Buses, minivans a faster, cheaper way to Old City than planned cable car – study

Buses, minivans a faster, cheaper way to Old City than planned cable car – study

New analysis of traffic data appears to undermine cable car planner congestion claims, indicates solution lies in more shuttles

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Artist's impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley, from a promotional video posted to YouTube.
Artist's impression of cable cars crossing Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley, from a promotional video posted to YouTube.

Transport data used by the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Development Authority to justify the building of a widely criticized, NIS 200 million ($58 million) cable car from the capital’s First Station culture complex to the Old City is superficial, out of date and ignores much cheaper options for getting between the two locations, a new study found.

Architects, academics, preservation experts, and tour guides have scorned the government’s scheme to transport up to 3,000 people per hour in up to 72 ten-person cabins across Jerusalem’s historic Hinnom Valley, with just one intermediate stop, at Mount Zion.

They have called it a poorly thought out, Disneyesque idea that will scar the historic landscape with 15 massive pylons, sully unique views of the UNESCO World Heritage Site (both the Old City itself and its walls), and do little to solve traffic and pollution problems around the Old City walls.

Gideon Stein, chief research scientist at Mobileye, has — as a private citizen  — been analyzing the traffic data provided by the planners. On Wednesday, he gave The Times of Israel results of a project that he undertook last month to test claims that the cable car will relieve serious congestion near to the Dung Gate — the closest entrance to the Western Wall, beneath Judaism’s most venerated site.

An artist’s rendering of a station on the route of the future cable car that will stretch from Jerusalem’s First Station to the Western Wall in the Old City. (Courtesy Jerusalem Development Authority)

In his paper, he charges that planners have been basing their traffic claims on just two counts of traffic — one carried out at the Dung Gate on June 16, 2012, and a second undertaken by the nearby City of David project, on June 19, 2013 — neither with the cable car project in mind.

Employing GPS data from city buses run by the Egged company, he used the travel times of more than 2,700 bus trips made by two bus lines (1 and 38) that run in the Old City area between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m during November and December last year, before the coronavirus pandemic virtually halted tourist traffic. The period includes the Hanukkah and Christmas holiday periods.

Dung Gate, located in the southeast corner of Jerusalem’s Old Ciy, is the closest entrance to the Western Wall and is the main passage for vehicles. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

He found that while there were was some congestion, mainly on the Ophel Road leading up to the Dung Gate, it was still faster for people from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and large hotels north of the Old City to go directly to the Western Wall than to travel south to the First Station complex, enter the station to buy tickets and pass through a security check, get onto the cable car and travel 4.5 minutes to the yet-to-be-built Kedem Center near the City of David, disembark and walk five minutes to the Dung Gate and then walk another few minutes to the Western Wall itself.

During the whole two-month period surveyed, 50 percent of traffic on the Ophel Road got up the hill in up to six minutes, and 90% did it in 13 minutes at most.

Visitors wait for other people to turn up to fill a free shuttle from the First Station area in West Jerusalem to the Dung Gate near the Western Wall, March 26, 2019. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Stein also estimated the travel time of minivan shuttles, which usually take tourists, without charge, from the First Station parking lot to the Dung Gate. These vans — which have never been properly publicized — are dismissed in the planners’ official traffic report without analysis, Stein shows.

Stein analyzed 1,446 trips taken by bus number 38, which follows the same route as the minivan shuttle from Dung Gate to the First Station. Half of the trips took six minutes or less and 90% took 11 minutes at most.

Dr Gideon Stein. (Courtesy)

The shuttle, says Stein, is not only much cheaper than a cable car, but more flexible, with a second route possible from Dung Gate to Jaffa Gate, a popular starting or finishing point for tourists. Buses do the route in about 10 minutes each way.

Stein concludes that it is possible to reduce congestion with cheaper methods. These include doubling the frequency of public buses, cutting intervals between shuttle departures by at least half and adding a shuttle service between Jaffa Gate and Dung Gate. A ban on private vehicles, more than 100 of which enter the Ophel Road every hour, would reduce traffic load and free up 115 parking spaces for buses. A modern shuttle service, says Stein, could easily carry more than 1,000 passengers per hour — the peak number envisaged for the cable car service.

While the project has been promoted as a tourism and transport initiative, the Transportation Ministry has not been involved in the planning.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

After just one presentation before the Jerusalem planning committee, the project was whisked away to the National Planning Council – a fast-track body within the Finance Ministry set up to handle major infrastructure projects such as gas and railway lines that cross local authority boundaries.

Asaf Zamir (Blue and White Party), who recently replaced Levin as tourism minister, has decided to keep the plan.

Opponents of the project are awaiting the decision of an appeal to the High Court presented late last month.

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