Assessing transport trends from a quality of life perspective.


During the early years of Israel's existence, cars were almost exclusively a luxury good, earning the nickname of "private" as compared to the "public" transport that most people rode. Austerity measures, complex import regulations on cars, and the Zionist collectivist ethos checked the growth of motorization for several decades. There were only 7 cars per thousand people in 1952 (compared to 300 per thousand in the U.S. at the same time), and only 12 per thousand a decade later. As late as 1980, almost 50 percent of all travel was by bus.

Motorization began to soar in the 1980s. By 1988 there were 185 cars per 1000 persons. Growth in the car fleet has continued in the 1990s at the rate of about six percent annually, and in 1997 the country had over 1.6 million vehicles. (1) Public transport use dropped correspondingly--to 40 percent of all motor vehicle trips in 1985, and 36 percent of all travel in 1995. If current car-oriented trends continue, public transport will decline to an estimated 20-30 percent of all motorized travel after the year 2000. (2)

Many transportation professionals believe that rising living standards inevitably lead to an increase in car ownership and use. They argue that at 234 cars per thousand, Israeli motorization rates are still lower than those of Europe, and that Israeli public transport ridership is still significantly higher nationally--although not in urban areas. (3) They contend that restraint is impossible without the kind of draconian measures that would be unacceptable to contemporary Israelis. And they argue that higher car ownership rates will bring greater freedom and social equity. These claims are based on a misrepresentation both of European trends, of Israel's special problems of geographical size and population density, and of the real social equity issues that are at stake.


Most fundamentally, in an era in which other advanced countries are attempting to reduce their reliance on private cars, Israel's low motorization rates should be regarded as a tremendous advantage, not a lag to be eliminated. Experience in Europe and the United States demonstrates that as car ownership rates increase, public transport patronage tends to decline. (4)

A debate centered only around Israel's relatively lower rate of car ownership masks Israel's unique transport policy dilemma. Because this country is so small and densely populated, European levels of car ownership and use in Israel will generate more severe pollution and congestion impacts than they do in countries such as France, Germany or Great Britain, which enjoy a larger geographical area. To obtain an accurate comparison of congestion and pollution trends in Israel vis-a-vis Europe, we also need to compare the density of road vehicles and the intensity of vehicular travel per unit of area (kilometers squared). Per square kilometer, vehicle travel in Israel north of the sparsely populated Negev already exceeds that of every country in Western Europe. (5) Similarly, the density of cars, per square kilometer, will exceed that of every other Western European nation by the year 2010. (6) See Figure 11.

Figure 11: Vehicle Travel per Square Kilometer, 1993 and 2010


In terms of the "mix" of travel modes, comparisons between Israel and Western European countries also underplay the destructive trends underway in Israel. For instance, many road developers cite the relatively high proportion of public transport ridership in Israel. They argue that even if extensive road development occurs, the proportion of public transport nationally will remain high when compared to Europe. Israel is even described as a "nature reserve" in the Trans Israel Highway Travel Forecast and Economic Analysis--which estimated that Israeli public transport ridership nationally averaged around 36 percent of motorized traffic in Israel in 1993, in comparison to an average of about 20 percent in Europe. (7) While technically accurate, such comparisons mask Israel's relatively greater dependence on socially and environmentally unsustainable transport modes:

* Proportionally fewer Israelis travel via non-motorized modes--particularly bike and pedestrian. In Denmark and Holland, the two European countries most similar to Israel size-wise, travel by bicycle constitutes seven percent of total passenger kilometers traveled via all modes, while in Israel it constitutes less than one percent of total travel. (8) See Figure 12.

