Written in Concrete

This post was originally written in Hebrew by Shalom Boguslavsky, a social and political activist living in Jerusalem who blogs about Israeli politics at Put Down the Scissors and Let’s Talk About It. The views expressed here are those of the author rather than my own; I translated it because it’s important to showcase the politics of transit and there’s a dearth of good English-language analysis of Israeli transportation. -Alon.

As you’ve probably heard, the light rail (blight rail in Jerusalemite) is doing its final test runs before starting to operate. Here, as everyone knows, the only law that’s properly enforced is Murphy’s Law, so the train has managed to cause damage even before the first passenger has boarded when it was used as an asinine excuse to move religious Zionism’s annual hate march away from its normal route and toward Sheikh Jarrah.

Trains – like anything else, some would say – are a text, and a political text at that. Every text is like this at the place under discussion, and the series of design choices that have been taken tells us something about the people who selected them. Like every truly effective political text, it masquerades as a professional text, so that we the lay public won’t bother, but instead leave the decision makers to do what they please.

But if the considerations behind the line were professional, most likely it would have looked completely different. Today, it begins at Mount Herzl/Yad Vashem, across from the Haredi neighborhood Bayit VeGan; passes through the Central Bus Station and Jaffa Road; cuts across to Route 1, which was once the no man’s land between West and East Jerusalem; and continues from there to Pisgat Ze’ev. In short, the IDF-Holocaust-Haredis-settlers line.

Did the planners conceive of this symbolism that I see? I doubt it, but they made their choices: only about a kilometer and a half separate Mount Herzl from the Golem at Kiryat HaYovel. This is a gigantic urban neighborhood with a very diverse population whose socioeconomic status is medium or lower, for the most part. It also attracts a lot of cultural and educational activity of all sectors and the center of the city’s social activism. The people there desperately need good public transit and it’s only a kilometer and a half. But it’s been postponed to the next phase, which given the 11 years of destruction of the first one who knows when it will come. Pisgat Ze’ev, a settlement that’s closer to Ramallah than to central Jerusalem, got priority and is in the first phase even though there the need is less urgent, and at any rate the inner parts of the city need to get solutions before the bedroom communities that are already served by fast highways anyway.

The insistence on directing the train to Pisgat Ze’ev comes at the expense of the choice to build the first line as a ring line. After Jaffa Street, the train could have passed by the bonanza of rich tourists of King David Hotel, the culture and entertainment sector of the German Colony, the Talpiot industrial zone (which includes the cheap commercial center that serves most of the residents of the nation’s poorest city, among other things) and the neighborhoods nearby it, Beit Safafa, and Malha, which is home to Teddy Stadium, the under construction Arena, the train station, and the Biblical Zoo, which attracts a lot of visitors and is really not lush with public transportation. After that it would have served the neighborhoods of Malha, Ramat Sharett and Ramat Denya, the eastern end of Kiryat HaYovel and back to the Golem. It would have helped solve some difficult transportation problems of southwest Jerusalem. The axes in Jerusalem are mostly north-south, and to get by bus from Kiryat HaYovel to the German Colony or Talpiot, despite the short distance, takes longer than to get to Tel Aviv, and not much shorter than to walk. It would have been possible at the next phase to connect Gilo to the blight rail. Gilo is a settlement as well, in fact the largest of them, and it would have also served a large stream of settlers from Gush Etzion and Mount Hebron who enter the city through it. Of course unlike the popular view, the Israeli government has no interest in serving the settlers, only in serving the settlements. The settlers are like the rest of the people here – a means and not an end – only with a different spot in the hierarchy of privileges.

On its way to Pisgat Ze’ev, the train passes within a spit’s distance of the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. It would have been easy to route the train near the university so that it would have served thousands of students who need much more public transit than they are getting. Instead of doing so, city hall went for a step that was supposed to be “modern” and built “bike paths” from the train to campus. Why the scare quotes, you ask? Well, one must see the “bike paths” to believe it, and I implore everyone who is not named Evel Knievel not to put his front wheel on one of these paths if he ever wants to see his loved ones again. Oh, and the trains have no room to store bicycles on board.

And this is before we start talking about the obvious thing. There’s no need for a train at all, and in its stead it would have been better to invest in BRT, a method with which third-world cities with less money and more mess have already solved their transportation problems. There’s BRT in Jerusalem too, but it’s mainly buses and not lanes, and those giant buses have been directed straight to the thriving Mahane Yehuda Market, choking what has become a (pedestrianized) national attraction in the last few years.

