Israel Jerusalem Light Rail

When Irritation Inhibits Progress

» Jerusalem has delayed its tramway project repeatedly over the past several years, leaving much of the city center torn up, with no relief in sight. The situation has severely damaged support for further transportation projects in this congested metropolis.

After two days in Jerusalem, I’ve never seen a group of people so annoyed at the prospect of getting a brand-new light rail system.

You’d think that they’d be excited about traveling more quickly in comfort through what has become a notoriously congested city, bringing reliable commutes to a place whose citizens have only had access to buses up to now — despite a large and growing population. Light rail’s potential as a big development generator seems hard to resist, especially since some of the city’s close-in areas have suffered from increasing competition from other neighborhoods in retail sales.

But the corporate entity building and eventually planning to run the system has managed to make every mistake in the book since it was first awarded the contract. It has turned what should have been an exciting improvement for this ancient city into a nightmare for many, and the result seems likely to be a popular resistance to future efforts to do the same — at least considering what I’ve been hearing. The lesson is clear: When investing in new transit infrastructure, cities must do it right or they’ll lose out in the long term.

When Jerusalem’s light rail program was first announced in 2002, it was to have eight lines completed by 2020 and act to bring the entire metropolis within reach by easy public transportation. But that broad vision has quickly been whittled down to a $700 million, 8.6-mile line with 23 stations that will link south Jerusalem with several occupied territories in East Jerusalem, via the downtown and the Old City.

The project was initially supposed to be completed in 2006, then delayed until 2009, then 2010, and now supposedly April of next year. All track has been laid as of last month, but based on my examination, most stations are merely shells; no catenary wire has been strung in the central areas.

CityPass, the private group that won the 30-year build/operate/transfer contract from the city, has been a poor manager of the project for a number of reasons. For one, it underestimated investment costs and did little to incorporate the community in the planning and decision-making process. Second, it undertook construction along the entire route of the line at the same time, working very slowly. Finally, it blasted full-steam ahead on a route that unmistakably crosses from Israeli Jerusalem, past the Green Line, towards a Jewish settlement (Pisgat Za’ev) in territory that is internationally assumed to be part of a future Palestinian state. This fact has resulted in a number of boycott and protest attempts against vehicle constructor Alstom and operator Veolia (the latter of which bowed out in 2009 after losing contracts because of its involvement here).

The potential for terrorism — initially a major concern after a spate of bus bombings in the early 2000s — is the least of the city’s problems.

Walking along Jaffa Road in central Jerusalem makes evident the ill effect of these mistakes. Four years after construction began, the street is a mess: dust is everywhere; fences and other construction waste are strewn about; many of the tracks have been recovered by asphalt for car and bus use as a temporary measure before rail service begins. In some places, brand new right-of-way has become so disfigured that it looks like unearthed ancient artifact. The contractor made the foolhardy decision to do the utility work for the entire line, then do the track work for the entire line, then do the catenary work, instead of dividing the work geographically; this led to the current agonizing state of constant construction along the whole route. Stores along the affected streets have been unable to conduct business normally.

These difficulties were evident two years ago, when now-Mayor Nir Barkat ran a campaign in opposition to the manner in which the light rail was being constructed. Last year, he claimed to be considering giving up on the project all together and replacing it with bus rapid transit lines, though a more recent transportation plan for the city advocates extending it a bit and reinforcing it with one BRT route.

It’s too bad that the public sentiment has gathered so strongly against the project, though. The traffic here is terrible, and there is little room for any major road expansion; a subway would likely expose so many centuries-old objects as to make construction untenable (see Rome). In other words, the surface-running light rail concept makes good sense for Jerusalem. Moreover, ignoring the problematic route north into East Jerusalem, the central city segment seems pretty well positioned along the historic Jaffa Road.

But the advantages of this new transit system are for now unknown to the residents of this city, who just want the building to come to an end. Even if the line operates successfully beginning next year, the memory of the pain it caused on the Jerusalem’s fabric won’t be forgotten in a day, which means that future transit projects of a similar nature will encounter huge protest. The eight lines envisioned less than ten years ago are likely a distant fantasy. You can’t irritate an entire city and expect to repeat the same experience five years later.

The whole situation evokes the construction of Vancouver’s Canada Line, which opened last year. That mostly underground and automatized light metro produced enormous problems for the businesses along Cambie Street, under which trains now run; the cut-and-cover construction of the line was very disruptive. Fears of similar problems along the city’s Broadway from locals may prevent the creation of a similar underground route there, no matter the benefits.

