Trolleys and Rail in the Capital District: Interview with Capital Green Scene on WVCR, 7/2/2016

At the beginning of July I was invited to do my first radio spot, appearing on the local radio show Capital Green Scene (WVCR 88.3 FM, Siena College’s station) to talk about transit and transportation in the Capital Region. We recorded the show on July 1st and it aired July 2nd, but I’ve only just now gotten the audio files, so here they are. The interview is in two segments, embedded here separately. I had a blast doing this; hosts Bill Helmer and Brian Nearing, who found me after a few of my articles on All Over Albany intrigued them,  are great guys who ask really interesting questions.

Watch for a new segment with me on Capital Green Scene appearing on Labor Day Weekend as well…

Part 1


Part 2

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.