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Could a road diet fix Jerusalem’s packed and perilous Hebron Road? Here’s the skinny

Activists want to turn the street into a pedestrian-friendly space with cafes, bike paths and more by squeezing out cars and investing heavily in public transportation

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

Running and cycling paths are part of the plan for greening Jerusalem's Hebron Road. (Our Streets)
Running and cycling paths are part of the plan for greening Jerusalem's Hebron Road. (Our Streets)

To get from southeast Jerusalem to the city center, there are few options as direct as Hebron Road.

There are also few options as congested and dangerous, whether traveling by car, bus, bike or foot.

At peak times, a journey along the four-lane street, which has another two lanes running through the middle for buses, is a nail-bitingly slow, bumper-to-bumper affair, filling Jerusalem’s air with exhaust fumes and the honks of frustrated drivers. Going just five kilometers (three miles) can take 45 minutes.

It’s hardly any better for pedestrians or bus passengers, who must cross into the middle of the dangerous road to reach the rapid transit lanes.

With another 9,000 housing units planned along and close to the artery, from Remez Square to the Rozmarin intersection at Gilo, and growth in surrounding neighborhoods continuing apace, one can only wonder whether a planned light rail route meant to replace the bus lanes will solve the street’s woes.

Instead, according to Jerusalem-based social activist Yossi Saidov, what Hebron Roads needs is a facelift, and a diet.

Light traffic along Hebron Road in August, when schools are out and many Jerusalemites are on vacation. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Saidov, who has several successful campaigns under his belt, has launched a campaign to slim Hebron’s four lanes to two, a concept known in planning circles as a “road diet,” and to use the leftover space for a wide, park-like sidewalk, with room for walkers, joggers, cyclists, cafes, neighborhood stores, and community activities.

The plan may be more than a pipe dream. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion says he has already instructed officials to examine the idea “positively.”

One of Jerusalem’s most important arteries, Hebron Road links the Talpiot industrial zone, a major employment and shopping hub, to the city center, traversing the residential neighborhoods of Baka to the west and Arnona, Talpiot and Abu Tor to the east.

The road, which runs all the way south to Bethlehem in the West Bank, is one of the only ways into the city center for those coming from several East Jerusalem neighborhoods, as well as settlements in the Etzion Bloc.

Hebron Road is also among the most dangerous roads in the country, according to the Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel. Data from the group, published in the Jerusalem newspaper Kol Hair, showed that three people were killed on the road from 2018 to 2020, another seven were seriously hurt in crashes, and 30 others suffered non-life-threatening injuries in traffic incidents.

Nationwide, experts say congestion is mounting as more cars pour onto Israel’s roads, many of which were built for a time when car ownership was still considered a luxury. The jams don’t only fray drivers’ nerves; they also cost the economy NIS 40 billion ($11.7 billion) a year, according to a report in The Marker (Hebrew) — half due to loss of work and leisure hours, and half because of traffic accidents and air pollution.

Congestion along Highway 20’s Tel Aviv section, December 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In 2021, the Central Bureau of Statistics counted 3.84 million cars on Israel’s roads, a 4.1% rise over the previous year.  Over that same period, the number of bus seats rose by 0.3%.

As a Times of Israel investigation summarized in December, the bottom line is there are too many cars and too few public transportation solutions.

For decades, conventional planning wisdom held that the solution to congestion was building more lanes and more roads. In Jerusalem, several massive road projects are underway to link the city’s western entrance with Mount Scopus in the city’s north and with Givat Mordechai, a neighborhood just southwest of the city center. Closer to Hebron Road, a section of an East Jerusalem ring road linking the Palestinian neighborhoods of Umm Tuba and Abu Dis, agreed to as part of the 1994 Israeli Palestinian Oslo Accords, was recently completed.

But experts now say that adding lanes actually makes traffic issues worse by encouraging car usage. In 2017, 1,051 kilometers (653 miles) of road in Israel were built, rebuilt, or widened. In 2021, the figure was 460 kilometers (285 miles).

Merav Michaeli speaks during a meeting of the Labor Party in Tel Aviv, a day after the elections, March 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has declared her commitment to finding a public transportation-led solution to the country’s congestion crisis, based on investing around 80% of the ministry’s budget in public transportation and sustainable transportation projects, and 20% in private vehicle infrastructure.

The principle fits Hebron Road well.

According to official figures from the Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team, some 3,000 cars carrying around 3,200 people travel on the road in one direction during a two-hour rush hour. Over the same period, some 160 buses travel the same route.

Many of those buses are articulated and can carry around 100 passengers each, though others, like minibuses, have many fewer. There are no official figures for the number of bus passengers along the stretch of Hebron Road, but it likely far outstrips those traveling by car, perhaps by a factor of two or even higher.

To Saidov, it’s unfair that those using private cars are allocated most of the road, while greater numbers of people using public transportation are allocated far less.

With the city already planning on installing a light rail line to replace the bus lanes, Saidov and others envision transforming Hebron Road from a car-centric artery into a space divided more justly for its users.

A simulated cross-section of Hebron Road as envisioned by activists, removing two lanes of traffic in favor of bike lanes and more room for pedestrians. (Our Streets)

For the 4.5 kilometer-(2.8 mile)-section from Remez Square by the First Station complex to the neighborhood of Gilo on Jerusalem’s southern edge, Saidov’s not-for-profit organization, Our Streets, working with Merhav-Movement for Israeli Urbanism, and Bicyles for Jerusalem, proposes retaining two lanes on the eastern side of the Hebron Road for vehicles, with one lane going south, the other north.

The two western lanes would be replaced with trees and greenery, crisscrossed by paths for cyclists, runners and pedestrians, and spaces for community, as well as commercial, activities.

