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Two weeks ago, the Central Bureau of Statistics published the data for vehicular travel in Israel in 2003. As in previous years, last year saw a rise in the density of road traffic. The rate of increase in the number of kilometers traveled each year and the number of vehicles on the roads continues to far outpace the growth in the length and area of the roads.

A few days before the statistics appeared, the government decided that Netivei Ayalon, the company that manages the Ayalon Freeway that cuts through Tel Aviv, would continue its activity. The decision noted that one of Netivei Ayalon's central tasks will be to extend the freeway (Highway 20) northward as far as the Hadera region. It will thus become the fourth north-south highway passing through the center of Israel.

Some people will undoubtedly view this decision as a proper response to the distress of Israeli drivers who must cope with endless traffic jams. This is on condition that they accept the vision of an Israel covered with convenient roads that will slice up the landscape and cause more accidents, noise and air pollution. This is the vision of "asphalt Zionism," a term coined by Dr. Eli Richter, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, an expert on environmental health. The planned road grid includes the building of several lateral (east-west) roads, as well, which will connect the Trans-Israel Highway with roads lying to its west. An extensive road network will also connect the Judean Hills region around Jerusalem.

The convenience that these roads will provide for drivers will be short-lived. A road that resolves a problem immediately after its completion will be filled up within a few years. At the same time, we see the development of what traffic experts describe as a vicious circle in which roads heighten suburbanization processes, which in turn increases the number of journeys made in private vehicles, which then intensifies the demand for more roads.

However, there is an equally cogent argument against the dominance of asphalt, which is that the residents of Israel owe themselves and future generations a country that is more than a reaction to the rising graph of kilometers traveled. True, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz recently advised Israelis to go abroad if they want to see parks, but it's precisely in the region where most Israelis live, between Hadera and Gedera, that they deserve parks and other open spaces. Even the Israeli government has reached this conclusion, having decided that the Sharon District park will be established between Nahal Alexander and Hadera, a park that will be the major green belt of the residents of the center of the country.

However, that park will be sliced by Highway 20, which will traverse it lengthwise, and by another planned road that will cross it widthwise. The same pattern will be repeated in the Nahal Poleg Basin, an area that is a paradise for family recreation in nature, walking and cycling. There, too, Highway 20 will connect with a lateral road. The development pressures in the area will mount, and the erosion of the open area will bring about its loss as an open green buffer that separates different urban zones, a goal that was designated for it in a number of master plans.

Transportation planners and Finance Ministry officials customarily maintain that there is justification for developing the road infrastructure in Israel, as it is lagging far behind the standard in Western countries. This, however, is a completely unfounded argument, because those countries have far larger reserves of open areas than Israel does, and therefore the effect of the roads is different.

Still, while we are on the subject of Europe, it has to be noted that countries there have been trying in recent years to sever the connection between economic growth and environmental damage, so that growth will not come at the expense of environmental resources. Europe, too, is very worried about the siege that roads impose on open areas and about the fact that the demand for vehicular travel continues to increase.

Some countries are examining, or already implementing, different means to reduce the demand for travel in private vehicles and to plan construction such that it will make possible efficient public transportation. Israel is lagging further behind in these areas than in the development of road infrastructure. The use of these means will be far more complicated if the trend of suburbanization, nourished by new roads, continues. In fact, already now it can be stated with confidence that forgoing the extension of Highway 20 is one of the last moves that can slow down the spreading suburbanization between Tel Aviv and Hadera.