Jerusalemites Fume as Jaffa Road Closes to Cars

Egged bus drivers and market vendors are predicting major gridlock in downtown as a result of the change.

In 10 days, Jerusalem's urban landscape will undergo the first in a series of dramatic changes that will change the way residents of the capital move around the city. Beginning January 15, Jaffa Road, the main thoroughfare leading to the Old City for over a century, will be closed to vehicular traffic.

For the first time since it was constructed during the Ottoman reign in the city 150 years ago, Jaffa Road will be exclusively designated as a pedestrian walkway. In eight months, Jerusalem will introduce a light rail line that will serve as the street's only form of mechanized transportation.

Jerusalem - Emil Salman - January 6 2011
Emil Salman

Despite the radical transformation, critics are warning of the possible repercussions. Egged bus drivers and market vendors are predicting major gridlock in downtown as a result of the change. They said that the buses which will be rerouted away from Jaffa Road will clog nearby Agripas Street, the main road running past the Mahane Yehuda open-air market.

Critics also warned that pedestrians navigating the narrow sidewalks on Agripas Street will be in further danger by the traffic glut. In addition, the newsstands and bakeries located on the corner of Agripas and Kuf Yud Chet Street are vulnerable to being hit by extended buses as they turn onto Agripas.

CityPass, the franchisee operating the light rail, is scheduled to begin running tests on the system's only line, which will eventually offer service from Pisgat Ze'ev to Mount Herzl. The tests are expected to take four months, after which in April residents will be permitted free rides on the light rail in the city center.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat proposed that passengers be allowed to ride free as a way to soften opposition to yet another postponement of the light rail's opening. Though the rail was originally scheduled to begin operating full-steam in April, it instead will start charging riders in August.

Municipality officials believe that once the light rail is in full service, it will enable the city to decrease the number of buses that pass through downtown while easing the traffic burden on Agripas Street.

In the meantime, vendors and community officials are continuing to voice opposition to the plan.

"Anyone with eyes in his head can see the danger," said Tomer Kaufman, the head of the Lev Ha'ir community council. "What will happen on Agripas is physical harm to people. Over a thousand buses will pass there every day. It's certain that someone will be killed there."

"We decided that we are not cooperating with the municipality in this matter," he said.

The vendors are also concerned about a possible sharp increase in air pollution, which could deter shoppers from frequenting the market. The Mahane Yehuda open-air market has managed to carve a niche for itself as a "market for everybody," a vendor said.

The municipality and the Transportation Ministry said in response that the difficulties resulting from the changes "will be temporary" and that the necessary safety precautions have been taken to prevent accidents on the corner of Agripas and Kuf Yud Chet Streets.