Jerusalem Light Rail Diverts Buses Onto Street Where They Can't Turn the Corner

Drivers of articulated buses experience difficulties turning onto Agrippas Street as Jerusalem prepares to start light rail service.

Drivers of articulated buses in Jerusalem had a hard time navigating a turn onto a road bordering the Mahaneh Yehuda market yesterday, endangering pedestrians and other drivers as the city begins rerouting 1,000 buses a day in a major step toward having a working light rail system.

The light rail will be running down Jaffa Street, one of the city's main roads, and on Friday national transit and municipal authorities began diverting buses from Jaffa Street to Agrippas Street, whose sidewalks are regularly overflowing with shoppers walking through the landmark Mahaneh Yehuda market, located between the two thoroughfares.

Agrippas Street in Jerusalem Jan. 16, 2011 (Tomer Appelbaum)
Tomer Appelbaum

But after years of planning, the authorities realized Friday that the longer-than-usual articulated buses, also called accordion buses, were unable to turn easily from Kiah Street onto Agrippas. The first bus that tried it had to use the opposite lane to make the turn.

Shortly before Shabbat began Friday evening, workers armed with paint changed the lanes to give the buses more room, and work on the intersection continued yesterday.

But the changes do not appear to be enough.

The articulated buses trying to make the turn on the new route yesterday were forced to choose between endangering pedestrians by driving partly on the sidewalk and using the opposite lane, setting the stage for road accidents and traffic jams.

"It's a mess, utter chaos," said Ilan, an owner of a burekas stand at the Kiah-Agrippas intersection. "This intersection is too small. It can't hold this many buses. The shoppers are confused and the air pollution here will cut our lives short by 30 years."

One woman has already been injured, albeit slightly, since the rerouting began. The woman, who works at one of the market stalls, was hit Friday, shortly after the buses began traveling on Agrippas Street.

In addition to concern about the danger, vendors, shoppers and drivers complained yesterday about the traffic jams created by the new bus route and the overcrowding on the buses, whose numbers were cut in anticipation of the light rail starting to operate.

Jaffa Road will now be dedicated to test runs of the light rail, though Jerusalemites will have to wait until the summer before the light rail begins operating at full capacity.

Shmuel Elgrabli, a spokesman for the light rail project, said the authorities tested the route two months ago but that problems arose in real time that hadn't arisen then.

"In tests we conducted two months ago, a regular bus passed there and so did an articulated bus," he said.

But on Friday, he said: "It became clear that the speed at the intersection is too slow, so it was decided to slightly expand the lane at the expense of the opposite lane. This is one of the most complex traffic reroutings ever carried out in the State of Israel. It includes altered routes for 21 bus lines and nearly 1,000 buses a day."

Though the bus route is being monitored by seven traffic engineers, according to Elgrabli, opponents are concerned about the danger it poses to pedestrians and shoppers on Agrippas Street - especially on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, when the market is busiest.

Tomer Kaufman, a member of Jerusalem's Lev Ha'ir community council, said police officials have told him they are worried about what will happen to people walking near the market, one of the city's most crowded pedestrian venues.

"A police official told me he doesn't sleep at night because he's afraid of what will happen to the pedestrians," said Kaufman. "Another one told me the casualties will be the price we pay for the light rail."