August 26 marked the 75th anniversary of an incremental step forward in the annals of Jerusalem transportation – the day the first taxi began plying the city’s streets.
In a city of transformative events spanning millennia, it’s unlikely the anniversary garnered much attention, not only because today’s Jerusalem is awash in taxis, but also because Jerusalemites now have the option of being whisked through the capital via modern light rail.
A visitor from Israel Bonds – the organization that has enabled major transportation advances in Israel – discovered that to ride the light rail is to experience a microcosm of Jerusalem’s diversity. Fellow passengers included secular Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox, devout Muslims and camera-toting tourists.
Each train has a capacity of around 500 passengers, the equivalent of 10 buses. With a first-stage route encompassing nearly two dozen stops - the Old City (providing the quintessential Israel experience of riding state-of-the-art transportation past a site of ancient pilgrimage), multiple neighborhoods, the Macane Yehuda Market and the downtown district - the light rail has changed the way residents work, shop and plan their days.
Surveys show substantial increases in pedestrian traffic stemming from the greater accessibility provided by the light rail. Macane Yehuda, for example, has seen a 38 percent increase, and visits to the popular ‘triangle’ area of King George Avenue, Jaffa Road and Ben-Yehuda Street jumped 34 percent. Overall increases average 41 percent. An added bonus for Jerusalemites and visitors alike has been the conversion of Jaffa Road into a pedestrian mall.
A Dramatic Reboot
Getting to and from the capital is also undergoing a dramatic reboot. Riding the rails from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a distance of less than 50 miles - currently takes 2 ½ hours. By 2017, the trip will shrink to a mere 30 minutes.
The key to the drastic time reduction is the ambitious construction of a complex network of bridges and tunnels. And, because this is Israel, there are additional considerations beyond the obvious topographical challenges inherent in boring through hundreds of feet of solid rock.
One is archeological. In Israel, any project entailing digging is sensitive to the fact that priceless artifacts might be uncovered during the excavation process. If antiquities are discovered, work stops and archeologists are called in to examine the relics.
The second consideration is environmental. Israel is a world leader in environmental sustainability, and Aliza Kutner – who describes her job with Israel Railways as “being in charge of all things green” - relishes her eco-friendly responsibilities.
“I watch the process all the way through,” she declares proudly. This includes, first and foremost, ensuring everything in the construction path – flora, fauna, trees and even boulders – remains pristine. Kutner says this means much of the pre-existing landscape must be temporarily relocated while the tunnels are being constructed.
Attuned to Subtleties
It’s not an easy undertaking. Kutner must be attuned to differences, however subtle, that escape the eye of a casual visitor. Rocks, for instance. Kutner explains that rocks differ depending on whether they are scattered on top of a hill or deep inside where the tunnel is bored. Topsoil differs as well.
Trees pose the greatest challenge. They must be carefully uprooted and moved to a fenced-off location outside the construction zone, where they are replanted and marked for eventual return. Special precautions are taken to ensure the relocation zone remains undamaged. “We guaranteed the country,” says Kutner, “that we will bring everything back.”
Upon completion, the NIS 7 billion (approximately $1.8 billion) project will send trains racing across the country through tunnels that at some points will run 118 feet deep and 7.5 miles long. The projected schedule foresees four double-decker trains every 15 minutes during rush hour and two trains during off-peak hours.
And, while riders will notice a huge difference in their trip, no one will notice a difference in the surroundings. Vows Israel Railways self-proclaimed green lady: “It will be like we’ve never been here – I promise you.”