Tel Avivians who work outside the city have almost no choice but to drive. The public transit system doesn't provide access to most job locations. Almost every discussion lately on skyrocketing gasoline prices or Israel's increasingly congested highways has somebody blasting the public's "addiction" to private transportation. But an ongoing study conducted in recent years by a group of researchers has shown something else: what appears to be an addiction is actually a complete dependence on private vehicles by anyone who needs to travel any distance to their job.

The study, focusing on metropolitan Tel Aviv, shows a huge gap in access to workplaces when comparing commuting by car and using public transportation. The problem is rooted in poor planning vis-s-vis connecting the public transportation grid to major areas of employment in the central region.

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The research group is led by Prof. Itzhak Benenson, head of the Department of Geography and Human Environment Department at Tel Aviv University, and includes Dr. Yodan Rofe of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dr. Karel Martens of the Institute for Management Research at Radboud University at Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

The group developed an accessibility index for each neighborhood in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area reflecting two elements: a comparison of the amount of time required to reach workplaces, or municipal services, by public transportation as opposed to driving by car, and the number of jobs reachable by public transportation as a percentage of all available jobs in the metropolitan area.

The findings are disturbing: During rush hour just 6% of places reachable by car can be accessed by means of a direct public transportation connection. This figure rises to 18% for destinations that can be reached by transferring from one line to another. During off-peak hours, when the frequency of bus service declines and traffic is thinner - allowing cars to travel at higher speeds - these figures drop to 4% and 12% respectively.

"At peak hours during a direct trip, public transportation users can reach, on average, 11% of the job locations accessible to private vehicle users," according to an article published by the group about a year ago. "This drops to 8% in off-peak hours. When allowing for one transfer between bus lines, this rises to 30% at rush hour and 22% during off-peak hours."

The Urban.Access application developed by the researchers is impressive. A colorful map of the area from Netanya in the north to Rishon Letzion in the south covers the computer screen. The colors highlighting the various areas indicate the degree of access via public transportation to places of employment.

Reddish-brown hues represent areas with relatively high access and signify the ability to reach close to 50% of all jobs in the region within one hour, door to door. Lighter browns and other shades indicate lower accessibility. Gray areas on the map have no public transportation access to jobs at all: Unless they work at home or within walking distance, people living there must rely completely on private vehicles to get to work.

The display is refreshed every five minutes. At 7:30 A.M. on weekdays the center of Tel Aviv appears dark brown, with increasingly lighter tones of brown toward the city's outskirts. Areas like Ramat Aviv, Kfar Shalem, Jaffa, the center of Bat Yam, and the Hatikva quarter show a subtler shade of brown. Many neighborhoods in Petah Tikva appear green - indicating low accessibility. Outlying neighborhoods of cities in the Sharon plain and the moshavim in the area appear gray - meaning they have hardly any access at all to workplaces without the use of a car.

It should be noted that the system is fed by a database provided by the bus system before the reform that went into effect several months ago. The researchers are anxious to study its effect on accessibility, but lack the budget.

"We think the new network is more efficient, and I hope we can get the budget to prove this," says Benenson. "According to calculations by PGL, the company that planned the reform, travel time by public transportation should have decreased significantly, by an average of five minutes. From our experience working with them, their calculations are quite reliable."

One reason the researchers think the reform was a step in the right direction is that it allows passengers to make scheduled transfers that actually, and even rather counter-intuitively, shorten travel time.

"One of our conclusions was that making it simpler to switch between buses is critical for achieving higher accessibility," explains Rofe. "The reform is based on the concept of bus lines as a system, so coordination between them can be achieved. Despite the public's impression that this is problematic, it has the potential to greatly improve accessibility. The previous bus system was never planned as a system per se. It developed by itself on a gradual basis as a result of demand."

