Waiting in Vain

In Jerusalem, getting there has become a torturous affair. Anger is in the air. As one woman passenger put it recently: 'This will only serve to shorten my life.'

Hopes were high that Jerusalem's revolutionary new transportation master plan would address the capital's pressing problems of access, over-dependence on cars and pollution - but those hopes seem to have been misguided. Now that a major part of the system is in place, what is urgently needed is to find ways to minimize the damage.

The initial part of the first of the new plan's three major stages, which has been in effect since January 13 (the second part of stage 1 becomes operational toward the end of February ), ties no fewer than 50 bus lines to the 23 stations of the new light rail Red Line, which connects Mount Herzl to Pisgat Ze'ev via Jaffa Road. The great majority of these bus lines were existing routes that have been redesigned as short, local neighborhood lines that feed into the light rail; the rest serve as express lines to outlying neighborhoods.

The trams are extremely well-designed, and the appearance of Jaffa Road has been much improved, but Jerusalem is much more than just Jaffa Road. If ever there were a case of one problem being solved at the cost of creating a thousand others, this is it.

Forget about getting from your point of origin to your destination directly. Like it or not, if yours is anything more than a short journey, you will most likely be obliged to board the tram or intersect its right-of-way to get where you're going. Many of those whose place of work in town is not in the vicinity of the light-rail line must now take two buses to get to work, where before they needed only one. Making the transfers even more difficult is the fact that many bus stops are located at great distance from the closest light-rail stations. The elderly and the handicapped have been hit especially hard.

Furthermore, the new system is entirely dependent on a high frequency of both buses and trams to make connections possible. Too often, neither is the case. Worse still, buses don't keep to their schedules, which, in any event, are not coordinated with that of the tram.

Overall, travel times for most have significantly increased. The adverse consequences of this absurd, incomprehensible scheme - little understood by most Jerusalemites at first - are now gradually being absorbed. Forcing several hundred-thousand commuters to make multiple transfers in good weather or bad defies all logic. Getting there has become a torturous affair. Anger is in the air. As one woman passenger put it recently: "This will only serve to shorten my life."

As it stands now, the slightest accident, or the discovery of a suspicious object or boulder in or near the tram's right-of-way, as has already occurred on numerous occasions, can hold up service for hours. (There is also the matter of tram conductors' strikes. ) In all such cases, the dozens of "feeder" bus lines are left with nothing to feed, the entire Jerusalem transportation system is paralyzed, and passengers end up stranded. What then? Take a cab.

At every station no fewer than 20 doors per train open up simultaneously to take on passengers. Such a large number of entry and exit points are impossible to control. Security, unfortunately, is certain to be a major issue as time goes on. Ticketing too has turned out to be a major headache. Elderly citizens who are confused by the new system, for example, have difficulty obtaining their Rav-Kav fare cards, which are good for both bus and rail. Ticketing machines at the stations, some of which have already been vandalized, are often not in working order. Even paying for just a single-ride ticket with cash takes quite a few button presses and is overly complicated. Those lining up to buy tickets often miss their tram. And, in general, car owners have been offered little incentive to change their habits.

How could such a plan have been approved by the local, district and national building and planning committees?

Large-scale government-sponsored planning projects such as this are created in a high-powered atmosphere. Big money is flowing. The transportation minister and the mayor have given the project their full backing. In such an environment, yes-men are the rule. Few are those who would dare swim against the tide. The only conclusion possible is that this was precisely the case here.

Ten years after construction began, with an outlay of $1.4 billion and counting, Jerusalem's entire transportation system is today an incredible mess. CitiPass, the consortium that built the light-rail line, and Egged, which now operates it, are the only winners here. Clearly, the most central and primary goal of public transportation, that of serving the public, is not being met. People are right in demanding to reach their destinations in the most direct way possible. While obviously the option of changing the tramway's route won't be considered, revising bus lines, while ensuring the continuity of the system and relocating bus stations so as to ease the necessary additional transfers - can and must happen. Bus frequencies must be increased, and bus and tram schedules coordinated. The traveling public of Jerusalem is on the platform - waiting anxiously for these revisions.

Gerard Heumann is an architect and town planner in Jerusalem.