A Second Light Rail Line for Jerusalem

A little personal note before we get started: I know Israel-Palestine stuff is touchy, and while I’m not going to shy away from discussing a few of the political aspects of the Jerusalem light rail (because planning is ALWAYS political, dammit, but especially in the Holy City), I’m going to try to keep this mainly about technical aspects. Other disclosures: I spent two years living in Jerusalem (in 7th grade, and a gap year after high school), but I haven’t been there in nearly six years, so I haven’t actually seen the existing LRT system in operation. That being said, this blog is the “Itinerant Urbanist” for a reason, and my time in Jerusalem represents part of that itinerance (Chrome thinks that’s not a word, but I do). The city has been a major influence on my own planning ethos of walkability and density done well, which is not to minimize its massive social problems and inequities, which are undeniable regardless of your politics. 

Yesterday the Jerusalem municipality announced the opening of the process of building a second line of the city’s light-rail system. The line will run from the Mt. Scopus campus of the Hebrew University through the developing area around the city’s main intercity bus station and future high-speed rail station, then traverse Hebrew U’s secondary Givat Ram campus and several residential neighborhoods before terminating in the Gilo neighborhood. Here’s a route map, in Hebrew:

As you can see from the map, the line will, rather hilariously, be known as the Green Line. For those who may not be familiar with the intricacies of the Middle East, the term Green Line in Israel-Palestine discussions usually refers to the pre-1967 (and still legally important) border between Israel proper and the West Bank. The Green Line runs through modern Jerusalem, more or less dividing its Arab and Jewish neighborhoods from each other, though several Jewish neighborhoods developed since 1967 lie on the West Bank side of the line–including the Gilo terminus of the proposed Green Line and the Pisgat Ze’ev/Neve Yaakov northern terminus of the existing Red Line (which runs right along the dividing line in other areas). Israeli policymakers have rarely been accused of subtlety or political correctness. But I digress.

It sounds from the original Hebrew like the route hasn’t fully been decided upon, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise this far out. A quick’n’dirty translation of the press release’s route summary:

The route will extend from the southern extremity of the Gilo neighborhood to the French Hill neighborhood and the northern edge of the Mt. Scopus campus. On the way it will pass through Dov Yosef street, the Pat intersection, Herzog Street, the Bayt interchange, bisecting the campus of the Hebrew University in Givat Ram, the area of the entrance to the city, Shazar Boulevard, Nordau Boulevard, Sarei Yisrael [the princes of Israel] Street, Bar-Ilan street, Harel Brigade street, Zalman Shragai street, Levi Eshkol Boulevard, until the campus of Hebrew University at Mt. Scopus. Additionally, the line includes a branch to the business district in Talpiot which passes through the area of Ha’Parsah Street, Pierre Koenig street, Ha-tnufah street, and Rivkah street, at a length of 3.1 km.

If this seems like a route of rather extreme complexity just from the sheer variety of streets it runs on, well, yes and no. Jerusalem has got to be among the world’s least-gridded streets, and the route definitely reflects the curviness of the roads. But it also passes along a particular hilarity of street naming in the city (and elsewhere in Israel): many of the roads change names every 2-3 blocks despite full physical continuity. Just in the above paragraph, Nordau Boulevard and Sarei Yisrael Street are actually the same road, which also becomes Shamgar Street for one block before the line would turn onto Bar-Ilan (which then magically turns into Levi Eshkol Boulevard). My theory has always been that post-independence Israel authorities named streets this way to honor as many ancient and contemporary luminaries as possible (you could get a pretty good course in Zionist history just from looking up names of these streets), but it’s confusing as hell in real life.

But anyhow…the Green Line. The line will intersect with the Red Line at two points, near the central bus and future HSR station, and near French Hill. It is expected to carry 140,00-145,000 passengers per day, fairly close to opening expectations for the original line, which now carries about 150,000. By the time the Green Line opens, the Red Line will also be extended to Hadassah-Ein Kerem Hospital, or close to it.

But that map above is totally insufficient and abstract, and so you’re probably waiting for something clearer. Here’s something I put together quickly:

I highly suggest viewing that map with a background other than Google’s default. This is just a best guess of the route; there are a couple of areas where things don’t quite make sense to me, and I’m sure more will become clear over the coming years (the line is rumored to be theoretically scheduled for completion in 2021, but the first line was well behind schedule, so we’ll see).

