount Tabor

A few weeks ago, a plan was presented for building a cable car connecting Upper Nazareth with Mount Tabor. Upper Nazareth municipalilty spokesperson Orna Yosef clarifies the logic behind the initiative: "Upper Nazareth doesn't gain a cent from the tourists coming to Old Nazareth and the surrounding area. Nazareth is terribly crowded but tourists have no reason to come up to us. They go straight to Capernaum, Tiberias, Yardenit, and travel to Jerusalem. We also want to get something from tourism; the potential is terrific. There's a direct line between Mount Yona near Upper Nazareth to Mount Tabor. There's a wadi in the middle. It exists."

"Globes": How did it all begin?

Yosef: "Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin visited us a year ago. The mayor took him to the mountaintop and told him, 'If you let me, I'll assemble a coalition of the Lower Galilee Regional Council and the village of Shibli at the foot of Mount Tabor to promote it.' He loved the idea and brought it to the cabinet. They allocated NIS 1 million for initial planning, and it has just been completed."

What will Upper Nazareth get from the cable car?

"We've learned that if people come to the town, they don't come just for the cable car. They also buy fuel, go to the shopping centers, go to the supermarket, and are exposed to the town. There also a desire here to build a hotel and there's planning for nature tourism. There are stunning vistas here."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on September 20, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

Impression of Haifa University cable car station  image: Yefe Nof
Impression of Haifa University cable car station image: Yefe Nof
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