The early morning radio traffic reports give the impression that most of the country's gridlock is concentrated on intercity expressways like the Ayalon and Geha highways. But when they get into their cars and start the trek to work, Israeli drivers quickly discover that most of their time is actually spent getting out of the city.
During morning rush hour the major urban arteries with traffic lights have become clogged bottlenecks. In many cases just making it out of the city where you live plus entering the city where you work takes longer than the time spent on the highway. What is worse is that there's little if nothing that can be done to relieve the congestion. While highways can be widened and intersections with traffic lights can be replaced by cloverleaf interchanges, not much can be done about city roads.
Information on traffic congestion was gathered in June by Decell Technologies, which analyzes traffic patterns by monitoring the movement of cellphones and GPS devices. All of Israel's major urban roads were surveyed with the aim of identifying the arteries with the highest traffic volumes and worst daily congestion, says Decell CEO Jonathan Silverberg.
The data shows, for example, that in Tel Aviv drivers spend 16 minutes at peak hours crawling along Hashalom Road from Yitzhak Rabin Road on the Givatayim border to the Hashalom interchange, as opposed to two minutes when the road is clear. In Ramat Gan drivers will also be stuck for 16 minutes on Aluf Sadeh Street, a distance that otherwise takes two minutes to traverse. And on the cross-town section of Highway 531 in Hod Hasharon cars sit in traffic for no less than 23 minutes, another stretch covered in two minutes during other times of the day.
Is this truly a fate that can't be changed? Experts say only two things can be done to improve the situation: Reduce the number of cars in the city and adjust the existing urban infrastructures.
'Invest in bike paths'
Gideon Hashimshony, who once headed the Israel Institute of Transportation Planning and Research, believes the answer lies in the first option. "The only thing that can be done is to take cars off the road, and this can only be done by means of public transportation," he says. "The talk about light rails in Tel Aviv started eons ago and everything is progressing too slowly. When public transportation improves it won’t be necessary to enter the city by car."
Hashimshony says park & ride parking lots can be built like the one at the Shapirim interchange where the fast lane on Highway 1 begins, making sure that they're served by well integrated public transportation networks.
Daniel Rozenberg, engineering and infrastructure division manager at the Aviv AMCG consulting firm, claims there are solutions apart from public transportation. "Public transportation is obviously the best solution, but investment should also be made in alternative transportation like bicycle paths," he says. "Public and bicycle transportation need to be high on municipalities' priority list. Everyone likes to talk about public transportation but they're afraid to interfere with private vehicles. The Transportation Ministry also needs to help and put in money."
A public transportation revolution, however, will take years. It will be necessary to educate the public and invest over the long haul in supplementary infrastructure. Yeshayahu Ronen, a consultant to the Transportation Ministry, suggests making better use of existing infrastructure, placing more emphasis on efficiency and less on physical expansion.
"Take parking, for example," he says. "Municipalities love curbside parking because there it's being paid for and they can issue parking fines, but often it comes at the expense of traffic lanes. Another thing is intersections where traffic lights can be more efficient. For instance, there can be green light corridors where cars travel uninterrupted through several intersections without stopping and don't need to brake every 100 meters. Tel Aviv's traffic light control center is the only thing preventing transportation in the city from complete collapse."
But Tel Aviv's traffic light control is limited to the city's territory. Traffic lights on Kaplan Street, for example, cannot be synchronized with those further along in Ramat Gan where it becomes Hashalom Road. "Here you're getting into politics," says Ronen. "For some reason it's not possible to create a green light corridor, for instance, from Tel Aviv to Givatayim. Metropolitan traffic control centers are needed for centralized traffic management. Imagine what will happen when there's a light rail which, after all, must have a green light corridor."
Ronen says changes can be made that don’t require much investment. "A one-way street eases traffic patterns, and forbidding turns might inconvenience several drivers but help many more," he says. "Roundabouts are a good solution for places with relatively light traffic, and in any case there's no need to put a traffic light at every intersection. Sometimes it's better to make a small turn and not drive straight ahead in order to ease congestion."
Ronen also recommends widening city arteries by limiting the number of parking places. "Although parking lots can be easily created, the problem is providing the lanes feeding those parking lots, so it's self-defeating: You offer loads of parking but jam all the surrounding roads," he warns. "Therefore only by reducing parking can public transportation be encouraged."
Awaiting mass transit
The worst traffic jams in Tel Aviv are at Hashalom interchange (a 14-minute delay during rush hour), Dizengoff Street (11 minutes) and Balfour Street (11 minutes).
"You need to take into account that more than 400,000 people work in Tel Aviv, including two-thirds who aren’t city residents," says Moshe Tiomkin, head of the city's transportation department. "Five days a week traffic flows inward and this causes congestion. The city still doesn’t have a mass transit system."
Jerusalem still suffers a large number of traffic jams despite the mass transit line operating there. The city's heaviest traffic is on Golda Meir Boulevard, but Haim Bar-Lev Boulevard, HaRav Herzog Boulevard and Sultan Suleiman Road are also gridlocked daily.
Nadav Meroz, manager of Jerusalem's master transportation plan, promises that improvement is on the way. "We are building a hybrid system," he says. "A public transportation plan is underway along with a road plan. According to the plans, a beltway will be completed surrounding the city and public transportation will be emphasized in the city center, with the understanding that the possibility of expanding within the city is limited. Ten percent of light rail passengers switched from cars to public transportation, and the more service is improved and more lines are added, the number of passengers will increase. We'll encourage the switch, for example, by means of park & ride parking lots. A person living in Mevasseret Zion will be able to park on Mount Herzl and continue by rail without paying and without entering the city by car."
In Haifa, the opening of the Carmel Tunnels and the Krayot bypass road, along with the Metronit rapid transit system, still haven't helped reduce traffic jams at the city's northern entrance. Congestion on HaHistadrut Boulevard and Highway 22 cost drivers 14 to 18 minutes each morning.