Jerusalem Races to Beef Up Public Transit as Its Population Balloons

Five-year-old Jerusalem Light Rail has been unexpected success, but capital has much more work ahead to deter cars.

Waiting for the light rail in Jerusalem. The tram platform is crowded to the nth degree. It's not going to get better unless Israel radically changes social policies, argues BGU professor Alon Tal.
Emil Salman

As Tel Aviv copes with the trials and tribulations of the construction of its first light rail line, Jerusalem is quietly celebrating the fifth anniversary of its system — and its unexpected success.

Jerusalem Light Rail’s Red Line carries some 140,000 passengers a day, more than planners had expected, and has helped reverse the long-term decline in public transportation use in the capital.

In 2010, just before the Red Line came into service, public transit use had dropped to just 25% of all journeys, as Jerusalemites increasingly opted for private cars. Today, the figure is 30% — down on the 40% of 20 years ago, but still a turnaround. Some 15% of light rail riders say they have forsworn their cars for the train.

But Jerusalem can’t rest on its laurels. Metropolitan Jerusalem’s population is expected to balloon to 1.8 million by 2030, up from 1.3 million in 2013. This will cause the number of vehicles on its roads to double, to 320,000 — unless residents are given a lot more public transportation.

And that’s what the city is aiming to do. Work to extend the Red Line has been delayed by contractual disputes, but plans are afoot to add two new lines and introduce dedicated lanes for express buses. Even cars are going to get some help, with new flyovers planned at the most heavily used intersections.

“Public transportation in Jerusalem has regained momentum after many years of underinvestment. The project for extending the Red Line and adding spurs means we’ll be doubling the length of the line,” said a Jerusalem Light Rail spokesperson. Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat are helping push forward the planned Green and Blue lines. And Barkat has reportedly instructed his staff to make the light rails his highest priority and cut the timetable for their introduction by a year.

But not everyone is happy with the way the capital has addressed its transit problems. Public transportation group 15 Minutes faults the city for granting the light rail’s franchisee, CityPass, exclusivity on the transportation corridors it serves, banning buses from plying the same routes.

“Bus lines were canceled, which put the railroad at the center of the system rather than the rider,” the group said. “Everyone was thinking about how to ensure there would be enough riders and not how to cut travel times. Ultimately, travel time hasn’t gotten shorter for many light-rail riders, and sometimes it has gotten longer.”

Jerusalem plans to inaugurate the Green Line in 2023. It will run for 19 kilometers (nearly 12 miles), from the southern Gilo neighborhood to French Hill in the north, with 36 stations along the way. The District Planning Committee approved the project two months ago and the tender process for construction work on the 8.5-billion-shekel ($2.25 billion) project will begin at the end of the year, with construction slated to begin in the third quarter of 2017.

Next on the agenda is the Blue Line, which city officials hope will win planning approval by the end of the year. The 19-billion-shekel line will extend 23 kilometers from the northern neighborhood of Ramot to the Talpiot and Gilo sections in the south, with 42 stations and two kilometers of tunnels.

In contrast to all the activity surrounding the two new lines, plans to extend Jerusalem’s 14-kilometer Red Line have again run aground. The municipality and CityPass agreed terms three months ago to start the 4-billion-shekel project. But last week they stalled again, in a dispute over how much the company will be compensated if the state exercises its right to buy the line in 2019.