When Coronavirus Struck, Israel’s Transit Finally Got Smart

It took a crisis to deploy tech know-how on the roads. The challenge is how to keep it going.

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Traffic at Tel Aviv's Kaplan junction, October 29, 2019.
Traffic at Tel Aviv's Kaplan junction, October 29, 2019. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Israel is one of the world’s leading innovators in the mobility sector, having generated some $35 billion in innovations in technologies such as self-driving cars. However, anyone who’s visited the country would admit its own transportation system is lagging. It relies heavily on single-occupancy rides and an inefficient, fragmented public network that results in traffic jams, excessive pollution and poor access.

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The COVID-19 pandemic forced Israel to modernize its transport network almost overnight. Commuter volume plummeted during the lockdown, but Israel still needed to move large numbers of essential workers quickly and effectively, while limiting the number of people on buses to ensure social distancing.

To facilitate efficient low-occupancy commutes during the pandemic, Israel led an ad-hoc initiative to leapfrog out of outdated transit services. It developed a range of creative solutions, such as a large-scale pilot to re-invent mass commuting with cutting-edge technology, combining pooled rides in private cars with on-demand transit services.

Its experience shows that change in this sector is possible, and could serve as a model for many other congested, polluted cities and countries that aspire to a cleaner and more equitable future.

Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.
Israelis on a newly functioning train, on June 22, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

One of the most groundbreaking ideas for transforming the world’s creaking transportation systems and clogged roads has been to see mobility as a service that enables a person to get from one place to another, rather than a product, such as a car or bike that they own or maintain. The market for mobility as a service (also known as MaaS) is expected to grow by more than $180 billion in 2019-2023.

A commuter using MaaS would, for example, be able to enter their destination into an app, which then offers a range of options such as car- or bike-sharing, bus and train, taxis or car rental, or a combination of these options.

Israel did just this when it mobilized 176,500 responders for the national effort to fight COVID-19. In place of its existing rigid transport network, it introduced a tailored commuting system. An on-demand transit routing algorithm calculated the most efficient journey for each passenger and routed buses accordingly. In a trial involving 5,500 responders, users simply entered their location and planned destination via a specially created app. In 60% of cases, they were dropped-off within 300 meters of their destinations.

Within three weeks of its launch, 12,000 responders had downloaded the app, and 75,000 trips were taken using 250 different modes of transportation, from buses to vans and cars. While this system was implemented to deal with the crisis, it may be here to stay and may save the public $25 million a year. With the right public-private partnerships, it could easily be replicated in other countries that need to upgrade their systems.

A range of Israeli innovations introduced over the past few years has attracted attention during the coronavirus crisis. Some offer immediate solutions to crisis-related problems, such as digitizing transit to mobilize commuters more efficiently and safely, while others address the need to improve air quality to aid respiratory health. They include technologies to extend the range of batteries, which would make electric vehicles more competitive with traditional cars and improve air quality.

Another set of solutions harvests transport data that will help transit authorities and operators improve and tailor their services. There has also been substantial private investment in companies that convert old, fixed transport networks into flexible, on-demand services that enable operators to adapt their services to different commutes. Other emerging technologies developed by Israeli companies include using artificial intelligence to automatically detect and record incidents on the road.

A bus in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2020.
A bus in Tel Aviv, July 8, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Israel’s MaaS pilot project and related policies are being replicated across Israel, according to Uri Appelbaum, the Transportation Ministry’s senior director for projects and technologies. “We’re eager to collaborate with mobility operators and innovators to make Israel’s transportation system safer, smarter, and cleaner,” he says. The World Economic Forum’s Israeli Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is partnering with the ministry to promote public-private partnerships.

Israel isn’t alone in leveraging innovations developed during the crisis. The challenge is to implement these solutions for the long term to create a transportation system that revolves around human needs and priorities, such as safety, health, accessibility and better living. Israel’s transport overhaul shows that a country can adopt a cleaner, more convenient and more cost-effective way of travel with the help of technology and the right public-private partnerships. Governments and companies around the world can learn from this example, seeing the groundbreaking change that can be achieved when private innovation helps solve public policy challenges.

Maya Ben Dror leads the future of mobility at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution of the World Economic Forum. Maya Azaria is the lead for automotive and autonomous mobility at the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Israel.

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