On April 11, 1909, when the 66 founding families of the city later named Tel Aviv raffled their building plots on a desolate sand dune using seashells, they probably did not imagine that 100 years later this wasteland would become a flourishing modern city in the heart of the Middle East, or that the number one problem of the city would be transportation – specifically, traffic jams and the lack of parking spots.
The northern and southern entrances to the Tel Aviv metropolitan area are known as the most congested roads in Israel. Every morning hundreds of thousands of cars enter this area, creating ridiculous delays (for me, a 45-minute drive can turn into two hours), noise and air pollution. Once you enter the city, finding a parking spot can be even more frustrating. The problem is that the city wasn’t designed to handle so many cars, and the numbers just keep increasing. On top of that, public transportation was poorly planned and did not offer useful alternatives to the automobile within the urban areas.
As part of governmental and municipal efforts to create a more advanced and efficient transportation system in Israel, several ambitious projects had been developed. Two just opened in the past year: the light rail in Jerusalem and the Carmel Tunnels in Haifa. The biggest project of all – a high-speed railway that will connect Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in 28 minutes – is scheduled to launch in 2017. A light rail in Tel Aviv is also under way, but the infrastructure work has just begun. Since talks to create the system began in the late 1950s, many people don’t think the inauguration will happen in their lifetime, which highlights the need for more immediate solutions.
As a first step, the city of Tel Aviv and the Israeli Ministry of Transportation launched a reform of the bus system of the metro in July 2011. Until then, most of the bus lines had long, tortuous routes that ran infrequently.
Meanwhile, Tel Aviv was working on a different approach to help reduce its transportation problems. Here in Portland, the solution sounds almost obvious – bikes. The first bike trails in Tel Aviv were built during the renovation of the main boulevards in the 1990s, but lately the city accelerated this process creating more than 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) of roads suitable for bikes – whether for bikes only or as a shared road. Last year, the city started a bicycle-sharing service called “Tel-O-Fun” (ofunayim means bicycle in Hebrew) that includes 125 stations for renting the more than 1,000 available bikes. City statistics report that up to 5% of the residents use bikes to get to work every morning. Though less than Portland’s 8%, the highest proportion of any major U.S. city, the numbers are on the rise.
The international trend of cycling has gained popularity across Israel. The company that operates the Cross-Israel Highway (Highway 6) is building a bike route along the road with some parts already open. Another project is to create a version of the Israel National especially for cyclists. The first segment, starting from Eilat, opened in 2011. In general, you now see many more bicycles everyday and not just on Yom Kippur, which has become the unofficial bicycle day (with no cars on the roads). This might not solve tomorrow’s morning traffic jam in Tel Aviv, but it is definitely steering the wheel to the right path.
Amos Meron is the Israeli shaliach (emissary) to the Jewish community of Portland, and can be reached at email@example.com or on Facebook (Amos Meron Shaliach).