ToI investigates

It’s the errands, not the commute: What’s really driving Israel’s traffic crisis

Why, if COVID has left many working from home, is the country so gridlocked? Partly because people jump into their newly bought cars for trips they once took on public transit

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Traffic jams on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, December 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)
Traffic jams on the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, December 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

Traffic is starting to make inroads into Saar Bar-On’s relationship. When the Givatayim resident decides to stay over with his girlfriend in Ramat Hasharon — 13 kilometers (8 miles) away — he now has to set an alarm for 6 a.m., or hit rush hour and triple his 20-minute drive home into an hour or more.

“Even if I have a meeting hours later, I’ll leave by 6:30 a.m. If I leave at 7 a.m., I’ll sit forever,” said Bar-On. “It’s terrible and getting worse.”

In what might feel like a paradox in the reduced commute era of work from home, traffic has gotten worse since the pre-pandemic period, both in terms of the amount of congestion and the duration of high-traffic periods. In short, Israelis are stagnating in more traffic, more of the time.

According to data from the Waze navigation app, Israeli “road travel” has increased by an average of 23% compared to pre-pandemic levels. In some cities, it’s far worse. Use of the roads has increased by 45% in Beersheba, 38% in Jerusalem, and 29% in Haifa, per the Waze data.

Israel’s busiest stretch of road, Route 20 aka the Ayalon Highway connecting Tel Aviv to the rest of the country, suffers heavy traffic almost nonstop, said Felix Shakhman, head of the Division for Data Collection, Survey, and Research at government company Ayalon Highways, which manages Route 20. Traffic is building up earlier in the day and lasting later into the evening.

“Where you’d once see a busy peak in the mornings and evenings, today we see that it starts at 6:30 a.m., continues all day, and ends late at night,” said Shakhman. “The peaks pretty much don’t exist.”

“We don’t see any relief in traffic, and we don’t expect to see any, if we carry on with business as usual,” added Tal Raviv, an industrial engineer and traffic expert who runs Tel Aviv University’s Shlomo Shmeltzer Institute for Smart Transportation.

The situation is so pressing — so frustrating for road users, and so economically damaging — that Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has declared a national “traffic crisis.”

But why? Why is this unfolding in a period when so many people have been commuting less and working more from home because of COVID-19?

And what are Israel’s national planners going to do about it?

Too many cars

Experts point to several factors contributing to increased congestion, but they can largely be summarized as too many cars and too few public transportation solutions.

There are more cars than ever before on Israeli roads, hitting 3.7 million in 2020 — up from 3.6 million in 2019 — and expected to increase by a further 100,000 net new cars each year, according to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Israel’s motorization rate has also sharply increased over the past years, to nearly 400 cars per 1,000 residents — a leap from around 300 five years ago — meaning car density in the population is also increasing. Combined, the data underlines Israelis’ growing preference for owning cars.

And, as Israel’s population growth outpaces the OECD’s by a factor of four — 1.7% to 0.4%, according to the World Bank — car growth will likely continue, barring a radical change in behavior.

Exacerbating the problem, in addition to an increase in the absolute number of cars on the road, there is a parallel decrease in how many people travel in each car, likely related to pandemic-cautious behavior. According to Ayalon Highways’ Shakhman, carpool lanes are underutilized. “We had hoped more people would organize and get three people into a car, but COVID may have put them off.”

Not carpooling affects the “fill factor,” or number of people in a vehicle. Even before the pandemic, fill factor could drop as low as 1.2 people in the mornings, which means “80% of the time, someone is driving to Tel Aviv alone” instead of carpooling. Ayalon Highways has not remeasured the statistic since the start of the pandemic, but Shakhman believes that it would need to rise to 1.7 — where only 30% of trips are solo — to reduce congestion.

Traffic jams the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, as a train passes above, December 2, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The 80/20 rule

Car congestion lowers traffic speed, and it can happen quickly. Shakhman observed an 80/20 rule on Route 20, where “the last 20% of cars to join a congested road reduce road speed by 80%.” Such effects can be seen most mornings in the final stretches into Tel Aviv, where movement of vehicles can precipitously drop from the 90 kilometer per hour speed limit to “8 to 12 kph, which is very, very slow.”

And congestion is felt for a greater stretch of time, as pandemic-era changes in Israelis’ behavior patterns have extended driving hours. According to Shakhman, people are taking new kinds of trips during the day, as well as expanding the time frame of their commutes.

We tend to think of traffic as a problem caused by commuters, but in Israel, the largest share of car usage is leisure and social purposes

“On [a work from home] day, people do additional activities,” Shakhman said. “If once we drove to the office and we sat there all day until the evening, today we try to do more activities and go out onto the road. And that’s why we see midday traffic.”

Raviv reinforced this point, explaining that more than half of the total number of trips in general, by distance, are not related to work commutes. “We tend to think of traffic as a problem caused by commuters, but in Israel, the largest share of car usage is leisure and social purposes, not specifically commuting,” said Raviv.

