As a carefully designed modern city with broad boulevards and lots of free parking, Ashdod is a driver’s paradise. But that could change in the next four years, once the city transforms itself into a model of public transport.
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Two months ago, Ashdod beat out 17 other midsize cities, ranging in population from 70,000 to 250,000, for a NIS 220 million grant from the finance and transportation ministries to promote environmentally friendly and sustainable transportation networks. Specifically, the goals are to minimize the use of private cars, reduce air pollution and the number of accidents, and improve quality of life in the city.
Each competing city was asked to prepare a comprehensive and sustainable transportation plan that would include priority bus lanes, updated bus routes, bicycle paths, facilities for pedestrians and public transportation users, a progressive parking policy, and other characteristics, like promoting carpooling. The plans were accompanied by traffic surveys and economic feasibility studies, and rated on the basis of preset criteria. Holon ranked second, after Ashdod.
The winning model
The winning model - prepared with the assistance of Aviv AMCG Management & Consulting, headed by Daniel Rosenberg - is based on two simple and relatively cheap transportation solutions instead of light rail or subways: high-capacity buses using dedicated bus lanes, and rental services for electric bicycles. The model also proposes several restrictions on drivers.
Ashdod and Aviv AMCG found that only 26% of the city’s residents use public transportation, which mainly reflects the use of intercity buses rather than travel between different parts of the city itself.
At the base of the program, to be implemented gradually over the next four years, is a 20-kilometer ring of preferential arteries where priority will be given to public transportation. In the city’s more crowded areas, like Herzl Boulevard on the west or part of Begin Boulevard in the south, a public transportation lane will be paved in the center of the road to avoid being blocked by private vehicles. In other areas, the right-hand lane will be reserved for public transportation. Buses will also be given priority at traffic lights: The bus will signal its approach and the light will quickly change in its favor.
The preferential arteries will carry four BRT (bus rapid transit) lines. The “red line” will operate along the eastern axis connecting residential neighborhoods in the south and city center to the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering and the industrial zone in the city’s north end. The “blue line” will connect the eastern neighborhoods with the city center.
Two additional lines will run along the eastern axis: One will connect the port in the north with the city center and southwestern neighborhoods, while the second will run between the college and Begin Boulevard in the south, in the direction of the train station.
The BRT lines will run at a frequency of six buses an hour. Tickets will be bought outside and validated on the buses - as on Jerusalem’s light rail - to avoid delays at the stations.
In contrast to Tel Aviv’s public transportation reform - which differentiated between main bus lines and feeder lines, forcing riders to switch buses along the way - Ashdod chose a method called “complementary lines.” Residents will be given a choice between a network of express buses or boarding a slower, winding line with frequent stops that doesn’t necessitate switching buses.
Under the model, the average bus ride within Ashdod is expected to be cut by eight minutes, with average bus speeds increasing from 18.4 kilometers per hour to 24 kph, thanks to the preferential arteries. A total of 110 bus stops will be added, and another 200 will be upgraded to show when buses are due to arrive.
The municipality will also establish an information center for public transportation, which will include a website and a smartphone application. Implementation of the model will require building a third public transportation terminal in the city.
Ashdod also plans to follow Tel Aviv in setting up a bicycle rental network, in this case, with bicycles that are electrically powered. The network is meant to overcome the distances involved between neighborhoods and the rapid public transportation arteries.
Plans also call for paving 22 kilometers of bicycle paths in the city, connecting high schools, Sami Shamoon College, the central bus station and the train station. It will be possible to lock the electric bikes anywhere, according to the municipality, with the rental service arriving later to collect them.
No disincentive to drive
The plan provides Ashdod residents with incentives for switching to public transportation, but disincentives are also needed to make the use of cars less worthwhile. One of the reasons behind the success of Tel Aviv’s Tel-O-Fun bike rentals is the difficulty finding a place to park in the city. But drivers in Ashdod have no such problem.
Of the city’s 60,000 parking spots, fewer than 300 aren’t free of charge. Though this number will rise to 1,000 metered parking spots, the city isn’t short of places to park and has no traffic jams. Thus there is no real incentive for leaving the car at home.
Perhaps that’s why the rise in the use of public transportation is expected to be very gradual. An estimated 45,000 residents a day currently use the city’s public transportation network, a 4.5% increase from 2008. Planners expect only 1,000 new bus riders once the new plan is implemented.
These drawbacks also apply to the other cities participating in the “model city” competition. The finance and transportation ministries thought of taking advantage of the plans submitted by the losers to encourage these cities to at least partially fund the ideas they presented.
But TheMarker has learned that this idea is expected to be one of the first victims of the emerging government budget cuts. The treasury can’t freeze transportation development projects that have already gotten underway and would rather not block essential multiyear plans like train electrification. So the cuts will mainly affect relatively minor plans by the municipalities, like those formulated for the contest, which largely include paving bike paths and reorganizing public transportation lines.