This is a guest post by Oren Hirsch, an urban planner currently living and working in Jerusalem. He is the creator of the unofficial Jerusalem Bus Map.
Anyone who visited Jerusalem in the past few years probably has a vivid memory of Jaffa Road, the historic main thoroughfare through the center of Jerusalem, entirely torn up by construction equipment for the “soon to open” light rail. In addition, for eight months after the last construction barricades were removed from Jaffa Road, the trains ran without passengers while they were tested. People here would often say, somewhat seriously, that they never expected to ever be able to ride the train, and perhaps if their grandkids were lucky, they would get to ride the first train. Now that the Jerusalem Light Rail is actually open, they complain that the trains are too crowded and that too many people are riding it.
The first line of the Jerusalem Light Rail extends 8.6 miles from Har Herzl to Pisgat Ze’ev. It crosses the Strings Bridge at the entrance to the city, glides through the center of town across the Jaffa Road Pedestrian Mall, and then turns north towards Ammunition Hill and Shuafat before reaching its last stop in a residential area of Pisgat Ze’ev. The Municipality has pointed out that this route allows the train to serves many different types of neighborhoods throughout the city and that it can serve as a unifier for everyone who lives in and visits Jerusalem. In this regard, the train has been successful without question, not only since it has opened but also during construction. Jews and Arabs alike vociferously opposed many aspects of the project while it was being built. Fortunately, no divides have come to the surface since the train opened. Each time I have been on it in the past two months, there have been Arabs, Haredim, Chilonim, and tourists of all ages.
This is not to say the Jerusalem Light Rail is suddenly free of controversy now that the construction has finished and the trains are carrying passengers. Stores in the center of town watched their revenues plummet as pedestrian traffic decreased due to the construction and many businesses closed. A portion of the route runs on the Green Line (the archway marking the Mandelbaum Gate, the only access point between East and West Jerusalem from 1948 until 1967, is located between the two tracks) and also runs through Shuafat, Beit Hanina, and Pisgat Ze’ev, Arab and Jewish neighborhoods that are all located over the Green Line. When bus lines are modified to feed the light rail, the residents of Jewish Pisgat Ze’ev will have to transfer to the light rail, which takes them through Shuafat, an Arab neighborhood that they fear is unsafe. (The Egged buses from Pisgat Ze’ev to town that operate today use a freeway that bypasses Shuafat to get to town; there is no Egged service in Shuafat.) In early October, stones were thrown at trains passing through Shuafat. Less than two months after the line opened, the drivers went on strike for 30 hours in protest of their working conditions. And the list of outstanding issues people have against the light rail for one reason or another could go on even longer.
The light rail is still technically in a test phase. Trains are only running every 10-20 minutes, even at rush hours, instead of every 4 to 8 minutes as they will in the future. None of the bus routes have been changed to directly feed the light rail. Therefore, I am hesitant to make a judgment about whether the entire project should be deemed a success or not at this point in time. However, as I told friends in the months leading up to the light rail opening, I am optimistic that once everyone forgets the difficulties that arose during construction, Jerusalem will come to appreciate its light rail and possibly even support the construction of the other two lines that are planned. Sitting outdoors at one of the many cafes in the center of town is already far more pleasant than it was when Jaffa Road was open to vehicular traffic, and businesses are bouncing back from the down years caused by construction. So the next time you have the chance, see what came out of all that construction and traffic that persisted for all those years. As hard as it may be to believe, the fruits resulting from the years of construction are ready to be picked.