And what is even more obvious: you may have noticed this post, like the train’s route, is concerned only with West Jerusalem and the big Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The idea that the blight rail is supposed to serve the forever and ever united city’s Palestinian residents, except those who live right on Route 1 and those who are rich enough (or collaborators the Shin Bet helps) to live in Pisgat Ze’ev, is still science fiction in Israel of 2011. Palestinian East Jerusalem is simply left on purpose (come on, say “the Arabs can build up”) in a third world state of urban design, in the hope that the Arabs will leave it. There’s probably no clearer example to the regime of separation in the city than the two separate public transit systems, for Jews and Arabs. True, an Arab can get on a Jewish bus and vice versa, but the transportation doesn’t even flow on the same grid. But this is worth a separate post, and simply reflects on the city level what is happening on the national level.

Because if you’re sighing in relief at this stage thinking that you live in a city with saner urban policy, let me spoil your party. If this is so, it’s only because you have an urban policy. In Jerusalem, there’s only national policy, managed by the same government that runs the rest of the country. The city is run directly by the government, and is governed for symbolic and geopolitical needs and not for the welfare of its residents. Jerusalem’s city government is the weakest in the country and the role of the mayor, in addition to “taking out the garbage” (as Prime Minister Golda Meir clarified to Mayor Teddy Kollek back in the day), is to foment riots, do public relations, and finagle money from American Jews. Other than the part about removing the garbage, Mayor Nir Barkat is indeed great at his job. And we, the locals, simply feel the wrath of the government’s arm directly.


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  2. Shlomo

    As another Jerusalemite, I must point out some of the inaccuracies in this article…
    1) The first line did not reach Kiryat Hayovel because the road it would have traveled on had only one traffic lane in each direction, and it was impractical to close the street entirely. Right now, the street is being widened to two lanes in each direction, which is necessary before one lane can be converted to rail service.
    2) The system about to open consists of a west-east rail line and a north-south rapid bus line which cross in the city center. Extending the rail line south to Talpiyot, as you suggest, would make the cross design impossible. It would also have significantly increased construction costs – the route to Pisgat Zeev was chosen because it is relatively undeveloped (mostly lying on the no-mans-land that once divided Jerusalem) and thus cheap to build on.
    3) Mount Scopus is a mountain, surrounded by steep terrain, which make a rail line to it impractical. That is why it was omitted from the route. Not due to incompetent planning.
    4) The line actually does an effective job of serving most of the Arab neighborhoods in the city which have flat terrain. If the goal was to exclude Arabs, then the route would not have taken a significant detour on the way to Pisgat Zeev through the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat. It seems that the article mixes two mutually exclusive accusations: that Israel wants to separate Jews and Arabs in order to provide a lower level of service to Arabs, and that Israel wants to integrate Jews and Arabs in order to ensure that Jerusalem remains united under Israeli control.
    5) The “southwest Jerusalem” transportation problem you bring up is quite minor, since most of the area consists of residential neighborhoods which there is little need to travel between. There are bus routes (12,19) which connect these areas while bypassing downtown, which are only moderately used.
    6) Jerusalemites do not call the light rail “blight rail”, because they speak Hebrew, not English.

    Now that we have hopefully cleared up the misconceptions which unfortunately make up almost of the article, we can get to the real problems with Jerusalem’s light rail.
    1) It will make anyone from the western third of the line transfer from a local bus to the train to another local bus to reach many destinations. Due to the terrain and road layout, relatively few people will live within walking distance of the western train stations.
    2) It seems that there will be little to no direct service between the southeast part of the city and the central bus station where all intercity connections are made.
    3) Frequency will be lower than on the rapid bus line, though the construction costs are higher.
    4) The only real problem with the current bus system (both rapid and non-rapid) – the delays caused by passengers boarding and paying fares one by one, while other buses wait for the chance to enter the bus stop – has not been solved. Amazingly, the new “rav-kav” system seems to only increase delays.

    • Alon Levy

      “Blight rail” is my own translation for “rakevet klala.” I thought it was neater than to literally translate it as “curse train” and write a paragraph explaining the pun.

      I can’t comment on most of your points – I didn’t write the article, merely translated it – but:

      3. Light rail can climb steep-ish grades when it needs to. In very hilly geography, the best solution is a trolleybus, which combines the higher power of electric traction with the higher rolling friction of rubber tires on asphalt; this is what they do in San Francisco and Seattle.

      4. The article’s claim about national policy is that the government wants to integrate Jewish parts of East Jerusalem, such as Pisgat Ze’ev, while neglecting parts that remain Arab. Again I don’t know the specifics of Jerusalem, but it rings true in Tel Aviv, which is integrating the gentrifying parts of Jaffa while treating Ajami with the same scorn any white-majority American city treats its poor minority neighborhoods.

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  5. marvin gruza

    20/20 hindsigh -2 years after the last post: the light rail working great and will be expanded
    we need to learn about patience and learning curves
    a transportation is often not just about current travel patterns but also about those that will evolve over time give the lines that are created

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