The first thing that struck me about the line was also what first struck Alon:

Toward the southern end, the line splits off a branch line to the Talpiot business/industry district, which then (according to the map) itself splits into two dead-end branches, on the right (east) here:

talpiot branch

On the left (west), another possible future branch splits off and leads to the Malcha area, home of Jerusalem’s largest mall, a major stadium, and the station that serves the current, Ottoman-era, slow-as-hell intercity rail service. I have no insider information on what exactly is going on here, but I think that this is probably the beginning of an east-west shuttle route between Talpiot and Malcha that could then be extended in both directions; I sure hope it’s run that way and not as a branch off the main trunk. It’s possible (probable?) that these branches will use the right-of-way of the old Ottoman railroad, which is currently either a path or a junkyard, but who knows.

Frankly, this isn’t the route that I thought would have been next on the city’s or government’s list of priorities. Connecting the two Hebrew U campuses makes sense, and the areas between them are mostly extremely dense. Gilo is big, but it’s remote and there are long stretches without much density between it and the rest of the city–a legacy of Gilo’s siting across the Green Line and the presence of the once-split Palestinian village of Beit Safafa in between. Between Givat Ram and Gilo, the line is curvy and avoids the densest neighborhoods, with the exception of a brief stretch across Yaakov Pat street.

As a former resident of Talpiot, I suppose I’m biased, but for me the natural next line in the network would have run either down Derech Chevron (Hebron Road), the major arterial through southern Jerusalem, or down the old railroad ROW to Malcha. Before going forward, I should recommend that anyone who doesn’t know the city look at the Jerusalem Bus Map on Oren’s Transit Page–believe it or not, there is no “official” bus map even in this heavily bus-reliant city. Derech Chevron is bustling bus route with dedicated lanes in part that host local buses, express buses to West Bank settlements, and shared-cab and jitney services that largely serve a Palestinian market.

Derech Chevron at Rivka/Ein Gedi (the famous “Tzomet ha’Bankim,” or “intersection of the Banks,” because it used to have one on each corner or some such)

Derech Chevron doesn’t extend all the way to downtown Jerusalem or to a link with the original line, so there are complications in hooking up a potential LRT line down it, but it does seem to be the most natural alignment for a second line. The rail ROW, too, runs parallel to a busy bus route (Emek Refaim) and while it’s not particularly well-integrated into the city west of the intersection with Pierre Koenig, it offers the promise of much faster trip times on a grade-separated ROW and is anchored on a major traffic generator in Malcha.

So what does the Green Line being on the agenda mean for the future of the Jerusalem transit network? I fully expect to see a Derech Chevron LRT at some point in the future, and the weird branching on the Green Line seems to indicate a desire among planners for some kind of quick east-west connection across the southern part of the city. In the interests of exploring that, I added a third layer to the map I made above with a few suggestions for ways the network might develop in the future, which you can enable from the settings box at the upper left corner, or just peruse this JPEG:

sandy jerusalem map

This is already a really long post, so I’ll leave that here for now and perhaps discuss it more another time.

One more note:

As I said before, it’s impossible to discuss planning issues in Jerusalem without getting into politics. I will confess to using terms for Jerusalem (“the city,” etc) that might elide the area’s political and social complexity. Despite the rhetoric about an “eternal and undivided Jerusalem” that consistently emanates from both the Israeli and American Right, what exists today is undeniably a divided and inequitable city. Among other basic services, the transit systems in Jewish and Arab neighborhoods are almost wholly separate, so I’ve been considering here only the transit network in Jewish Jerusalem, often referred to as “West Jerusalem.” Even that doesn’t fully capture the complexity of the situation, as the Red Line runs through the Palestinian refugee camp of Shu’afat, and the Green Line will pass through Beit Safafa, but it’s a start.

People pushing streetcar projects in the US like to talk about the psychological important of the “permanence” of rails in the ground as opposed to bus stops that can be “easily moved.” There is, I think, a weird kind of parallelism to the “facts on the ground” approach long espoused by the Israeli settlement movement; in any case, a few years ago Alon translated on his blog a piece by Shalom Boguslavsky that captures some of the application of that approach to the initial siting of the Red Line in Jerusalem. I think Boguslavsky might be a little too politically deterministic, but let’s not forget that–conscious or not–there are always political statements behind the siting of infrastructure improvements in Jerusalem.  Whatever improvements the Green Line or any future LRT network might mean for residents of Jerusalem, we shouldn’t forget the crying need and increasing inequity that infects the rest of the Holy City.