Fortunately, the mayoral administration in Jerusalem seems to recognize the problems with the program. In the Jerusalem Post, Transportation Master Plan director Nadav Meroz was recently quoted as saying that any future project would be built in geographical segments, rather than all at the same time. “This mayor is aware of the difficulties we encountered from the public during construction and is adamant about receiving the public’s feedback before work commences,” he also said. In addition, the mayor is convinced that the use of a public-private partnership scheme increased costs and reduced the efficiency of the line’s construction; future infrastructure building will be managed by the city.

But it might be too late. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Image above: Alstom Citadis Light Rail trains waiting to be used in Jerusalem, from Flickr user RahelSharon (cc)

High-Speed Rail Qatar

Qatar Signs Massive $25 Billion Deal with Germany’s DB to Develop Rail Network

» Rapidly growing Middle Eastern state will invest massively to expand already booming economy.

If Dubai and Abu Dhabi have grabbed most of the headlines recently, neighboring Qatar has been quietly building up from an out-of-the-way desert country to a center of world trade. Despite the country’s overall small 1.5 million-person population, the capital city Doha has been the site of increasing government-sponsored development thanks to huge oil and gas revenues and the country is now arguably the richest on the planet per capita. Next year, its economy is set to expand by 16%, the largest increase in the world, further solidifying its position as a regional powerhouse.

Government officials see infrastructure investment as a crucial element to economic viability, so last week Qatar signed a $25 billion deal with Germany’s Deutsche Bahn to develop local and high-speed rail links over the next fifteen years. The project will incorporate 180 miles of local light and metro rail for Doha city center, rapidly expanding public transportation offerings for what is now a car-centric place. In addition, more than 200 miles of new passenger and freight rail links would be capable of supporting fast trains traveling at up to 200 mph. Current plans suggest that the railway will be mostly complete by 2022, when Qatar hopes to host the World Cup, and fully done by 2026.

Qatar’s plans for high-speed rail would include a high-speed line between downtown Doha and its airport. In addition, the project would link the country directly to Saudi Arabia over a 25 mile-long causeway and connect the country’s most populous cities along its east coast, fronting the Persian Gulf. The network may also cross into Bahrain over the Qatar-Bahrain causeway, currently under construction and to be the world’s longest bridge when completed. Future interconnections between high-speed trains planned for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are likely. These projects were proposed previously in the Qatar transport master plan.

Deutsche Bahn is laying its reputation — and its money — on the line for this project, which will be its largest-ever foreign investment. The German company will own 49% of the new Qatar Railway Development Company, 51% of which would be controlled by the existing Qatar Railways. The two groups would share investment costs and share profits. DB’s existing relationship with Siemens will likely mean the supply of Velaro trainsets for Qatar’s high-speed lines.

While the recent development exploits of oil-rich Middle Eastern countries never cease to amaze, Qatar’s investments are particularly surprising simply because of the country’s relatively tiny population. If the United States, 200 times as large in population, were to invest at similar levels per capita over the next fifteen years, it would spend $5 trillion in rail infrastructure only; as current government policy stands, it is likely to spend only about $1.5 trillion… on all transportation, including on roads and air travel, despite the fast that the U.S. has huge unmet infrastructure needs. If a country is defined by the spending it commits to its future, the U.S. is falling behind rapidly.

Bus Johannesburg South Africa

Johannesburg Fights Taxi Driver Opposition to BRT Project Necessary for 2010 World Cup

Johannesburg BRT Project Map» Arguments over government’s involvement in transportation put into question the role of transit in cities dependent on taxis and private buses.

South Africa will host the continent’s first World Cup in 2010, and in preparation for the event, the city of Johannesburg has been rebuilding its transportation system with a focus on a new bus rapid transit network. But threats and shootings by members of the city’s strong taxi drivers union suggests that the project’s full implementation will not come easily. In a city that desperately needs alternatives to its traffic congestion, this kind of opposition is counter-productive.

Johannesburg, the country’s largest city with a population of almost four million, already offers commuter rail service in the form of Metrorail, which carries two million passengers daily. The Gautrain project, currently under construction, will eventually connect downtown Johannesburg with the capital in Pretoria and the international airport. But it will provide fast intercity connections and it will not be open until after the World Cup concludes.

