Israel's traffic jams are back, and worse than ever

Traffic jam on Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv  credit: Tamar Matsafi

Because of Covid-19, the public is forgoing public transport in favor of private cars. Infrastructure projects just can't catch up.

As they head west each morning on Highway 471, (commonly called Maccabit Road), Israel's drivers already know that, when planning travel time, they must take into account the dispiriting crawl through the section between the two exits west of Petah Tikva - Givat Shmuel and Bar Ilan - to Highway 4 (Geha Road). After that, to the delight of those heading south, the bottleneck usually turns into mere congestion, while the road north continues its starring role on the morning radio traffic report.

It's doubtful whether drivers will take solace in a statement released by the Ministry of the Interior a couple of weeks ago, to the effect that the National Infrastructure Committee (NIC) has approved a plan to upgrade Geha at the particularly busy section between the Gan Raveh and the Morasha interchanges. NIC promises public transport lanes that won't come at the expense of lanes for private vehicles, good connections to lateral roads, and, the cherry on top: "In the section from Ganot to Morasha, a tunnel with two lanes in each direction will be added to solve the traffic problem."

What NIC does not provide is a timetable. You don't need to be an expert to understand that the planning, approval and execution of the plan will take a decade, in the best case, not to mention the problem of finding the budget.

This is just one example of a long series of plans meant to alleviate Israel's growing traffic congestion as 100,000 new cars hit the roads each year. However, the light at the end of this tunnel is very far away.

Fewer passengers per car and problematic public transport

Felix Shakhman is Head of the Division for Data Collection, Survey & Research at government company Ayalon Highways. Ayalon is in charge of Highway 20, the busiest stretch of road in the country, with between 800,000 and one million vehicles passing through every day. If you sense that the traffic jams have gotten worse since the end of the third lockdown, know that your feelings are validated by an indicator Shakhman calls the "Fill Factor" - the professional term for the number of people in vehicles.

"If up to and before Covid-19, the Fill Factor was 1.2, that number has now declined," he states, adding that as soon as the "Fill Factor" reaches 1.7, the transportation overload problem will disappear.

"Now, after the third lockdown, highway traffic during morning and evening peak hours is more than 100% of what it was in the pre-coronavirus period. The daily average is 90% of what was normal; the decrease mainly due to activities that have not yet restarted, like going out for entertainment," he explains. He also has a concise explanation for the troubling figures.

"Because of Covid-19, use of public transport has dropped by tens of percentage points, and it's uncertain whether this will increase in the near future. In addition, the railways have had difficulties, especially at some central stations and at night, so there's been a decrease in passengers. Those same people are using private cars. True, there are workplaces where people don’t come in every day, but on the other hand, there are more people around because there are almost no Israelis abroad."

Israel Railways confirms that current occupancy is about 55% of the pre-Covid-19 period, although it should be noted that, according to the Ministry of Health's directives, occupancy is limited to 75% of seats. Waze data also shows an increase in roadway traffic in major cities, compared with the pre-Covid-19 period.

Projects advancing but not enough

Many may ask whether the government could have promoted projects more decisively during the Covid-19 period, when transportation infrastructure usage dropped significantly. "Israel may be one of the first to emerge from the coronavirus crisis, but when it comes to traffic jams and transportation solutions, Israel lags far behind. Israel is halfheartedly promoting a number of public transportation infrastructure projects, but none has reached the finish line or made significant prgress during the coronavirus period," claims Yossi Saidov, co-founder of public transportation consumer advocacy alliance 15 Minutes and Our Sidewalks for the promotion of transport and urbanism in Israel.

"Electrification of the railways finally reached Herzliya after years of delay, but is causing train cancellations around the country at night and on weekends," Saidov says. "The same is true for the fourth Ayalon railway track project, which is expected to dramatically increase the frequency of trains across Israel but is due for completion only in four years - if they stay on schedule.

