Israel is paying a stiff price for not addressing the economic threat posed by the country's gridlocked roads 10 years ago: The Finance Ministry says the Israeli economy loses NIS 20 billion a year as a result of traffic jams.
Only 18% of that damage is attributable to gridlock in the immediate Tel Aviv area. The greatest loss, 27% of the national total, comes from the Sharon area north of the city. Another 23% is the result of heavy traffic in the southern Tel Aviv suburbs of Holon, Bat Yam and Rishon Letzion.
Traffic entering Haifa accounts for 10% of the national cost of bumper-to-bumper commuting, while the Jerusalem area accounts for 7%. In another four years, various estimates say, the Israeli motorist on his way to work in Tel Aviv from the south will move at an average speed of just seven kilometers an hour.
Two months ago, Transportation Ministry officials received a study that shed light on the situation. It showed that use of public transportation by commuters to and from work declined by 20% between 1995 and 2008, while use of private cars increased by 15%. Just in case this left any doubt about the seriousness of the issue, in 2007, a United Nations study found that Israel had the most crowded roads of all the Western countries studied.
Of the 2.5 million motor vehicles on Israeli roads, the vast majority, 79%, are passenger cars. The 49,000 buses and cabs account for only 2% of the country's vehicles.
The number of vehicles per population, 326 per thousand residents, is relatively low compared to 400 to 600 per thousand in Western Europe and 800 per thousand in the United States (where there is nearly one car for every resident ). But there has been a steady growth in the number of vehicles on Israeli roads, of roughly 3% a year over the last decade.
Rush hour blues
Anyone who wants to get a feel for the growing volume of traffic in the country need only drive into one of the country's three largest cities in the morning.
A study of how the situation on the roads changed between 2004 and 2008 found the number of passenger cars inching their way into Tel Aviv on a daily basis rose by 18% during that period, while the number of buses coming into town declined by 4%.
For residents of the north, the Checkpost intersection at the northern entrance to Haifa has become a major headache in the morning. But that situation will be alleviated with the opening in another month of the Carmel traffic tunnels.
In Jerusalem, however, there is as yet no light at the end of the tunnel. The number of passenger cars entering the city on a daily basis has increased by 16% in just three years. And a joint task force sponsored by the municipality and the Transportation Ministry is projecting a 46% rise in traffic volume in the city between 2015 and 2030.
The main reason for the high level of morning traffic is found in a report about how the public gets to work that was published two months ago by the Matat traffic planning firm. That was the study that found a sharp rise in commuting by car between 1995 and 2008 and a concurrent decline in the number of commuter buses. The Haifa area took the lead in this trend.
The current state of affairs is not just a product of a rise in the number of cars, but also of what might be called insufficient supply: The network of roads and railroad lines is not being expanded quickly enough, and other public transportation projects are also moving forward too slowly. Supply in this sense has increased, but not at a pace comparable to demand.
Travel growing faster than road development
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, since 1990, while mileage traveled on the country's roads rose by 161% and the number of cars grew by 131%, the area devoted to roads grew by only 74% and the number of kilometers of highway by just 42%. Contrary to the contention of environmentalists, the area devoted to roads in Israel is not large when compared to the country's physical size and its population.
The increased demand on the country's roads also clearly stems from Israel's unusually high population growth as compared to other Western countries, in addition to economic growth that has resulted in an increased standard of living. This, however, is just one aspect of the picture. The other side of the story is government inaction in taking steps to restrain this increased demand. In fact, the state has encouraged the increase.
Granted, purchase tax on cars in Israel is among the highest in the West, but the state still encourages the use of cars. For instance, "car maintenance payments" given to employees are still not considered a taxable salary increase.
At the same time, the Histadrut labor federation has been resisting the government's attempts to replace these payments with an allowance covering the cost of travel by public transportation. The rise in the number of leased company cars and their increased use has also diminished the potential for encouraging use of public transportation.
And, hard as it is to believe, there is no integrated national master transportation plan.
What happens when the morning gridlock on the roads goes from being an item in the radio traffic reports to a real threat to the Israeli economy? So far, the state is losing the battle against the rising tide of Israelis taking to the roads. And while some of the grandiose infrastructure projects the state has chosen to pursue may be great for ribbon-cutting ceremonies, they will not make the necessary difference.