However, extended commuting hours also play a role. “If once people left at 7 a.m., they’re now on the road by 6 a.m. If once they returned by 6 p.m., now they’re coming back later. So, the hours of congestion are broadening.”

Choosing to take these trips in cars versus public transportation further adds to the congestion. Pre-pandemic, the Tel Aviv metropolis saw around 1.5 million daily bus trips and 80,000 passengers passing through Israel Railways’ four Tel Aviv stations. “While public transportation usage has started to return, we still haven’t gotten to full pre-COVID levels,” noted Shakhman. “Even if we have a 10% drop [in public transit trips] and part of [those passengers] take to the road? We have no room left on the road.”

Passengers wait in a round-the-block line to enter Tel Aviv’s Hashalom train station during the early evening, December 5, 2021. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Public transportation needs improving

While many Israelis have opted for private cars over public transportation given COVID-related health concerns, more systemic issues exist within the public transportation system that need to be addressed in order to encourage people to get on board.

Current public transportation options do not offer credible alternatives to private car travel, in terms of both duration of trip and convenience. “If it takes twice as long to use public transportation, [a traveler] might not use it,” said Raviv.

As a related issue, buses largely travel on the same roads as cars, rather than on dedicated, less-congested public transit lanes. As a result, buses both sit in and contribute to congestion, reducing their attractiveness to travelers.

A notable intraurban exception to this is the Metronit system in Haifa, a bus rapid transit (BRT) system that introduced dedicated lanes and “provides a service very similar to light rail,” said Raviv.

Issues within cities spill over into interurban transport. In fact, Raviv thinks that intraurban transportation failures are a prime factor causing interurban traffic.

“The problem of interurban transport is mainly induced by the problem of transportation inside a city,” said Raviv. “The reason why [drivers from the outskirts or out of town] do not use trains and do not use buses is because they know that once they get into the city, they cannot [smoothly] complete their last-mile journey to their destination. Relieving problems in the city would immediately contribute to relieving congestion outside the city.”

Another systemic issue is the weekly, 24-hour cessation of service that is a unique mark of the Israeli system, in which most public transportation stops on the Jewish Sabbath. This service disruption drives people to use private vehicles, because as Raviv said, “people want to feel freedom.”

How to break the gridlock

Experts and politicians alike point to improving public transportation as the key factor in reducing national gridlock.

“We have to give preference to public transport, even to the detriment of private cars,” said Max Morogovsky, chairman of consumer advocacy group Transportation Our Way, arguing it is an unpopular but necessary decision. “Our biggest [move-the-needle] goal is to move as many people as possible from private cars to public transportation.”

“Only the government can step in to make a change,” said Raviv. “In advanced countries like Israel, public transit is the only effective way to reduce traffic.”

Transportation Minister Michaeli last week declared her commitment to finding a public transit-led solution to Israel’s traffic crisis, saying that “we budgeted a lot of money to buy buses and recruit new drivers” in a Friday TV interview.

An intracity bus in downtown Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“After decades of prioritizing private vehicles, Minister Michaeli decided to turn the pyramid upside down and invest about 80% of the ministry’s budget in public transportation and sustainable transportation projects, and 20% in private vehicle infrastructure, with an emphasis on road safety and risk centers,” confirmed a Transportation Ministry spokesman.

Current Transportation Ministry plans for the next five years include building traffic management centers to intelligently control interurban traffic lights, investing NIS 2 billion nationwide in bike lanes, and investing NIS 300 million to connect light rails to next-step options, like scooters and electric bikes.

Raviv also advocated for introducing more buses into the system, alongside creating dedicated lanes for public transportation. This is significant because buses can move four times as many people over the same area as cars.

Creating a BRT system like Haifa’s could also be a timely stopgap measure, “built in one to two years, not several decades.” A BRT system could be a tenth of the cost of a light rail system, estimated by Raviv as NIS 50 million and NIS 500 million a kilometer, respectively, and accomplished in 20% of the time.

Construction of the new Tel Aviv Light Rail in Ramat Gan, November 07, 2019. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Congestion charges are seen as useful, but not as a standalone solution. “It’s a nice idea, but it only touches the demand side. It doesn’t have the ability to create additional supply,” said Raviv. Without additional transportation services, a congestion tax would be a fee without an alternative.

Raviv also warned that Israel cannot find its way out of this congestion quagmire by relying on expanded road options. “We’re nearing the end of possibility geographically, especially in central Israel,” warned Raviv. “It’s dense. There’s not enough land to build more infrastructure.”

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s population of 9.3 million is expected to explode into 15 million by the country’s 2048 centennial. World Bank data shows Israel is already near the top of the OECD in population density, occupying the third spot behind South Korea and the Netherlands. Unless car usage declines and public transit is revamped to be an attractive substitute, we’ll all be increasingly gridlocked, setting our alarm clocks ever earlier in desperate and ultimately futile bids to avoid the jams.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed