Driving to Work in Tel Aviv at Seven Miles per Hour: The Numbers Behind Israel's Traffic Woes

Car use has leapt 50% in a decade, Israeli roads are by far the most congested in the OECD – and it’s just going to get worse.

Vasona Networks's products help mobile operators cope with 'data rush hours' on their networks and prevent pileups. The photograph shows gridlock at a highway intersection in Israel.
A typical traffic jam in gridlocked Tel Aviv. Dim Schliefman

Seven miles an hour (11 kilometers an hour). That’s the average speed at the entrances to Tel Aviv on weekday mornings and when leaving the city in the afternoon rush hour. Don’t blame the works on the Tel Aviv light rail (“Carmageddon”). The problem is that more than half a million cars are driven into the city each day.

More than half the jobs in all of Israel are in metropolitan Tel Aviv, where more than 6 million journeys are taken each day, of which 80% are by car.

Each day, 700,000 cars take the Ayalon Highway (aka Route 20) that cuts through Greater Tel Aviv. That’s an increase of 55% in Ayalon traffic since 2000, and most of the cars, of course, take the highway at rush hour, resulting in a painful crawl to and from work.

Statistically, the Ayalon Highway seems to have roughly maximized its capacity, though in fact traffic today is down from a peak of 745,000 cars a day in 2008, the year the navigation app Waze was launched. Possibly, since Waze warns of traffic congestion ahead and suggests alternatives, it played a role in slightly decompressing the Ayalon Highway, which is just as well because there is absolutely nowhere for the roads and highways of central Tel Aviv to expand any more. Many kilometers of road have been paved in recent years, which has done nothing to reduce congestion because of the growing number of cars.

Israelis travel 55 billion kilometers a year, an increase of 28% in a decade, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, from 43 billion kilometers in 2006. If we deduct public transport, trucks and motorcycles, the figure is even more horrifying: Car use increased about 50%, from 27 billion km a year to more than 40 billion today.

Meanwhile, 1,555 km of new roads were paved in the last decade, leading Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to boast not a little about his “infrastructure revolution.” Dr. Moshe Givoni, head of the Transport Research Unit at Tel Aviv University, shrugs that more and more roads get built because people figure that will resolve the congestion – but by now, we know it won’t because when there’s a void, it gets filled: People just buy more cars. Nor does parking get less stressful. It’s patently obvious, Givoni repeats the patently obvious, that the Greater Tel Aviv area needs better transportation.

Every year about a quarter-million new cars join Israel’s roads, for all that the total population is just over 8 million. Only half that number gets junked each year. Car sales break records year after year. The result is that the number of cars per capita in Israel keeps climbing, although it is still lower than Western norms. Right now there are about three million cars on the road, a little more than 300 per 1,000 residents (Europe and the United States have about 600 cars per 1,000 residents). In Europe, though, only 40% of journeys are done by car and the rest by public transport or shank’s mare, says Prof. David Mahalel of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

According to the OECD, Israel’s roads are four times more crowded per kilometer than any other organization member – four times the average, in fact. Specifically, traffic per kilometer is three times the average in the Netherlands and Switzerland, and six times the average in Norway and the Czech Republic. It’s all the fault of poor public transport in Israel, the OECD says; the train system is very limited, the only inner-city tram system is in Jerusalem, and trains and buses are costly and don’t necessarily go where one needs.

There is good reason why cars became the dominant form of travel in Israel, and only 10% of travel is done by public transport. In the OECD, the average is 35%. In the OECD cities, the average rises beyond 50%, while in Tel Aviv, only 18% of travel is by public transport.

Indeed, public transport finds it difficult to compete with the car in Israel: It’s too infrequent, lines are poorly planned, connectivity between trains and buses is problematic, and mainly absent designated lanes, the buses tend to get stuck in traffic like everybody else. In Israel, buses average 16 kilometers per hour, compared with 25 kph elsewhere in the world.

The damage it does

It isn’t only you stuck in traffic – it’s the Israeli economy. Aside from the annoyance of the daily crawl, the damage to GDP is estimated at 25 billion shekels a year (nearly $7 billion), says the Finance Ministry. This figure, which includes lost hours of work, pollution and the car’s depreciation, is projected to reach 40 billion shekels in 2030.

The Finance Ministry projection assumes that the rate of road building in Israel is 2.5% a year, while the number of cars increases by 3.5% a year. In 15 years, we will all be spending another 60 minutes A DAY stuck in traffic jams.

So far the Finance Ministry. Givoni isn’t moved: At some point people change habits, he says. They’ll find other ways to get about. Anyway, the Finance Ministry is calculating hours of lost work wrongly, he argues, because nowadays people make their working calls from the car.

How efficient is Israeli public transport? In 2015 the Transportation Ministry resumed inspecting the quality of service, after a two-year hiatus. Factoring in tardiness (six minutes or more), failure to show up, failure to stop at all stations, technical problems with buses, and so on, the ministry found that the worst service is provided by Dan (which serves the Tel Aviv metropolitan area), followed by GB Tours, a tiny company operating out of Nazareth.

Another statistic indicative of service quality by the various bus companies is the fines they get hit with (by the Transportation Ministry) for egregious deviation from schedules. It bears noting that small private bus companies suffer more than Egged and Dan, the two giant companies that have some leeway. Eshkol, a small company that won a tender last year to provide general-public service in Petah Tikva, Ashdod and Yavneh, was fined 719,000 shekels for 2015, the most of any company. Egged Ta’avura was fined 558,000 for tardiness in Netanyahu, Ashdod and greater Jerusalem; the mother company Egged was fined 438,000. Dan is the worst service provider, by Transportation Ministry criteria, but was fined just 195,000 last year.

Call that a neighborhood

Abroad, families may own a car but use mainly other means of transport, such as subways, or even Uber. Mahalel suggests Israel learns from Europe about sustainable transportation, and banning cars from city centers like in London.

Seeing the problem well in advance, London for instance began to impose a congestion charge in 2003, and reduced inner-city car traffic by 30%. While promoting the charms and convenience of public transport, the city also banned the construction of new parking lots and restricted reserved parking for employees. Berlin went the road of building central parking facilities for whole neighborhoods. In Paris, if somebody needs a car, he rents a small electric one by the hour, says Mahalel.

Givoni however feels Israel’s problem begins with poor planning of new neighborhoods, which tends not to factor in transportation, he claims. “The Construction and Housing Ministry plans the neighborhoods and only then thinks about transportation, though obviously new housing creates demand.” New housing projects today are based on the assumption that families will own cars, he says – which will just reinforce the bad habits.

His solution? Stop building new roads. “Extending Highway 531 is a mistake,” argues Givoni, who also studied transportation at the University of Oxford. “It just invites the people of Kfar Saba, Ra’anana and the surroundings to use cars. It’s true that a new train line is supposed to be operating next to the highway, but it won’t have enough users.”

Then there’s the smoke and mirrors. The transportation consumers organization “15 minutes” says the government’s strategic plan to develop public transport talks about 250 billion shekels investment by 2030 – but three years since the plan was published, actual investment has been miniscule.

15 Minutes also wonders why the Transportation Ministry doesn’t comment on the difference in time it takes to drive a car rather than take public transport. “Elsewhere in the world, travel routes are based on travel times, so they make public transport attractive versus a car,” Givoni explains. “In Israel, the ministry doesn’t check the point of origin and destination of the people with cars, to create an alternative for them.”