Gridlock Ahead: Too Many Cars, Not Enough Public Transport

An interministerial committee examining the country's urban transportation needs found that the state of transport within the metropolises is worse than we thought

Daniel Schmil
Daniel Schmil
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Daniel Schmil
Daniel Schmil

From all appearances, Israel's public transportation has undergone a revolution over the past few years. Jerusalem now has a light rail, Haifa will have hybrid buses traveling in special lanes within six months, and Tel Aviv should have a subway by the end of the decade. But what if it turns out that all this isn't enough, and even if all the plans are carried out, they won't manage to match the growth in transportation needs?

An interministerial committee examining the country's urban transportation needs found that the state of transport within the metropolises is worse than we thought. Regarding the greater Tel Aviv region, the congestion on roads will reach the point where "the major transportation arteries fail during morning rush hour." By 2030, every driver is likely to waste an extra hour on the roads due to traffic. This adds up to 850 million hours lost every year, which means NIS 25 billion in damage to the GDP. Currently the figure is estimated at NIS 20 billion.

The reason for all this is Israel's relatively backward transportation infrastructure. Tel Aviv, for instance, has 14 meters per person of public-transport-only lanes - which is less than even Cairo and Mumbai. The average in developed nations is 150 meters per person. Israelis travel an average of 49 kilometers per person on public transport - less than half the average for developed nations. While the average public transport vehicle moves at 16 kilometers per hour, the global average is 25 kilometers per hour.

Plus, Israel's public transport has a bad reputation, which pushes away potential customers - the average Israeli uses public transport 133 times a year, compared to the average of 270 in the developed world. In Israeli cities, less than 30% of travel is by public transport; in Barcelona and Paris, the figure is 67%. The major gap between Israeli public transport and that of Western nations is even more evident when you look at the differences in public transportation spending. European cities invest an average of 10,000 euros a year per person in developing public transport, while in Israel that figure is only 1,400 euros. Israel's public transportation investment - which averaged NIS 10 billion a year over the past several years - is only 1% of GDP. Only recently did the figure surpass the sum being allocated to develop roads, which encourage the use of private cars.

Running way behind

"If you think things are congested now, it'll be much worse in the future," said Yehuda Elbaz, head of public transport at the Transportation Ministry. "We're investing much less than we need to."

His remark was based on the committee's findings: that even given the investments currently planned, the average resident's use of transport within the country's metropolises will not increase beyond the current 30 to 50 kilometers a year, even though the goal is 100 kilometers; that public transport will remain particularly slow, at an average of 16 to 19 kilometers per hour, despite the goal of 25 kilometers; and that the percentage of the population that uses public transport will indeed increase from the current 23%-24% to something like 30% or 31% by 2030 (albeit in Tel Aviv it will remain 24% ), which is far from the 40% goal.

And this holds true even after the annual investment in public transport increases from the current NIS 3,000 to NIS 7,000, up to NIS 9,000 and then to NIS 22,000 by 2030.

Asher Dolev, the official responsible for public transport within the Finance Ministry, doesn't entirely agree with Elbaz. The current investment is sufficient, he said at a recent conference. Public transport is the budgetary item that increased the most over the past few years, he added. Some NIS 14.5 billion has been invested in developing public transport this year, while forecasts are that NIS 265 billion need to be invested over the next 25 years, he said. That's a large figure, but it's possible - with an average investment of NIS 11.6 billion a year, including subsidies for public transport.

According to the Finance Ministry, this plan will enable Israel to have a public transport network that meets European standards within 25 years. The investment could increase GDP by NIS 25 billion to NIS 40 billion, based on a projection that GDP would increase NIS 650 million for every 1% decrease in private vehicles.

These various projects include two more light rail lines in Jerusalem; six light rail or express bus lines in the greater Tel Aviv region; and more, better inter-city train lines.

The problem is that European transport won't be standing still for the next 25 years. By the time this plan is fully implemented, European transport will likely be even better, and Israeli demand will have increased as well. The other problem is figuring out how these investments will be possible given the current economic situation.

The Finance Ministry cites potential funding sources including real estate taxes near the project sites, higher municipal taxes, higher taxes on private vehicles, higher transport prices, congestion surcharges and private-sector funding.

Grandiose, risky projects

The government keeps pushing grandiose rail projects that may not pay off, groused the Finance Ministry's deputy budgets director Shaul Meridor at Haaretz's infrastructure conference two weeks ago. These projects include the planned train line to Eilat or through the Emek region. Instead, this money should be used in the metropolitan regions, he said.

"The fact is that we're lagging significantly behind Western cities, which means we need to invest NIS 200 billion, but that's not the only place we're lacking," said a Finance Ministry source. "Ultimately the government budget is a cake that needs to be divided up, and while we do need to invest more in transport, we also need to invest in education, welfare, health and other fields."

In the meanwhile, the government is tied up with ego battles, political disputes and bureaucracy. The Trajtenberg committee's proposal for improving public transport - lowering ticket prices for students and people who receive welfare, increasing regional bus fleets by 35%, making buses serving colleges, assisted living facilities and the periphery run more frequently, and increasing enforcement over who can use public transport lanes - has stagnated due to a dispute between the Finance Ministry and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz over funding.

Transportation Ministry director-general Uzi Yitzhaki admitted laconically at that conference: "Our management of public transport hasn't been the best. A lack of resources forced things to be put off for quite a while."

A typical traffic jam in gridlocked Tel Aviv.Credit: Dim Schliefman

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