Among the environmental crises to confront Israel in the coming years, the transportation crisis might be the worst. At a recent conference held by the NGO Transportation Today and Tomorrow, the Transportation Ministry presented data that reflect the country's urgent need for efficient mass transit.
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The message is deeply disturbing. Traffic is expected to worsen significantly, to the point of a “general failure of the highway network feeding into the [Tel Aviv] metropolitan area at peak morning hours.”
According to Yehuda Elbaz, deputy head of the Transportation Ministry, twice as many highway stretches in the Tel Aviv area will experience heavy traffic within two decades. By 2030 every car driver will have to spend an additional hour a day on the road. The cost to the economy will be NIS 25 billion a year.
The condition of the Tel Aviv area's public transportation infrastructure reflects the degree Israel lags behind other countries. In Prague, for example, for every 1,000 people, 200 meters of road are allocated to lanes reserved for public transportation; in Zurich it's 350 meters and in the Tel Aviv area only 14 meters.
The result: the average speed of public transportation vehicles in Israel, not including intercity trains, is 16 kph, compared with more than 30 kph in major cities around the world. The number of public transportation rides in the Tel Aviv area is 133 per person annually, compared with more than 300 in cities such as Rome, Munich and Amsterdam.
And the situation in other parts of the country is no better. For example, many Arab towns suffer from a severe lack of public transportation. The result is total dependence on highly polluting cars, which create severe congestion, and these towns already suffer from serious infrastructure problems. According to a study by the NGO Sikui, the number of public transportation rides per capita in Jewish towns and cities is more than three times the number in Arab communities.
The Transportation Ministry thus has ambitious goals for the next two decades, including raising the number of kilometers allocated to public transportation per 1,000 residents to 100. This would require more than NIS 200 billion in transportation projects over the next two decades.
There is still a long way to go. The authorities are investing in plans such as the Be’er Sheva-Eilat railway line, but they are very slow in making progress on the Tel Aviv area's light rail system.
Investments in the bus fleet could get more Israelis using public transportation. Last week, the Holon Institute of Technology held a conference on buses that use electricity or natural gas, so Israel's buses might be much quieter and cleaner in the future. Some cities around the world use buses that run on natural gas. In Israel the government is promoting natural gas for transportation, and the Dan and Egged bus companies are due to test electric buses this year.
But cleaner and quieter buses are not enough to decrease pollution; the number of lanes reserved for public transportation must be increased. Also, buses should no longer depend on central stations; they should begin at one of a series of terminals near train stations.
In the past two years, the Transportation Ministry and local councils have been promoting plans to create lines for large-capacity buses, running on special lanes. This service would connect the Ra’anana- Kfar Sava area with Tel Aviv, and the Tel Aviv area with Rishon Letzion, Nes Tziona and Rehovot.
There are similar plans for other areas, though progress has been slow. Elbaz's grim forecast reflects the need to create special lanes for buses. The success of the express lane to Tel Aviv, which includes free shuttle rides, has proved the high demand for such lines, one solution for the highway traffic expected to plague Israel.
This year long buses in a special lane will begin operating in Haifa. Industry experts will be closely monitoring this project.