The BRT project, called Rea Vaya, fulfills a different role: more local service to dense areas of the metropolis. Its first phase began operations last month, and when World Cup rolls around next summer, it will offer 86 km of lines and 100 stations. By 2013, as represented in the map above, the system will be expanded to 122 km and 150 stations. Unlike most “BRT” lines, Johannesburg will be getting the real thing in Rea Vaya: bus-only rights-of-way, high-level platforms at stations allowing level boarding onto buses, and pre-boarding fare collection within stations. In other words, it will be efficient and rapid and give the areas along its route an alternative to existing modes of transport, which take too long too frequently.

But taxi drivers in the area see the BRT as major competition, and they’ve been making their opinion known throughout the system’s development period. Several bus drivers have been threatened by taxi owners, and this week a guard for one of the system’s planners was shot in what appears to be direct action by a rogue gang of something equivalent to a taxi mafia. The United Taxi Association Forum, the union of drivers, denies association with any of the violence but it is clear that individual members are threatened by the creation of the BRT system.

While the violence in South Africa may be beyond the international norm, the reaction of taxi drivers to the implementation of a competing government-run transit network is relatively standard. Plans in Lagos for a light rail system, similarly, have been received negatively by drivers of the yellow buses that take most people everywhere.

To some extent, this opposition is reasonable: the BRT system will eliminate the means to make a living for thousands of taxi drivers in Johannesburg. In a country where unemployment is rampant, creating “efficiency” through better transit ultimately means cutting a number of people out of the job market, at least in the short term. Compensation probably should be made to the city’s taxi drivers, just to ensure that they’re able to transition to new careers.

Yet the lack of better urban mobility for the people of Johannesburg is a limitation for the city as a whole, keeping millions of people in traffic when they could be doing more productive things with their lives. Opposing the system ultimately means denying the population of an alternative to most inner-city commutes; using violence to threaten the network’s completion is a disgrace.

Image above: Johannesburg BRT system full build-out, from Rea Vaya

Dubai Metro Rail

Dubai Opens New Automatic Metro

Dubai Metro Station» System provides new mobility in what has become the world’s densest unwalkable city.

Today, Dubai will open the first phase of its Red Line Metro, bringing the first advanced transit system to the United Arab Emirates. The 32-mile long project runs along Sheikh Zayed Road and parallel to the waterfront, connecting downtown with the city’s artificial palm-shaped islands and reaching most of the new skyscraper districts that have come to define Dubai’s look. Yet with the economic crisis, the legendary traffic and population growth that plagued the city until as recently as last year are nowhere to be found and, as a result, the Metro’s effectiveness won’t be clear until the next market upswing. But the design of the transit network and the city as a whole put into question whether anything can be done to tame Dubai’s notoriously unfriendly pedestrian environment.

The Metro project’s price increased rapidly during four years of construction, eventually reaching $7.6 billion. These monumental costs have strained the Emirate city-state’s finances, which are already mired in debt as a result of years of speculative real estate development. But the Red Line is just the first of five planned lines; the 12-mile Green Line, which will intersect with the Red Line at two locations, will open next summer. A Purple Line connecting the city’s two airports is currently on hold. Only a new property boom will allow the city to fully implement its transit plans.

In several ways, the Dubai Metro represents the next generation of transit technologies, offering its users conveniences and comforts seen nowhere else in the world. Each of the Red Line’s 29 stations are fully climate-controlled and have track-side platform doors, a feature becoming the standard in the industry. At Union Square station underground downtown, direct cross-platform transfers will be offered between the Red and Green Lines once the latter line opens next year. Five-car trains manufactured by Kinki Sharyo, builder of light rail trains for Sound Transit and Valley Metro, are fully automatized and driverless. Each will offer three classes of service divided by carriage, with the Gold Class offering leather seats and wifi and the Silver Class providing private areas for women and children — a feature shared by the Cairo Metro. Despite its huge growth in recent years, the city-state in some ways remains attached to its Islamic fundamentalist traditions.

Dubai’s planners estimate 600,000 daily users by the end of the year and 1.8 million by 2020, when the full network is expected to open. Those forecasts seem optimistic for a city of 2.3 million unless the city’s growth streak resumes its pre-crisis momentum. But even if the legendary traffic jams on Sheikh Zayed Road are a thing of the past, the Metro will offer fast service to the city’s primary destinations, covering the route in just over an hour, with frequencies of abound three minutes. One even wonders if the five-car trains are too short to handle the city’s eventual capacity needs — despite the downturn, Dubai has successfully positioned itself as the trade center of the Middle East. The airport has quadrupled passenger movements in the past ten years alone.

