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A quarter of a million new cars have taken to Israel's roads over the past 15 months, an increase of dozens of percentage points in car purchases, which has been a cause for celebration for car importers but a cause for concern to the Transport Ministry, which has become used to solving most of the overcrowding of Israel's roads by building new ones.

At a conference hosted this month by an association that promotes sustainable transportation, Transport Today and Tomorrow, a senior Transport Ministry official warned that Israel will not be able to withstand the increasing overload. The ministry's chief scientist, Dr. Yossi Prashker, told the audience that the problem was not the number of cars, but the extensive use of them.

Increased pressure on Israel's road system not only causes health hazards through air and noise pollution, it also means a decline in the gross national product by a few percentage points due to work time lost in travel.

In a country that consists mainly of one long, narrow metropolis, public transport could be the most efficient solution to cut trips by private cars. But until recently, Israel's governments have invested mainly in roads or interurban trains, only a partial solution. Subways and electric buses have still not come into use. In the last decade alone, the percentage of kilometers per traveler on public transportation compared with private has declined from 25 to 20 percent.

The statements made at the recent conference suggest senior ministry officials have undergone a real revolution in their approach to public transportation. Director-General Gideon Sitterman said that for years the ministry had been controlled by those who supported more and more asphalt, but now it was transferring funding from roads to public-transport projects. When asked how this trend jibed with the National Roads Company's plan to pave additional highways, he answered that the National Roads Company, like other government companies, had become confused about the definition of its function, and needed clarification that the Transport Ministry was the one to set policy.

Meanwhile, beyond impressive declarations, the Transport Ministry and the host of bodies connected to it are having trouble developing integrated mass-transport systems (a light rail efficiently linked to the network of bus lines) or introducing ways of reducing the use of private cars, among them a congestion charge on vehicles at the entrances to Tel Aviv. They have not so far made changes to any project to enlarge the interurban road system, which attracts more private car travel.

An essential condition for promoting public transport is close cooperation with the local authorities and even delegating powers to them. Another condition is subsidizing public transport, a measure that has been recommended by the Bank of Israel, which usually supports a market economy devoid of government intervention.

The Bank of Israel's latest annual report observed that in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, it is accepted practice to grant larger subsidies to mass transport in metropolitan areas. The amount of subsidization in Israel is less than 30 percent of that in these other countries.

The Bank of Israel recommends increasing support for mass transport by subsidizing ticket costs or increasing the frequency of buses on the lines. It also recommends stopping subsidies of private vehicles, for example, by ceasing to pay for car use as a salary perk.

Israel is becoming increasingly sliced in two by the north-south Highway 6 and the roads that cross it. As this network expands, initiatives increase to build new neighborhoods and expand communities based on their proximity to this network. These new areas are mainly single-family dwellings that can be reached only by private vehicle.

Imposing serious limitations on the construction of single-family homes, which is the official policy of the planning bodies, must also become its actual policy. Without such a policy, increased use of private cars will turn Israel into a series of traffic jams - and will steal what little open space we have left.