October 26, 2011
A chosen rail line?
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As in Los Angeles, it is common for Jerusalem residents to own one or two cars. “People here need rehab,” Fahoum said. “The driving culture is shameful. Many drivers are rude, and being a rude driver has become essential.” Currently, too, buses that go to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods relegate women to the back of the bus.
In addition, the city is a prisoner of its geography, age and history. Some streets are 2,000 years old and cannot be made any wider.
Still, the level of animosity prior to the opening of the Jerusalem Red Line took me by surprise, reminding me of the general tenor of Los Angeles’ fight over extending its current subway system to the Westside. But now that Jerusalem’s light-rail line is completed, the significant positives for the city’s residents are beginning to be realized, particularly along Jaffa Road, which has gained a major pedestrian mall and bike-friendly route all the way to the Jaffa Gate when the trains are not passing by. In fact, the line has remade Jaffa Road, giving the ancient road an attractive, inviting pedestrian orientation it never had before.
In early August, when I spoke to Tali Friedman, a chef in Jerusalem, she was excited about the train coming to the city. Friedman is involved in cultural programming for Jerusalem’s sprawling Mahane Yehuda market, and she noted that the city will need to honor the neighboring Orthodox community’s wishes to respect Shabbat. The market, which was the site of multiple terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada, hosts a number of popular annual festivals and in recent years has done an exemplary job of building its brand and marketing itself to city residents and tourist alike.
The unrealized opportunity of the line is perhaps its greatest shortcoming — its current terminus is just east of the Old City’s Jaffa Gate, which means the line turns toward, but stops, well short of Arab East Jerusalem’s Salah al Din Street, clearly demonstrating the current political realities in this divided city.
Rail lines are often seen as harbingers of redevelopment and gentrification, and Jerusalem is no different in this respect. Already, just to the north of Mahane Yehuda, along Jaffa Road, a new large tower is going up. But growth can also bring changes for low-income people who currently live in the area. Only time will tell what the train will mean for the composition of the neighborhoods close to the new line, which include both working poor and many impoverished Charedi communities, where few of the men are employed.
The streetscape along the route could also use improvement; CityPass, the rail’s operator, could have done more landscaping (3,500 trees were planted before 170 of them were removed due to visibility problems) and added more public art, but that could still come later. For now, the low-water landscaping and trees appropriate for the Jerusalem climate that have been planted are a major improvement from the sparse greenery that existed along the route before the Red Line came along. And, one more benefit is that on Shabbat, when all city transit shuts down, the line offers Jaffa Road and the rest of the route a stretch of welcome, if temporary, public space.
Which bus lines the Red Line will render obsolete remains to be seen, as does whether Jerusalem’s car-addicted residents will eschew private transportation for the train. The rash of suicide bombings on the city’s buses during the Second Intifada have become by now a distant memory, thanks, in part, to increased security throughout the transit system, and bus ridership appears to have rebounded to pre-Second Intifada levels, despite the slow commute times through the dense traffic of the city’s center.
It is worth noting that in Los Angeles, too, the threat of terrorism on the transit lines has been raised, including as a reason not to tunnel under Beverly Hills High School for the Wilshire subway extension. Thankfully, most Angelenos and Jerusalem residents are of the opinion that to not continue living and improving the urban environment because of such concerns is to give the terrorists a victory.
Not everyone is a critic of Jerusalem’s new light rail. Quite a few Egged riders I spoke with in advance of the opening praised the project and looked forward to riding the new comfortable-looking train. As consumers of public transit in the city, they know better than most what commuting by bus means to Jerusalem residents.
Another strong positive for the system is that it runs largely at grade, allowing easy access to the trains and surrounding streets. Thinking of Los Angeles’ many accidents, including some fatalities, along the Metro Blue Line between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles, we should hope that Jerusalemites will be more savvy about the dangers of trains, like their European cousins, where trams abound. It amazes me still how some Angelenos seem unable to comprehend that they and their cars are no match for the force of a moving train.
While a few days as a prisoner on the No. 18 bus between Mount Herzl and Baka does not make me an authority on Jerusalem traffic, the congestion along Ha-Rav Shmuel Baruch and Aggripas streets past Mahane Yehuda is legendary. Walking or biking through the area remains a better option than the bus for those who can, so a fixed-rail transit system that takes priority over crossing traffic will be a welcome change. The chance to bike or walk on the new Chords Bridge, designed by the renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the light-rail project near the Central Bus Station, is also a positive development for car-addicted Jerusalem.
The debate over Jerusalem’s Red Line inevitably seemed to take on talmudic hairsplitting. Several Jerusalem residents I spoke with observed, even as crowded buses rolled by, that Jerusalem is not a city with a culture of public transit ridership. But in my experience, the lack of available seats on the frequent buses, let alone the origins of many of Jerusalem’s residents in Central Europe and other places where public transit abounds, suggest otherwise.