* Israel's relatively greater dependency on motorized, as compared to non-motorized modes, spurs a higher overall "consumption" of travel. As noted previously, PER UNIT OF AREA, road travel by all motorized modes is already higher in Israel than in any other European country. In the future, car-oriented development will exacerbate current trends by promoting dispersed land use patterns that induce people to travel further distances for every daily task. Israelis will be literally "driving around in circles." (9)

* In Israel, public transport relies overwhelmingly on relatively "dirty" bus modes that consume more space and generate more pollution than rail. That dependency will be perpetuated in road-oriented development scenarios, where buses will naturally enjoy a continued development edge over rail. (10)

Figure 12: Bus-Rail-Bike Travel, Europe vs Israel

Bus vs Rail

In terms of sheer capacity, urban bus systems are less efficient than rail in crowded urban corridors. Urban buses can on the average carry at maximum 5,000 to 8,000 passengers per hour, per lane in a typical urban bus-only thoroughfare. In Jerusalem's Jaffa Road, as well as in many Tel Aviv locations, peak time passenger bus travel has already reached or exceeded that ceiling, resulting in service delays and inefficiencies. (11_12) While a bus-only system can be more flexible than rail, and better serve low-capacity corridors, it has a higher pollution penalty than rail--emitting both NOX and, in the case of diesel, PM10s directly into the street. Bus traffic noise also is generally more disturbing than rail traffic. (13)

Per passenger, rail uses less urban and interurban space. Due both to the larger space consumption and pollution emissions, rail integrates better with pedestrian and cycle modes in cities. Rail thus spurs indirectly more compact land use patterns--which thrive in pedestrian-oriented environments. As a result, a rail line is generally perceived by investors as a far more effective trigger for high value-added commercial or residential development at station sites. It is also generally perceived by members of the public as a more reliable and higher quality means of transport than a bus. See Figure 13 on the next page.

The Royal Commission report on Transport and Environment sums up the overall benefits of urban light rail over buses this way:

"Diverting traffic to light rapid transit systems can improve the urban environment by reducing local noise and atmospheric pollution and by improving safety. These advantages are strengthened if streets are closed to other traffic (except for appropriate access to frontages). Tram systems are popular with the public, and are one of the most efficient travel modes in terms of primary energy requirements. Per passenger kilometer and with 50 percent occupancy, they use three quarters of the energy used by a similarly loaded double-decker bus, and only about a tenth of that of a car used for urban commuting. The construction of rapid transit systems can stimulate complementary improvements in town centers, as well as provide greater certainty of services, thereby encouraging developers to provide new facilities." (14)

Figure 13: Urban Space Required by Travel Mode

Often, increases in the share of rail and non-motorized transport by even a few percentage points can markedly improve social equity and quality of life and reduce pollution. It is government transport and investment policy that plays a major role in determining whether such incremental improvements will occur. (15)

Israel's Lag in Proactive Policy

While the car lobbyists have complained that Israelis "lagging" behind Europe in car ownership rates, the true lag Israel suffers is in the realm of effective policies to stem excessive car ownership and use.

Managed, proactive policies to reduce car use in countries such as those in Holland and Denmark are beginning to yield results in stemming the tide of car dependency. In The Netherlands, for instance, passenger train travel grew by 60 percent between 1986 and 1994 -- while car travel grew by less than 20 percent. (16)

In contrast, Israeli policy is largely reactive. Since no national transport plan or targets exist, policy is driven by existing transport projects-most notably the Trans Israel Highway plan. The unquestioned assumption embedded into the Trans Israel Highway plan is that Israeli car ownership levels will rise to rates exceeding most countries in Europe today, generating massive new demands for road space According to Route Six projections, car ownership is to average 450 private cars per 1000 Israelis by the year 2020 -- nearly one car for every two citizens (of all ages!). (17) Such ownership rates would exceed those of most countries in Europe today -- particularly Denmark, which boasts only 305 cars per thousand, or Holland's 363 cars per 1000. (18)

The difference between European and Israeli transport trends is most striking in city-by-city comparisons. Two outstanding facts:

+ Major Israeli cities already have car ownership rates well within the range of European cities of comparable size and importance. (19 20) In fact, car ownership even in low-income Jerusalem and Beersheba, presently exceeds that of Copenhagen, where transport policy has successfully blunted trends towards rising car ownership. In Copenhagen, car ownership between 1990 and 1995 declined from 188 to 165 cars per 1000 residents within the city limits, and in the...

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