But despite this bright spot, transit planners for the Tel Aviv region still have their work cut out for them. The average level of accessibility to employment centers remains as low as ever, not least because of the conceptual "fixations" in the past of the planners of the central region's industrial and high-tech zones. Gazing at the enormous parking lots characterizing these areas, it would seem that the possibility that any worker might prefer taking public transportation simply never occurred to them.

Giving up the car?

"Public transport planning often relates to the level of car ownership in a certain area," explains Benenson. "If I am planning an industrial park like in Ramat Hahayal, most of the workforce will certainly come by car so I might put in just a bus line or two. But I believe that if public transport planners could bring Ramat Hahayal to the point where mass transit could get people there as quickly as by driving, some of the high-tech people would give up using their cars."

As evidence to this, Benenson cites the results of a survey conducted among people working in the diamond exchange district of Ramat Gan. Twenty percent of respondents said they tend to arrive either by private of public transportation - depending on what is convenient for them.

"This means that if public transport were convenient enough we could significantly reduce the use of cars in the diamond exchange district by as much as 20%: That is a lot. Even a 5% to 10% reduction in the number of vehicles would actually eliminate traffic jams in the area," he says.

The efficiency and functionality of public transport also have, as everyone knows, widespread social implications. As opposed to conventional wisdom, though, its quality doesn't only affect the weaker classes, but the middle class too to a great extent. According to data for 2009 from the Central Bureau of Statistics, car-related expenses account for as much as 30% of an average family's income. The Trajtenberg report's chapter on transportation stated: "A 1% rise in the rate of public transportation usage is worth NIS 400 million a year in savings to the economy."

"Transportation has a significant effect on where we'll live, our employment opportunities, and cost of living, but for some reason there has been almost no discussion until now on the relationship between transportation and society," says transportation planner Hani Cohen-Caspi, who led the transportation team of the social protests panel of experts (Spivak-Yonah committee ).

Cohen-Caspi "When Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz came to the Rothschild Boulevard tent city, he said the solution to transportation distress would come from paving the Netivei Israel project. But what's the purpose of paving a new superhighway? Who will it serve and who will it help? In every discussion about the periphery, the need to improve access to Tel Aviv and the center is immediately mentioned. But research shows that low-income earners prefer commuting within their region. Take for instance a recently laid-off Pri Hagalil worker living in Hatzor Haglilit: Would he prefer the train to Tel Aviv or improved public transport in his vicinity - whether Tefen, Carmiel, or even the Haifa Bay area?"

Cohen-Caspi adds that the public has reason now to use private vehicles - including reasons provided by the state itself: "The tax system encourages the use of private vehicles. Among civil servants, buying a car is a major component of the pay, to the point where even employees who don't need a car buy one. And, of course, there is the increasing use of leased vehicles."

Improving the situation depends on two steps, she says. The first is adopting a taxation policy that encourages reduced vehicle use, and the second is a fundamental change in our planning habits. "In planning a new neighborhood, the mayor and members of all the committees must ask where the bus route will pass and how the residents will get to the train station. These are questions that need to be asked at the outset - otherwise it will be too late to change."

But the link between social justice and transportation planning is more complex than it seems. For instance, establishing bus routes connecting underprivileged neighborhoods with high-tech parks might seem like a step in the right direction of affirmative action, but to the average transportation planner it would seem unjustified.

"Someone planning routes to Ramat Hahayal, for example, could assume that there won't be an especially large number of people needing to travel from southeast Tel Aviv," Benenson explains. "He might assume that there is greater need for a line to Ramat Hahayal from more affluent communities. It's true this doesn't sound good in terms of social justice, but it does have some transportation planning logic. If you open a new line from Kfar Shalem it will look good and people might applaud it, but in the end no more than 100 people a day will use it so you haven't accomplished much. We must first consider the masses.

"Therefore, as a planner, my first priority is trying to get the middle class to give up its car use," concludes Benenson. "If you do this it will improve transportation for everyone. It could also indirectly make life easier on the resident of Kfar Shalem for whom traffic will flow faster - even if he still travels by car."