But the Metro’s design is inherently incapacitated by the city’s layout. The reliance on Sheikh Zayed Road for virtually all cross-city traffic — it’s a fourteen-lane highway — has led to the construction of skyscrapers, malls, and resorts along its spine, which in turn have been built to meet the needs of drivers, not pedestrians. This is not a place through which to walk around comfortably.

The Red Line Metro’s path is mostly elevated in the median or to the side of that highway, meaning that getting to stations requires crossing the road in enclosed bridges. The rail system’s stops are quite beautiful, with golden roof-lines and fantastic interior circulation systems, but they will be out of the direct reach of most of the major buildings in the city. Compounding matters is Dubai’s relentless heat, which can reach up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summers. The 1/2-mile radius on which American planners typically rely to design transit-oriented districts does not really apply here, because people will not want to be outside for much time at all, let alone on shadeless, empty streets. As a result, a majority of people using the Metro will take taxis or buses to their final destinations rather than walk there.

Could the Metro have been designed with more walkability in mind? Perhaps: it could have been dug under some of the skyscraper districts to provide direct access to buildings. But that would have added significant costs and likely extended the completion timeline by years.

The Metro does have some definitive merits — its downtown stations are located underground and bus connections will be provided at every stop. But the city’s administration has yet to rethink the manner in which the region is developing, even with the completion of the first phase of the Metro. This comes in opposition to Abu Dhabi, the neighboring emirate, which has spent the last few years developing a comprehensive plan to rebuild the city in a way that promotes livable, walkable neighborhoods oriented around a new metro and tramway system. Dubai’s Metro may attract high ridership, but it won’t make the city much of a nicer place to be, because the old modes of auto-focused construction will remain the de facto standard.

Image Above: Dubai Metro Station, from Flickr user saharsh

Lagos Light Rail

Lagos Light Rail Delayed by Cash Shortage

Two corridor project would attempt to restore traffic sanity to Nigeria’s largest city.

Lagos is a huge metropolis — projections put its population at somewhere between 10 and 20 million people — but it lacks an urban rail network. Rather, its citizens mostly rely on small private buses called Danfo or Molue to move about its heavily congested streets and highways. Last year, the Lagos Metropolitan Area Transport Authority opened the city’s first bus rapid transit line, which runs 22 km along mostly separated lanes. The project was constructed for $1.7 million per mile, carries approximately 200,000 passengers a day, and saves riders 25 minutes a trip compared to other travel options. But the large city needs other travel modes, and it has been developing a light rail plan, with completion due for 2012. Groundbreaking for the system, however, has yet to commence, putting its future in doubt.

The light rail network — vastly under-scaled for a city with the size and density of Lagos — would consist of two corridors. The Red Line would connect the Marina with the airport along a 37 km line with 13 stations; the route would carry 1.3 million daily riders if estimates are to be believed. A Blue Line would run east-west along 27 km and connect to the Red Line downtown at Iddo; it could eventually carry more than 500,000 daily riders.

Like the BRT system, which was constructed to considerably lower standards than would be acceptable in a more developed country, this light rail project won’t serve as a case study for modernity. To cheapen costs, the 4 to 10-car trains won’t be electrified and stations will be minimal. Though Lagos may deserve a full-scale heavy rail metro, it will be getting something more akin to the New Jersey River Line, just operating at much higher frequencies with much higher-capacity vehicles. Though Nigeria is oil-wealthy, its national government lacks the power to successfully finance major projects of the type Algiers is undertaking, for instance, though that northern African city has support from the French government, something Nigeria lacks.

Even this reduced-cost system is in trouble, though: the Lagos State Government and the Transport Authority have been unable to put together financing for the light rail lines. Major public transportation projects aren’t easy in an environment that’s unstable both economically and politically.

Nevertheless, Lagos has high expectations for its line. As Rem Koolhaas’ fascinating film Lagos Wide & Close describes, the city is choked in traffic and its economy has been severely limited by the lack of infrastructure investment since the construction of major highways in the 1970s. Like American and European cities, this African metropolis sees a major downpayment in public transportation as a potential catalyst for future development. Whether Nigeria will be successful in improving its deprived economy as a whole, however, has yet to be seen.