Bay Area Israel

Jerusalem Likely to Abandon Plans for More Light Rail Lines

Mayor Nir Barkat sees their cost as the primary problem and envisions BRT

The Jerusalem Post reports that new Mayor Nir Barkat will cancel the light rail program envisioned for Israel’s capital after the completion of the two initial lines currently under construction. Building the line has caused major headaches in the city core, and Mr. Barkat’s election win last year was in part due to his opposition to the continuation of the project, which would include five more lines. The two lines being built today, however, have been sped up since Mr. Barkat took office and will be completed by 2010 as I reported previously.

The mayor’s solution is bus rapid transit, because the buses would be “a fifth of the price and much easier to deploy” than light rail. “I cannot sign on it yet, but most likely those routes will be BRTs and not trains. [They are] much faster to deploy and they provide practically very similar, if not the same [results]. We are now working on those plans and I believe that with new, fresh thinking we could probably converge on a network that will serve the city faster, easier and cheaper,” said Mr. Barkat to the Post.

What’s unfortunate about the mayor’s opinion is that it is far from a reflection of reality. It’s true that bus rapid transit can be cheaper, but only when it provides significantly lower levels of service. In other words, you can label a bus “BRT” and it won’t cost any more than a traditional bus, but it won’t be rapid. A true “BRT,” with similar levels of service that light rail can provide – in terms of capacity, speed, and comfort – would cost just as much to implement because it would need dedicated lanes completely separated from automobiles, and special, expensive vehicles.

What Mr. Barkat is really saying is that he simply doesn’t want to invest as much of his city’s funds in transit.

But consider this: Jerusalem, with a population of 750,000 spread out over an area of 48 square miles, is virtually identical in form to San Francisco, with a population of 800,000 on a peninsula 47 square miles large. And while the former city has two light rail lines under construction, the latter has a heavy rail line serving its suburbs (BART), and a large network of light rail serving much of the city (Muni Metro). Like Jerusalem, San Francisco has been resorting recently to “cheaper” BRT on the important Geary and Van Ness corridors, using the argument that BRT allows it to serve more people for less money. But the heavy use of BART and Muni suggest that rail can attract higher ridership and provide better service; San Francisco’s high rate of non-automobile commuting attests to the city’s success in providing good transit through rail. Jerusalem should consider that comparison before jumping for underperforming BRT.

4 replies on “Jerusalem Likely to Abandon Plans for More Light Rail Lines”

The problem is that Israeli public services don’t operate on the Sabbath for religious concerns. This effectively neuters them as an alternative to driving, except for commuting purposes. People who can afford cars buy them, leading to an American-style view that public transportation is for poor people. This isn’t helped by the fact that the country’s Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv is sketchy and labyrinthine.

I have to disagree with your analysis. The light rail project in Jerusalem has been something of a disaster – so bad, in fact, that I wonder if any more light rails will ever be built in Israel.

The construction process has dragged on with numerous delays, construction problems, lawsuits and mutual recriminations between the contractors and the city and a long list of other problems. In the meantime, the city’s main street has been unusable for several years now. The shop keepers are losing money, people have stopped coming to the city, and the whole project has been nicknamed the “blight rail” by Jerusalem’s frustrated citizens.

Granted, this was an ambitious and worthy project, and getting cars out of the city center is an excellent idea. However, the actual implementation has been terrible. In Haifa, on the other hand, the city decided to build a first BRT line, which they did quickly and cheaply, and the results have been pretty good.

Jerusalem’s new mayor is an energetic and relatively competent man, so I imagine his decision to favor BRT for the next few lines of the system is based on substance more than politics. Let’s hope that is indeed the case…


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