Jerusalem is arguably the world’s most complex city. It is a place of sanctity for three faiths; a site of antiquity; home to a diverse population; and capital of a nation with an ancient heritage and forward-looking vision.
Reconciling the myriad challenges this multi-faceted city presents might seem daunting, if not completely overwhelming. However, for Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan (JTM), what began as a formidable task – creating a new transportation system that would complement the city’s uniqueness – has become an exceptional success story, not only in terms of efficiently moving thousands of people around the capital, but also in terms of urban revitalization, environmental sustainability and even cultural cohesiveness.
Yet, says JTM Managing Director Nadav Meroz, there was a time when “few believed change was possible.” He cites Jerusalem’s main artery, Jaffa Road, as a microcosm of the perceived hopelessness of the task. Over the course of decades, Jaffa Road had evolved from a street clogged with donkeys to one clogged with cars and, ultimately, pollution-spewing buses. The result was a decaying, grimy and increasingly abandoned city center
Bringing Order out of Chaos
The first step towards bringing order out of transportation chaos was choosing the system best suited to meeting the infinite needs of the city. Speaking to a representative from Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds, the company that has helped build every sector of Israel’s economy, Meroz says four options were considered: upgrading the bus network; going underground with a subway; going high above ground with a monorail; or constructing a light rail.
An enhanced bus system was only a partial solution, and, says Meroz, a subway, “economically speaking, was not feasible.” The monorail alternative was quickly discarded, and, in 2002, construction began on a state of the art light rail.
The goal, he explains, was to build “a modern, fully integrated transportation system” of light rail complemented by improved bus lines. JTM began by “isolating the most crowded corridors, not for today,” Meroz stresses, “but for the future.” Planning was projected out to the year 2030, when JTM anticipates the light rail will be a vital resource for a city of 2 million residents.
Uncovering Ancient Artifacts
This being Israel, and, most especially, Jerusalem, challenges arose not normally associated with public works projects, specifically the march of civilizations. A small museum of archeological artifacts in JTM’s headquarters offers a glimpse of what was unearthed over the course of the project. Pottery. Oil lamps. Coins used to travel an ancient toll road. Remnants of a settlement dating back to the Second Temple period, which, Meroz says, was “the most ancient Jewish village ever found within the Green Line.”
Meroz says whenever artifacts are discovered – particularly bones – the Israel Antiquities Authority is notified immediately and all work must stop, which, he adds, “can sometimes result in months of delays.”
Since the light rail began operating in 2012, the benefits to the city, its residents and visitors have been manifold. The project’s first stage, the Red Line, runs from Pisgat Zeev to Mt. Herzl, and up to 145,000 passengers utilize it to traverse the capital on a daily basis (excluding, of course, Shabbat).
The diversity of its ridership – which includes secular and haredi Jews, as well as the city’s Muslim population –prompted praise from a source as unlikely as Al Jazeera, which called the light rail “the peace train.”
Regional realities, however – two stations were torched during the tensions of this past summer – make certain precautions prudent, such as reinforced glass to protect passengers from stone-throwers. Nonetheless, Meroz says most residents, whether they live in East or West Jerusalem, “realize this is something for the people, not politics.”
Looking to the future, JTM planners envision a system that ultimately will encompass nine lines bisecting the city, with 200,000 riders getting on and off at 35 stations along a 13-mile route.
In addition to efficient transportation, the light rail has resulted in numerous ancillary benefits – 11 new pedestrian-only streets, a six-mile bike route, grime-free facades, thousands of trees and a cleaner environment.
And Jaffa Road, the dingy symbol of an outdated transportation system? Today, Jaffa Road is the reborn heart of Israel’s capital, a bustling locale filled with shops, cafes and thousands of pedestrians who take the light rail to and from the city center. Meroz proudly notes the street that was “one of the most polluted in Israel is now one of the cleanest. “
He highlights one additional change on Jaffa Road: “We even hear birds now. We never heard them before.”