Jewish Journal

A chosen rail line?

by Joel Epstein

Posted on Oct. 26, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Jerusalem’s new light rail line covers an eight-mile route from a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem through Palestinian neighborhoods  to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West.

Jerusalem’s new light rail line covers an eight-mile route from a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem through Palestinian neighborhoods to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West.

In a city where nothing ever seems to come easy, the arrival this summer of Jerusalem’s long-delayed light-rail Red Line was seen by some as nothing short of a miracle. At many points over the past 10-plus years of construction, it looked as though the Messiah would pass through the Old City’s Golden Gate before the train might arrive. And like many good land-use battles in Jerusalem, this one featured national political aspirations, terrorism concerns and the secular-religious divide, as well as conflicting views of fiscal and corporate accountability and arguments over the best transit solutions for a culturally and religiously diverse city of 800,000.

Still, as I saw on a recent trip, the Holy City somehow achieved the opening of its first light-rail line a lot sooner than Los Angeles is realizing a subway to its Westside. Though I came too early to witness the line’s opening, during my visit I watched the train being tested, and I even stepped aboard a car before being shooed off by a grumpy conductor.

Being in the place that is home to three of the world’s great religions, I got to thinking about how conflict and different world views can stand in the way of public transit improvements like Jerusalem’s Red Line and L.A.’s Westside subway extension. Though I am no expert on Jerusalem, the sight of the train crawling down Jaffa Road left me wondering what parallels there might be between Jerusalem’s and Los Angeles’ struggles to bring rail to these cities.

The two transit battles both pit those who view their city as ill suited to trains against those who feel trains must have a place in growing cities. Also common to both battles are vocal adversaries of public transportation who don’t ride the buses and trains that they rail against. One certainty in such projects is that by the time the work is completed, few residents of either stripe are happy about the costs, delays and disruption caused by the construction. As if on cue, Jerusalem’s infant rail system has already seen its first strike by operators seeking pay equity with bus drivers. The 30-hour strike, which came during the busy period of Sukkot, has since ended with an agreement between the workers and the consortium that runs the rail service.

Jerusalem’s eight-mile light rail line, which opened Aug. 19, runs from the Jewish settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev, in East Jerusalem, through the Palestinian neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Shu’afat to downtown and Mount Herzl in the West. This means it passes through land that came under Israeli jurisdiction as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Further complicating the process, there have also been efforts by the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews to create cars separating men and women. And for many, the Jerusalem project confirmed some fears that the disruptive construction process would be fatal to businesses along Jaffa Road, the narrow thoroughfare that runs through the mostly Jewish West Jerusalem to the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

In Los Angeles, some have kvetched and even sued over the use of an established rail right-of-way running through Cheviot Hills for the new Expo Line, which is nearing completion, yet Los Angeles’ battles pale in comparison to Jerusalem’s. Even the vocal battle over tunneling under Beverly Hills High School, a plan that got the backing of a panel of engineers and seismic experts on Oct. 19, has been muted by comparison with a project that runs through neighborhoods some residents do not recognize as Israeli.

So, is Jerusalem’s Red Line a cursed effort at improving mobility in a traffic-choked city? Or will the project bring good things to all residents of East and West Jerusalem? Or could there have been a better, more cost-effective alternative?

In Jerusalem, some have complained that the Red Line should have run from Mount Scopus to Givat Ram, the main campus of the Hebrew University, where it might have attracted more riders than the current route, including many students and those visiting the city’s major hospitals. Indeed, West Jerusalem resident Ilan Jospe argues that the line mostly benefits people who live near the route. The train also took lanes of traffic from narrow roads that were hard to navigate to begin with.  

Ahmad Fahoum, an East Jerusalem resident, is not enthusiastic about the train. He questions the cost, the political message sent by the route, and whether Jewish and Arab residents used to riding Egged (Israeli) and Arab buses as well as sherutim (shared shuttle vans), taxis and private cars around the city will embrace the limited service of a single line, which is a slow train, for now — the Red Line’s trip from end to end takes 65 minutes rather than the originally scheduled 42 minutes, though that will change with improvements. He also wonders who got rich off the project, which was built by an international consortium of companies. Like others, Fahoum noted the lower cost of offering bus service, including dedicated-lane bus rapid transit (BRT) to speed commuters through congested parts of the divided city. And, one need not go far in Jerusalem to find proof that BRTs can be built faster and cheaper than rail. Jerusalem’s first BRT line, a north/south project, was completed some time ago to act as a feeder connection to the Red Line.

In an Aug. 17 article in The Guardian newspaper, critics claimed the project was “part of a deliberate plan to link the East Jerusalem settlement [of Pisgat Ze’ev] to the city centre, [to] consolidate Israel’s grip on the eastern part of the city that Palestinians want as a capital of their future state, and present Jerusalem as an undivided city.”

As for construction of a second line, dubbed the Blue Line, both Jospe and Fahoum hope it will never happen, given that the Red Line took more than 10 years to build and reportedly cost the municipality $1.1 billion. Nevertheless, Jerusalem has plans to build eight light rail and BRT lines, with the first new service planned for Ein Kerem (serving Hadassah Hospital) in the southwest and Neve Ya’akov in the northeast. Other lines serving Neve Ya’akov, Kiryat Menachem, and the Hebrew University campuses at Givat Ram and Mount Scopus are also planned.

The Chords Bridge, at the entrance to Jerusalem, was designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the rail project. Photo by EPA/YOSSI ZAMIR ISRAEL OUT

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.

Despite the forays of some Jerusalem residents into the suburbs and beyond, on the whole, in West Jerusalem at least, most residents are still an urban people who carry on their backs their own experience or those of their ancestors back in Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, Casablanca, Buenos Aires, Odessa, Moscow and New York. Their need to live near the synagogue, and their preference for proximity to family, friends, schools and markets, still explains why so many Jews remain in the Holy City. Jerusalem’s Red Line is a far cry from Warsaw’s countless trams, but it is a start. In this regard, Los Angeles and Jerusalem are really not that different. Both are working to make up for lost time by building long-needed trains and rapid buses. Now it is Los Angeles’ turn. Getting the Westside subway extended will be a good next step.

Jerusalem’s completion of its often-criticized light-rail line demonstrates that the expansion of public transportation is possible in even the most balkanized of cities.  In terms of its lessons for Los Angeles, here are a few that I found critical:

• Planners must invest in community outreach to all impacted residents, so that no one can claim they didn’t realize how costly, time-consuming and disruptive the construction would be. 
• Once a plan has been developed, every effort should be made to keep the project on track, on schedule and within budget to disrupt the smallest number of residents and reduce the inevitable not-in-my-backyard opposition that plagues all projects of this sort.
• Businesses and residents displaced or likely to lose their livelihood as a result of the construction must be equitably compensated. This will help reduce the probability that they will become vocal opponents of the project.
• Finally, the construction must be directed by the most able, determined and proven team of contractors available. CityPass was plagued by cost overruns and problems with its initial operators. Those challenges cost the project years and money the city could hardly afford.

The 10-plus years it took to build Jerusalem’s Red Line took its toll on the city and its residents. Given the problems Los Angeles experienced in building its own Red (and Purple) subway lines, keeping the project and time line on track by anticipating seismic and other obstacles to construction, as well as neighborhood objections, seems the most important thing we can learn from our Middle Eastern cousins. Just because the residents of a city may hold deeply rooted beliefs that appear to conflict with those of their neighbors does not mean municipal government can’t make transit improvements that provide across-the-board benefits to residents.

Los Angeles, like Jerusalem, is ready for an expanded public transit system. Our perpetual gridlock with relatively few fixed-rail alternatives is killing us. Like the biblical exhortation, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning,” so, too, will Los Angeles lose the businesses that remain if we do not solve the mobility challenge by getting our new trains and bus rapid transit lines running as soon as possible. 

Joel Epstein is a West Los Angeles resident, Metro customer and strategic communications consultant focused on transportation and other critical urban issues. For more about Epstein, visit joelepstein.com.

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