Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, Israel's visionary, foresaw an electric train traversing the streets of Jerusalem. In 1902 he wrote the following in his utopian book Altneuland; "Then she had been a gloomy, dilapidated city; now she was risen in splendor, youthful, alert[...] Outside the walls the picture was altogether different. Modem sections intersected by electric street railways; wide, tree-bordered streets […] a twentieth century metropolis."
A decade later, toward the end of the Turkish Ottoman rule in Israel, the first initiatives were proposed for building an electric train in the city – but with no results. Later, when the British arrived, they emphatically opposed the idea of a train in Jerusalem. The military governor of Jerusalem at the time even declared that “the first rail would have to be laid over the dead body of the military governor.”
In 1948 the nascent State of Israel celebrated its independence while Herzl’s vision lay forgotten, for the time being.
By the late 1960s, the need for an efficient transportation system was keenly felt. Jerusalem was the largest city in Israel, its neighborhoods sprawled over a very wide geographic area, and its population was steadily growing. In addition, most of the governmental and national institutions were located in Jerusalem, as befitting the nation's capital. Nevertheless, the transportation infrastructure in the city was in very poor shape. The public transportation system was outdated and unreliable; the arterial road network did not fulfill its purpose. It seemed that the city was incapable of coping with its growing number of residents, its many sites of interest and the vehicles that traveled its roads.
The Jerusalem Municipality decided to establish a team of transportation experts who would provide facts, figures and tools to the decision makers; forecast future trends; and recommend solutions to the transportation and accessibility problems.
In light of its professional abilities, the team was asked to prepare additional master plans to address the following issues: parking, traffic arrangements, overpasses and tunnels, and a master plan for regulating public transportation in East Jerusalem. These plans were successfully promoted and implemented with full cooperation between the Jerusalem municipality and the Transport Ministry.
Significant progress took place in the 1990s. The levels of soot and pollution in the city had become unbearable; the metropolis’ roads were virtually impassable for most hours of the day – and professionals in the Transport Ministry and the municipality were determined to find a solution. Many alternatives were examined, from an underground subway to miniature buses. Even a cable-car line was considered, but idea was eventually shelved.
After scrupulous research and analysis, the team submitted a plan for establishing a integrated transportation system. This required coordination between governmental, municipal and transport systems. The plan, approved in 1993, included four main components:
- Improving accessibility within the city via ring roads and arterial roads.
- Developing and expanding access roads to the city from all directions.
- Developing mass rapid transit system (light rail and express buses – BRT, or bus rapid transit)
- Creating an integrated system of roads, public transportation and car parks – supporting one another.
Right from the outset the experts on the Tochnit-Av Transportation team realized that improving the city’s transportation is only one tier of the changes that are necessary. Traffic arteries are the life-blood of the city itself, and the transportation revolution is an opportunity to give Jerusalem a face lift and restore the city’s charm and appeal.
Jerusalem is a city of great religious, cultural and historic sensitivity; only a thin line separates between the peaceful coexistence of its inhabitants and their angry protests.
The team therefore exercised great sensitivity in all the stages of decision making and-implementation. Much thought was devoted to the placement of public transport lanes, to the scope of the changes and the involvement of the relevant experts, such as historians, religious figures and representatives of various sectors of the population.
The team faced an additional challenge: reducing the difficulties involved in the partial shutdown of a bustling capital city and minimizing the inconveniences to the daily lives of its residents. Case studies of other cities that have undergone a similar process were examined and the team concluded that over time, even people who had initially opposed similar infrastructure work – especially the residents who suffered the most – eventually benefitted from the results and in retrospect were pleased with the process.
The first line of the Light Rail was inaugurated in 2011 and we can say that Jerusalem has entered a new era. Today, Jerusalem is Israel’s leading city in implementing innovative transportation projects and developing advanced models for increasing its accessibility to the city’s residents and visitors; reducing environmental pollution; and preserving a healthy, green environment.