Israelis Are Out of Work or Working From Home. You Wouldn't Know It From the Traffic

Experts say they aren’t surprised: Many people end up using their cars 
for other purposes and/or fear using crowded public transportation

Osnat Nir
Osnat Nir
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Traffic on Menachem Begin Road in Tel Aviv, December 3, 2019
Traffic on Menachem Begin Road in Tel Aviv, December 3, 2019Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Osnat Nir
Osnat Nir

When the coronavirus struck last spring and many workers began working from home, or in many cases not working at all after being put on unpaid leave, the government was expecting a big drop in road traffic.

It didn’t happen. Road congestion disappeared during the first lockdown, but since then it has returned close to pre-pandemic levels, even though work-at-home is still quite common and in the first half of October more than 20 percent of the labor force was not working.

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Transportation experts say they aren’t surprised. Work-at-home isn’t a traffic cure-all. If Israel wants to get serious about ending congestion, it has to provide a comprehensive solution for commuters.

“During the pandemic, we implemented only one remote-working model – work from home under less-than-ideal conditions from the point of view of noise, with constant distractions because children were at home, and an overtaxed internet and the absence of any social component,” said Dr. Adi Levi, co-author of the 2019 report on telecommuting.

Transportation experts estimate that about two-thirds of all daily traveling goes to and from work. On that basis last February, before the pandemic reached Israel, the government began working on plans to encourage work-at-home. It was part of a basket of solutions to alleviate the country’s chronic traffic problems.

The idea, formulated by a team from the Civil Service Commission, the Prime Minister’s Office and the treasury, was to begin a pilot program involving employees at five ministries. Meanwhile the government highway company Netivei Ayalon was working on its own plan to encourage working at home.

Encouraging people to work at home would have a beneficial impact not only on Israel’s clogged roads. It would contribute to better air quality and save the economy 35 billion shekels ($10.4 billion), according to a 2019 report by the government and the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Science. That cost, it predicted, could more than double by 2030.

The coronavirus caused large numbers of Israelis to end their daily commuting, but in recent weeks traffic on Israeli roads has been steadily increasing.

As of last week, traffic on the Ayalon Highway, the main Tel Aviv artery, was up to 80 percent its pre-coronavirus levels. Waze, the navigation app unit of Google, traffic in the greater Tel Aviv area was only eight to 16 percent lower than before the pandemic.

Levi, the society’s scientific director and co-author of the report, said its conclusions about the efficacy of work at home are not wrong.

“The ideal conditions under which people can work at home involves letting them work part of the week at home and the remainder at the office, in line with the nature of the work and the worker,” Levi said, adding that no transportation alternatives to car commuting were arranged.

As he sees it, work-at-home won’t solve traffic problems so long as there isn’t efficient public transportation and ways for people to walk and bicycle to their jobs (and in the case of the latter, showers available at work).

Without a comprehensive package of solutions, remote work won’t solve Tel Aviv’s traffic jams. “Working at home isn’t a panacea that can solve everything by itself,” he said.

In any case, Levi said, the problem now is that people are shunning public transportation out of fear of catching the virus. They are using their cars even when a bus or train alternative exists. “The situation right now doesn’t reflect ordinary reality. In addition to the fear of being in an enclosed and crowded space, during the lockdowns train and bus service was reduced a lot,” he added.

Levi said that if the government is serious about trying to get people to use public transportation again, it must increase service to mitigate crowding. But that hasn’t happened.

Binyamina train station reopening after the first coronavirus lockdown, 22 June, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Since the end of the second lockdown last month, bus and train schedules have almost returned to normal, but usage has fallen. The Transportation Ministry says some 700,000 daily trips are now being made on public transportation, up from 400,000 during the last lockdown. But that is way down from the 3 million before the coronavirus.

Research published by Ariel University, led by Prof. Sigal Kaplan of Hebrew University, last August found that there has been a 50 percent drop in the number of people using public transportation often or fairly often, compared with ordinary times.

Levi said it wasn’t just commuting that was increasing crowding on Israeli roads. Because more people are working at home, the family car is home, too, which means people use it for errands during the day, instead of after work.

Prof. Erel Avineri, an expert on travel behavior at the Afeka Center for Transportation, Infrastructure and Logistics, has research to back that conclusion. A transportation policy that relies on remote work to reduce traffic will run into resistance from people.

“People need to move around, whether it’s for business, recreation or work. It’s a social and maybe even biological need,” he said. “Research shows that people need to be on the move on average a little more than an hour a day. If they’re not traveling to work, then it will be for other needs.”

More telecommuting will encourage people to live in outlying areas where there’s little or no public transportation or services at a walking distance. That means they’ll use their cars more, moving the traffic problem from one place to another, warned Avineri.

Prof. Yoram Shiftan, a travel behavior expert at the Technion, said his research found that more Israelis had started working from home over the last decade, although not much more – an increase to percent from 2.5 percent. As to whether the coronavirus will boost the share by much, he said opinions were divided. But research has shown that even if it does, Israelis will still drive as much, sometimes even more.

The benefit of working at home is that the driving is more spread out over the course of the day rather than concentrated in commuting hours.

A survey conducted during Israel’s first lockdown, questioning 2,100 people in metropolitan Tel Aviv who were working at home, showed they had reduced their daily traveling by five to eight percent. Even if 50 percent of all workers and 30 percent of all students transitioned to working or learning at home, the amount of traveling wouldn’t fall by more than five percent.

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