Paris and Madrid Want Fewer Cars on the Road - Why Doesn’t Tel Aviv?

The move to lower Dizengoff Square is insufficient to benefit pedestrians if nothing else is done to reduce traffic entering the bustling city center.

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Bulldozers working on the lowering of Dizengoff Square, January 9, 2017.
Bulldozers working on the lowering of Dizengoff Square, January 9, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

Many European cities have reduced the number of areas open to vehicular traffic in recent years, citing environmental and socioeconomic reasons. Just last week, Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena declared that the capital’s most bustling boulevard, Gran Vía, would be closed to cars by 2019. Carmena said business owners told her that when the road was closed to traffic, turnover increased by 15 percent. And Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has launched a campaign to reduce air pollution in the French capital: It was reported this week that she is advancing a plan to cut the number of cars in the city by half.

By contrast, the Tel Aviv Municipality announced Monday that it is changing traffic patterns downtown – but only for 10 days. During the work to lower Dizengoff Square to street level, traffic will be severely restricted on King George and Arlosoroff streets. Additionally, the entrance to the city from Kaplan Street will be closed to traffic.

The municipality’s spokespeople stressed – in announcements and at events held ahead of the arrival of the bulldozers in the city center – that lowering Dizengoff Square is part of the vision to improve the public space for pedestrians.

Mayor Ron Huldai said several months ago that the elevated Dizengoff Square was a “symbol of past actions, when the worldview favored the private car and they took an urban street and turned it into a traffic exchange.

“Lowering the square to street level makes an important social statement, and its contribution to the public space will probably be very significant,” he added.

However, the move is very localized and partial. After lowering the square and completing roadworks, vehicular traffic will return to normal. Eventually, to add soot to injury, the new square will be hemmed in by a road and bike path.

Traffic jam on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway.Credit: David Bachar

In a recent blog, Tomer Chelouche – an urban studies researcher at Tel Aviv University – justifiably wondered why traffic jams in the city center aren’t permanent – if the whole idea is to restore the area for pedestrians. On tours he conducted at the square recently, Chelouche said that the city had adopted two contradictory approaches by lowering the square. “On the one hand, they want to make it easier for pedestrians who had a hard time climbing the elevated square; but on the other, they hem in the square with a bustling road,” he said. “So maybe now they won’t need to climb, but who, if anyone, will come to the new square if it is planned as an isolated traffic circle?”

What is currently going on in Tel Aviv is not a step toward fulfilling a green dream, but is instead the further escalation of a transportation catastrophe. There is massive construction of towers and underground parking garages in the city; parking has become free for residents in all areas, including on sidewalks.

During parts of the day, excavation work on the Tel Aviv light rail system has led to the closure of some traffic lanes. And now Dizengoff Square will be blessed with a bypass. But no significant step has been taken in parallel to reduce the entry of vehicles into the city center. These blows exacerbate the traffic jams as well as the nerves, put more distance between Huldai and his own vision, and inject more soot into residents’ lungs.

Lowering Dizengoff Square is meaningless if the municipality doesn’t plan in its place a space that is dedicated first and foremost to pedestrians. Lowering the square has no significance whatsoever as long as it is not accompanied by other brave steps by the mayor and the Transportation and Road Safety Ministry whose aim is to reduce the number of private cars passing through the bustling city.

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