"There was no progress in the Mahir La’ir ("fast to the city") project, which is supposed to network the Gush Dan region with kilometers of public transportation routes and provide a fast alternative to sitting in traffic jams. There was no progress in the long distance public transport routes - aside from two or three specific projects. Israel didn't take advantage of three lockdowns when the roads were empty." Saidov explains that the problem lies with the Ministry of Transport, which focuses on high-level matters, and is unable to dive down to the municipal level.

In response to Saidov's remarks, a number of government companies claim they did promote projects during Covid-19. National transport infrastructure company Netivei Israel, which is responsible for 98% of the interurban roads, explains the accelerated plans. "Over the past year we fast-tracked projects because of to two events. First, sparse traffic during the closures allowed us to pick up the pace of work on active roads, without creating a public nuisance. Secondly, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Finance injected a half-billion shekels towards reinforcing the transport infrastructure as a to provide a boost to employment, the economy and society."

Highway operator Netivei Ayalon (Ayalon Highways) says it took advantage of the Covid-19 period to accelerate projects. Work on sections of the Ayalon fast lane project, which includes adding public transport lanes (for buses, shuttles and carpools) was, they state, significantly shortened.

Israel Railways and NTA, which are responsible for the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area light rail and Metro systems, also report an acceleration in their infrastructure projects although it does not look as though NTA's launch deadline of October 2022 will be brought forward.

Real solutions are long-term

So, how to bridge the gap between public perception and the data showing record traffic congestion on the one hand, and reported project acceleration on the other? The answer lies in the fact that there are no magic solutions to major infrastructure problems.

"If all Ayalon lanes were closed for 24 hours for six days, work on the highway project would be completed quickly, but that's impossible on a road where a million vehicles pass every day. So most of the work is done between 10pm and 5am, in certain sections, because we have to maintain routine traffic and minimize damage. So, within these limits we're progressing as fast as possible, but it takes time," explains Levin, who mentions that the project will become operational at the end of 2024, and is expected to be fully opened in the summer of 2025.

A few other major projects are also planned to begin operating in just a few years. The largest transport and infrastructure project in Israel - the Tel Aviv Metro - according to the rosiest of forecasts, is not expected to begin operating before 2030. The light rail lines in Gush Dan (green and purple) will not be operational before 2026. The eastern train project connecting Hadera to Lod, running parallel to Highway 6, is expected to be completed at the end of 2025. The project to add a fourth Ayalon railway line will be completed at the end of 2026.

One project whose end is in sight, after the date has been repeatedly postponed for about a decade - is the light rail Red Line that will connect Petah Tikva and Bat Yam.

"In a country where over 100,000 cars are added to the roads every year, all these projects won't completely stop traffic jams, but they will help greatly. I expect the change to begin in 2025," Levin says.

The Ministry of Transport stated: "The recent unusual traffic congestion on the country's roads commenced with the start of the Passover holiday, due in part to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Israelis, who usually fly abroad during the Passover holiday, spent their holidays in Israel due to the limitations of Covid-19 worldwide. These Israelis vacationed in tourist centers and nature reserves around the country, which caused exceptional traffic overloads, compared to previous years.

"Another reason for the unusual traffic congestion after the Passover holiday is the return of hundreds of thousands of people to the workplace, after about a year of working from home. Although restrictions were lifted in most sectors, public transport is still limited to only 75% occupancy, because of the Ministry of Health's social distancing directives for public transport.

"Therefore, due to the coronavirus and the many restrictions that have been in place in the past year, some of which are still in effect, many employees prefer to travel by private car, and are still refraining from using public or shared transport. These factors increased the number of private vehicles traveling on the roads and created exceptional, unparalleled traffic loads.

"The ministry promotes many projects that encourage the use of public and shared transport, with an emphasis on the implementation of smart technologies, the establishment of safe and advanced transport infrastructure and the improvement of public transport services that will allow the residents of the State of Israel a genuine and appropriate alternative to private vehicles. "

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 22, 2021

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Traffic jam on Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv  credit: Tamar Matsafi
Traffic jam on Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv credit: Tamar Matsafi
Twitter Facebook Linkedin RSS Newsletters גלובס Israel Business Conference 2018