Israeli Commuting Times Have Grown 30% in Decade as Cars Crowd Roads

Central bank report says Israelis traffic jams will only grow worse and could impede economic growth if not solved

File photo: A traffic jam outside Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

It’s taking Israel nearly a third longer to get to work every day on average and commuting times are going to grow worse unless the country can wean itself from cars and invest more in public transportation.

That is the conclusion of a Bank of Israel report released on Sunday that showed that between 2005 and 2016, the average time it took to reach work grew to 39 minutes on average from 30 minutes.

The reason is because Israelis are too reliant on private cars to get to work. Nationwide, 60% of all people with jobs uses a car to get to work and back in 2014-16, the report found. The figures were lower in the biggest cities – in Tel Aviv, it was 62%, 64% in Haifa and just 54% in Jerusalem. But that still added up to an unusually heavy reliance on cars.

Nationwide only 21% of employed Israelis used a bus, taxi or train to get to work (the rest walk or ride a bicycle). In Tel Aviv, the use of public transportation was a higher 27% and in Jerusalem it reached 34%. But in European cities like Barcelona and Brussels public transportation accounted for 40% of all commuting and in Paris for 70%.

Moreover, the bank found that the workers who do use public transportation, especially buses, are from lower socio-economic groups and do so not because the system works well but because they have no choice.

How Israelis get to work Commuting options in 2014-16, % of total.

“The higher the wage, the lower the rate of bus users. This figure supports the belief that individuals in Israel use public transportation because they do not have a private vehicle,” the report said.

The report comes a week after the International Monetary Fund said Israel’s transportation infrastructure was insufficient and that it was threatening to turn into a drag on economic growth.

Craig Beaumont, the IMF mission chief, suggested that since the timeframe for infrastructure projects is lengthy, Israel should undertake short-term measures such as ride-sharing, carpooling and even introduce a congestion charge like London has done.

The central bank on Sunday echoed those warnings, saying the government must step up investment to ensure commuting times don’t grow any longer. It said investment should be directed away from road building and more toward mass transit.

Using an index of public transportation usage that compares how much public transit is used versus the level it should be expected to be giving a regions characteristics the report suggested that in the Gush Dan region, where public transit now accounts for just a quarter of all commuting, the figure should reach 43%

Israel has made some big investments in mass transit in recent years and the amounts invested have grown, most notably the fast train under development between Jerusalem (which was supposed to begin service at the end of March but has been delayed) and Tel Aviv and the Tel Aviv Red Line 9which is due to be completed at the end of 2021).

But, the bank of israe said, these investments were not enough against a background of israel’s growing labor force and commuting populations. Not only is unemployment at its lowest in decades, the percentage of Israelis in the labor force has been growing.

Suburbanization, which means people increasingly don’t live in the city where they work, has added to the pressures on Israel’s transportation network.

A Transportation Ministry poll last year showed that most Israelis were satisfied with their commuting options. But the Bank of Israel said otherwise: Among 86 metropolitan areas in Europe and Israel surveyed, Israel’s Gish Dan region ranked 83rd and Jerusalem at 82, according to the report. Tel Aviv ranked 56th and Haifa 55th, but that still put them below average. Only three Italian cities – Palermo, Naples and Rome, ranked lower than Israel’s worst.

In response, the Transportation Ministry cited 60 years of underinvestment on Israel’s transportation infrastructure, bit it said that the work of catching up had begun.

“In this framework, tens of billions of shekels have been invested in railroads from north to south and hundreds of kilometers of dedicated public-transit lanes on highways in scores of cities that is creating a network that will include all of metropolitan Tel Aviv and enable fast and direct travel by bus and train while avoiding car traffic,” it said.