15 thoughts on “A Second Light Rail Line for Jerusalem

  1. Term “armistice line” would be be more accurate than “border” in reference to the “Green Line” from 1949.
    Regarding politics, if Israel builds the light rail in Arab neighborhoods you can complain Israel is entrenching its annexation and precluding division; if Israel avoids Arab neighborhoods, you can complain they are inequitable. Build two systems, it is Apartheid. Damned it they do, damned if they don’t.

  2. First, I don’t think Boguslavsky is particularly deterministic…

    Second, let’s be more politically explicit: Jerusalem is for the most part neglecting its Arab neighborhoods, and, to a good approximation, the Red Line only serves Shuafat and Beit Hanina because they’re on the way to Pisgat Zeev (it does swerve a bit to serve them, but just a bit). There’s no thought of the East Jerusalem core.

    2.5th, the political neglect matters, because it means the network has to look weird. The centers of non-Haredi West Jerusalem, Haredi Jerusalem, and East Jerusalem are within about a kilometer of one another; the Red Line serves the first one. There are Jewish neighborhoods to the north, south, and west, but not to the east, so there’s no hope of a simple east-west line. (It also edges conflict resolution toward dividing Jerusalem, rather than the condominium and 1.5 states flavors some people propose. If Nir Barkat hates the city that much, Jerusalemites should ask themselves how come there’s no better option for mayor.)

    Third, you’d expect that the two light rail lines would intersect near the center of West Jerusalem, but they don’t. The Green Line misses it entirely, going too far west of Mahane Yehuda. I’m tempted to say there’s a political agenda there marking Israeli ownership of Gilo, but Gilo isn’t really disputed, and there’s no attempt to hit Har Homa, which is the real East Jerusalem bone of contention.

    If it’s so easy to branch trains, they should just build a branch from the existing line east to Mount Scopus, and then build a second line (not a branch, to avoid splitting frequency to the CBD) going north-south, using the abandoned Jaffa-Jerusalem Railway ROW to reach Malha from the CBD and finding some way to go north to serve Mea Shearim (not too hard) and the neighborhoods to its north (gevalt).

    • Will respond more tomorrow, but my thought re: transit in Arab East Jerusalem is that a) the Arab neighborhoods aren’t as dense as most of East Jerusalem and b) they’re hilly and tend to have open space between them, as befits their heritage as separate villages. Which is to say, the Israeli administration should certainly be paying more attention to them, but I’m not sure LRT is the mode for it. In fact, the decision to invest in LRT over a real public bus network in East Jerusalem is very much subject to a critique along the lines of that of the Los Angeles BRU, except with more validity to it (I think Boguslavsky gestures in this direction). So although LRT lines that carry 140-150,000 pax per day are exceptionally well-performing in and of themselves, they’re still a problematic investment (I realize that’s nothing new).

      • A lot of the East Jerusalem neighborhoods aren’t terribly dense, but the core is dense. Look at Silwan and Abu Tor, for examples. Sheikh Jarrah, in particular, deserved a stop on the Red Line, instead of Ammunition Hill. Even the rest are denser than Pisgat Zeev (and Beit Hanina, and Shuafat), where apparently the “it’s surrounded by empty space” principle doesn’t apply.

    • The abandoned Jaffa-Jerusalem railway ROW has been turned into a popular walkway, a non-elevated version of the NYC High Line, and as such isn’t an option for a future light-rail route

      In addition, there are no broad thoroughfares in Mea Shearim / Geulah. Light-rail service would have to skirt these neighborhoods.

  3. Thoughts from on the ground in Jerusalem…

    1) Some route corrections: The proposed green line would run on the WEST side of the Givat Ram university campus – not the east side as you’ve drawn it. From there, it would go south, bordering the Givat Mordechai neighborhood from the east (on a new bridge shown in https://www.facebook.com/nir.barkat/photos/a.163572597082036.27441.159416337497662/705330166239607/?type=1&permPage=1), then to Herzog and so on. The rest of your route looks accurate enough, although it’s hard to know exactly what routing is planned for Talpiot and the Mount Scopus area.

    2) What the schematic map doesn’t show is the “blue line” – a north-south bus lane (marketed as BRT) intersecting the red line in the traditional city center (it follows Shmuel Hanavi, Yehezkel, Straus, King George, Keren Hayesod, and Hebron streets). The colors red and blue were already taken so I guess green had to be next, despite the hilarity of the green line crossing the green line. Incidentally, I heard from a planner there that one of the original lines (red/blue) was originally coded green, but they changed it due to the political connotations. Apparently whoever made the decisions this time had less of a clue.

