With Light Rail Stalled, A Push for BRT in Tel Aviv


A layer of smog hovers over the Tel Aviv skyline (photo by the author).

After a decade of fits and starts, the Tel Aviv light rail project finally collapsed last week. Following months of last-ditch negotiations, government officials announced that they were cancelling agreements with the consortium that was supposed to build and operate the first line of the system, leaving the fate of what was supposed to be the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Israel unclear.

Meanwhile, as traffic problems and air pollution continue to worsen, people in Tel Aviv are beginning to lose patience. Many are calling on the powers that be to begin exploring alternatives to the long-delayed light rail, and a grassroots campaign touting Bus Rapid Transit as the solution to the city's ills is gaining momentum. The Tel Aviv light rail project might be described as a classic case of letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. Launched in the late nineties, the project was already mired in bureaucratic infighting and delays when the onset of the global economic crisis dealt it a mortal blow in 2008. Since then, while attempts to salvage something of the project have continued, popular skepticism about its fate has become increasingly widespread.

(Something similar happened in Jerusalem, where the first line of that city's light rail network became so bogged down in delays, and inconvenienced so many, that the residents of the city took to calling it the "blight rail.")

The Tel Aviv Municipality, for its part, has never wavered in its support for the project, which forms the backbone of a new master plan it is promoting for the city. And while the mayor has proclaimed on multiple occasions that "the era of the private car is over," he has resisted attempts by members of the city council to promote incremental improvements, such as dedicated bus lanes, to the city's public transportation system, while energetically promoting new parking lots and road-widening projects.

Into this context stepped City for All, a local progressive political movement, with a well-formulated proposal for two new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes. Vastly cheaper and easier to implement than the ill-fated light rail (much of which is actually planned to run underground), the plan was presented as a modest, yet revolutionary, step forward.

Hashed out over a year of meetings with government officials, transportation experts and city residents, the new plan also represented an inclusive, democratic answer to the technocratic way that the light rail has been promoted. Now its supporters are building a coalition of organizations that back the plan, in the hope of creating political pressure on the mayor to act.

Recently, the plan got an unexpected boost when the national Transportation Ministry announced its support for it - on the condition that the Tel Aviv Municipality allocate the necessary road space. The municipality, however, avoided a direct response to the challenge, and instead issued a confusing statement to the effect that it had "submitted similar plans to the Transportation Ministry ten years ago... but since then nothing has happened."

Meanwhile, the city is poised to launch a reorganization of the existing bus system, and supporters of BRT are calling for the integration of the two proposed lines into the process. Whether this will happen or not remains to be seen, but many are beginning to realize that if it does not, another decade or so might go by before a decent public transportation system finally materializes in Tel Aviv.

Tags: Air Pollution | Commuting | Israel | Public Transportation

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