In the center would be two lanes for the light rail’s Blue Line, which will connect  Gilo in the south of the city with Ramat Eshkol and Ramot in the north via the city center. A separate spur of the rail will run along Emek Refaim Street and link up with the Malha neighborhood.

The Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team’s illustration of the revamped Hebron Road with light rail rather than bus lines. (Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team)

Saidov and his team have presented their ideas to Lion and senior city officials.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion speaks in Jerusalem, July 10, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A statement from the municipality said that the mayor had instructed officials “to examine the proposal positively,” although according to Saidov, Lion expressed a preference for getting the Blue Line up and running first.

Once the Blue Line is operational, it will be able to carry 10,000 people northwards between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 7,000 southwards between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., according to the transportation masterplan team.

Around 110 buses will continue to run north in the morning rush hour and south in the evening, mainly ferrying East Jerusalem Palestinians to and from work or school. These will travel along the regular lanes, together with cars, trucks and motorcycles.

Plans are for the light rail section from Gilo to the city center to become operational in 2028, with the whole line set to be ready by 2030.

Saidov’s vision for Hebron Road is what’s known as a road diet, also called lane reduction or road conversion.

Road diets have been hailed for reducing road accidents, allocating urban space in a fairer way, slowing traffic, and improving quality of life and economic activity.

According to the US Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration road diets result in a “more community-focused, complete streets environment that better accommodates the needs of all road users.”

A study by the agency in 2010 found that removing lanes can slash collisions by up to 47 percent, calm traffic, and lead to more consistent speeds.

In San Diego, a road diet for La Jolla Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, reduced traffic incidents and crashes by 90%, enhanced safety for pedestrians crossing the road, and boosted surrounding retail sales by 30%.

In Seoul, planners revitalized part of the city’s downtown by removing a whole highway and rehabilitating a river that had been covered by it.

Saidov cites Jerusalem’s downtown Jaffa Street as an example of an artery transformed by a diet into something closer to a “complete street,” a term for roads that allow for safe travel by pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, goods delivery workers and people using public transportation.

Once crowded with noisy, polluting traffic, Jaffa Road has been converted into a leafy pedestrian zone, lined with cafes, where the only transportation is a quiet light railway train passing through every few minutes.

Critics have noted that the buses and cars that once plied Jaffa Street did not disappear but were moved onto two parallel streets, turning them into congested messes. But Saidov says the result has been an economic boon for shops along the major downtown thoroughfare.

Jerusalemites walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on August 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Every year, The Marker and Globes look into the most profitable streets in the country,” he said. “After Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, Jaffa Street routinely comes in second — and Jerusalem is a poor city. When you walk around, you buy more.”

By contrast, there are few stores along Hebron Road, with many of them changing hands frequently. Cars speed past and there is little parking.

Yossi Saidov. (Courtesy, Our Streets campaign)

Rather than increase congestion, taking away lanes will encourage more people to use public transportation, according to Saidov, who rattled off statistics to show that people will choose buses or trains if it gets them to their destination faster.

An example: Travel times decreased and the number of passengers grew on rush hour buses between coastal Netanya and Tel Aviv after a lane of the highway between the two cities was earmarked solely for public transportation, according to a study conducted by the engineering company Amy-Meton for the Transportation Ministry, published by The Marker (Hebrew).

The capital’s first, and still only, light railway, the Red Line, which runs from Mount Herzl in the west to Pisgat Zeev in the north, was initially expected to carry 90,000 passengers per day, with a train every 4.5 minutes, Saidov said. But it is being used by 170,000 people daily, with trains running every 6.5 minutes, and no addition of carriages since the service started.

In a statement to The Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Municipality balked at the idea of reducing lanes for cars, but said bike lanes were already part of the plan once the light rail is complete.

“The expansion of the light rail network, the system of transit stations, and the encouragement of travel by public transportation are expected to reduce private vehicle traffic, even without reducing the number of lanes,” it said.

The planned Jerusalem light rail network. (Jerusalem Transportation Masterplan Team)

The city added that with major building planned for the Talpiot Industrial zone, largely to develop more trade and places of employment, many people living along Hebron Road will be able to walk or cycle to work, reducing traffic.

Saidov, active in a group promoting urban initiatives within the framework of the President’s Climate Forum, is speaking to residents at parlor meetings up and down neighborhoods adjoining Hebron Road. With mayoral elections set for next year, he is hoping a groundswell of support will help turn the street’s redevelopment into a campaign issue.

It’s a strategy he used to good effect on his first campaign.

Now 45, Saidov became an activist in 2007 on hearing of plans to build a road close to his home in the Katamonim neighborhood of south Jerusalem.

He launched an ultimately successful campaign to have a temporary park along a former train line turned into a permanent green space, with a walking path now extending all the way to Malha in the south of the city as part of a seven-kilometer (4.3 mile) route hugging the original Jaffa–Jerusalem railway line.

Within 10 months of opening, pedestrian traffic along the tracks quadrupled, Saidov said. And it brought people together by traversing both Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, bringing those using the path into areas they may not have previously gone.

Park Hamesila was built on the site of a train track to Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

As a major artery that does not have any parallel routes to absorb extra cars, Hebron Road cannot easily go on a diet without the city investing heavily in connecting neighborhoods that rely on the road, especially in East Jerusalem, to the Blue Line. Saidov admits that much work must be done before his plan can become tenable.

The municipality says that it is working on additional projects to encourage public transportation use, among them the construction of six Park and Ride parking lots, on top of three that already exist.

The city has already introduced several bus lanes, is planning more, and will soon double the number of rent-a-bike stops from 25 to 50, a statement said.

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