    3) There is much to dislike about this route. I dislike the northern half on social grounds and the southern half on technical grounds. (For these purposes, I consider the northern and southern “halves” to meet at Givat Ram – a bit south of the western intersection of red and green lines.) As for the southern half, there is currently no bus route that goes that way, and apparently not much demand for one. So this seems like a giant investment which will not get much use, and the various branches will make it inefficient to run. At the very least, they should first make a bus route here, and only if it’s well patronized should they replace it with light rail.

    4) As for the northern half, it discriminates, but not in the way you might have guessed. Its route connects two university campuses. University students in Israel are among the loudest political complainers, particularly on Facebook, so transit investment is biased towards them. Anyway, to get between these campuses, the route uses the main road through the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. This road is already packed with buses loading and unloading passengers all day (the ultra-Orthodox are generally poor and use transit at a very high rate). This road has two lanes in each direction, and light rail would take one of them, cutting the already overtaxed bus capacity in half. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox would get very little use from the light rail, since few of them study in these universities. And light rail would have way more capacity than this route needs: it’s currently served by one bus route running every 10 minutes. Bottom line: this route would significantly hurt a large population of ultra-Orthodox, while slightly helping a small population of students. (To be fair, I don’t attribute malice to the municipality, I just think they want to attract educated people to Jerusalem, and are clueless about how much collateral damage this plan will cause. They probably even think it will be good for the ultra-Orthodox.)

    5) Yes, I’ve been making these arguments to the local transit advocacy group.

    6) The only transit improvement Jerusalem *really* needs is off-board fare collection, to speed boarding and eliminate the bus traffic jams on major streets. There is some awareness of this, but even the basic step of allowing rear-door boarding on selected routes has been stuck in bureaucracy for years.

    • Thanks for the comments! Very helpful.

      1) Thanks for the correction. I wasn’t sure about the Givat Ram routing– “יחצה את קמפוס האוניברסיטה העברית בגבעת רם” isn’t the most specific phrase in the world. I’ll fix it on the map–I assume the plan is to run the LRT along Derech Balfour?
      2) Interesting. I knew there were significant stretches of bus lane along that general route but didn’t know they’d cobbled together a special branding for it. Seems like there are vague plans to replace the Blue Line with LRT at some point in the future: https://www.jerusalem.muni.il/Messages/Msg_84/Pages/Train.aspx including a tunneled section under the really narrow streets north of Yafo.
      3) Yes.
      4) I was interested in hearing from somebody who knows the Haredi community better than I do. A bus every ten minutes is a decent basis for planning LRT, and the Haredi neighborhoods are really dense. Why do you think the Haredim wouldn’t use the LRT? I get that they’re not the target population, and it could impact local bus service, but if enough stations in the area are provided I don’t see why it would actively hurt them.
      6) This could be said for virtually any city, no? An additional factor in Jerusalem is wanting to filter passengers through the front door so that the driver and/or a security agent can check them out.

      • 1) Yes, Balfour.
        2) Given how invisible the Blue Line is in this press release, it seems they have sort of given up on the branding. There have been plans to replace it with light rail, but there would be a significant backlash due to how disruptive the construction of the Red Line was.
        4) For two reasons:
        A) A lot of haredi travel is as full families, with multiple strollers etc which makes them less willing to walk a significant distance to a stronger route, or to transfer. So they have a large number of routes, many of them convoluted, each of which gets moderate use. Light rail would improve one route, at the expense of all the other equally strong ones.
        B) The once-every-10-minutes route has relatively low haredi ridership, because the main destinations on it are the universities and the central bus station. Haredim don’t go to the universities once, and they also don’t go much to the central bus station, because intercity buses targeted at them begin/end in their neighborhoods rather than the central bus station.
        6) The security issue could matter in theory, but they don’t seem to care about it for the light rail.

      • Oh yeah,
        “I don’t see why it would actively hurt them.”

        Because if buses were not allowed to travel in the light rail lane (very likely), then there would be much less room for all the bus routes which already crowd the street (and wouldn’t be replaced by the light rail).

      • Once every 10 minutes isn’t very frequent by Israeli standards. Over 14 hours of service span, it’s 168 buses in both directions. Look here: in each table, a V on the left column means 10-minute peak service or better, and the second column from the left is the total number of buses per day. Jerusalem is the second table: 23 routes there have more than 168 buses per day. And this treats different branches of the same route separately – if you combine routes that run on the same trunk, some trunk routes show up as having vastly more ridership, as I mentioned in my post about the Tel Aviv subway.

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