After decades of false starts, Tel Aviv is finally building a subway-surface line. The political opinions of activists and urban planners in Israel are divided between supporters, who believe the line is long overdue, and opponents, who instead believe buses remain the solution and also oppose the Jerusalem light rail. I on the contrary think that on the one hand Tel Aviv needs a subway, but on the other hand the current plan has deep flaws, both political and technical, and is learning the wrong lessons from recent first-world greenfield subways.
In some ways, the Tel Aviv subway resembles New York’s Second Avenue Subway. It passes through neighborhoods that are very dense – the line under construction connects some of the densest cities in Israel, albeit poorly. Nobody believes it will be built because of all the false starts. Real incompetence in construction leading to cost overruns has led to speculation about much greater cost overruns.
For nearly a hundred years, the conurbation around Tel Aviv and Jaffa has been the largest metro area in what is now Israel; it is also the largest first-world metro area outside the US that has no urban rail. There were preliminary plans for a Tel Aviv subway in the 1930s, followed by repeated plans since independence, all of which were shelved. A proposal from just after independence for developing coastal Israel around rail and rapid transit trunks was rejected by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion because it conflicted with the political goal of Jewish population dispersal; to further its political goals, the state concentrated on building roads instead. In the late 1950s there was a new integrated national rail plan that was not implemented. Haifa got a six-station, one-line funicular, but Tel Aviv and Jerusalem remained bus-only. In the 1960s a skyscraper in Central Tel Aviv was built with a subway station, but there were no tunnels built; a subsequent 1971 plan was abandoned in 1973 due to the Yom Kippur War. The current subway plan dates to the 1990s, and has suffered from repeated delays, and construction only began recently, with opening expected for 2016.
Unlike in the North American debate, in Israel the left is pro-BRT and anti-rail, due to a long tradition of mistrust in mainstream (center-right to right-wing) politics. The same is true of urban planners who follow the Jacobsian tradition, such as Yoav
Lerner Lerman (Heb.). The article I translated two years ago about Jerusalem’s light rail is in that tradition: it attacks genuine problems with cost overruns and a politicized route choice process, but then concludes that BRT is the solution because it’s been implemented in Curitiba and Bogota successfully. The result is that people whose ideas about trade, energy, health care, education, and housing are well to the left of what is considered acceptable in the US end up channeling the Reason Foundation on bus versus rail issues.
In reality, Tel Aviv’s urban form is quite dense. The city itself has 8,000 people per square kilometer, much lower than Paris and Barcelona, but higher than most other European central cities (say, every single German city). Like Los Angeles, its municipal borders do not conform to the informal borders of the inner-urban area, since it contains lower-density modernist neighborhoods north of the Yarkon, while dense Ramat Gan, Giv’atayim, Bnei Brak, and Bat Yam are separate municipalities. The inner ring of suburbs, including the above-named four, has 7,400 people per square kilometer; excluding the more affluent but emptier northern suburbs, this approaches 10,000/km^2.
However, the urban form is quite old, in the sense that the density is fairly constant, without the concentrations of density near nodes that typify modern transit cities. Tel Aviv’s residential high-rise construction is not very dense because it still follows the modernist paradigm of a tower in a park, leading to low lot coverage and a density that’s not much higher than that of the old four-story apartment blocks. The Old North achieves about 15,000 people per square kilometer with a floor area ratio of 2: the setbacks are such that only about half of each lot is buildable, and there are four floors per building. The Akirov Towers complex averages about 2.5.
Although this density pattern favors surface transit rather than rapid transit, Tel Aviv doesn’t have the street network for efficient surface transit. Paris, a poster child for efficient recent construction of light rail (see costs and ridership estimates on The Transport Politic), is a city of wide boulevards. Central Tel Aviv has about two such streets – Ibn Gabirol and Rothschild – and one auto-oriented arterial, Namir Road, which the subway line under construction will go under. The street network is too haphazard to leverage those two for surface BRT or light rail, and the major destinations of the central areas are often on narrower streets, for example Dizengoff. On top of that, light rail speeds in Paris are lower than 20 km/h, whereas newly built subways are much faster, approaching 40 km/h in Vancouver and Copenhagen. Outside Central Tel Aviv, the roads become wider, but not nearly as wide as those used for BRT in Bogota, and there is nothing for surface transit on those streets to connect to on the surface. A surface implementation of Route 66, following Jabotinsky Street (the eastern leg of the subway line under construction) in Ramat Gan, Bnei Brak, and Petah Tikva, wouldn’t be very fast on the surface to begin with, but would come to a crawl once crossing the freeway into Tel Aviv.
Tel Aviv also has two more important reasons to imitate Vancouver and Copenhagen, besides speed: religious politics, and economic and demographic comparability. Public transportation in Israel operates six days a week, with few exceptions, to avoid running on the Sabbath. A driverless train, built to be quiet even on elevated sections, with no turnstiles and free fares on the Sabbath, could circumvent religious opposition to seven-days-a-week operation.
Even without the religious question, Copenhagen and especially Vancouver are good models for Tel Aviv to follow, more so than middle-income Curitiba or Bogota. Israel is a high-construction cost country, but Canada is not very cheap, and Vancouver has cut construction costs by making elevated trains more palatable and reducing station lengths. Greater Tel Aviv has 2.5-3.5 million people depending on who you ask, not much higher than the range for Copenhagen and Vancouver. Tel Aviv is about as dense as Copenhagen and Vancouver, though Vancouver’s density is spikier. Tel Aviv expects fast population growth, like Vancouver, though in Tel Aviv’s case it’s a matter of high birth rates whereas in Vancouver it’s only immigration.
One way in which Vancouver is not a good model is the role of regional rail. Israel has no equivalent of Transport Canada or FRA regulations. It even connected Tel Aviv’s northern and southern rail networks and through-routes nearly all commuter and intercity trains. However, the network has real limitations, coming from its poor urban station locations, often in highway medians; the through-running project was completed simultaneously with the construction of the freeway. For example, the Tel Aviv University station is located far downhill from the actual university. As a result, even when there is development near the train stations, it is usually not walkable. This compels new rail service with stations in more central locations as well as east-west service, complementing the north-south mainline.
However, for service to the less dense suburbs, the construction of new lines, and electrification of the entire national network (so far only the Haifa commuter network is scheduled for electrification), should provide the backbone. There is no integrated planning between regional rail and shorter-distance urban rail, the first failing of the current plan.
More broadly, the plan fails not just because of the wrong mode choice – subway-surface rather than driverless metro with a regional rail complement – but also because of how it treats urban geography. The proposed network – on which the red line is under construction and the green line is intended to be the second built – is too sparse in the center, and ignores the older urban centers. The phasing ignores preexisting transportation centers, and often the choice of who to serve and how to serve them is political.
The worst political decision concerns Jaffa, the old core of the metro area. (Tel Aviv was founded as a nominally independent city, but really as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa.) The most activity is in the Old City and the Flea Market, going down along Yefet Street to Ajami, since 1948 the only majority-Arabic speaking neighborhood in the municipality, and the only neighborhood that is completely unplanned. The streets are narrow, favoring a subway, and the residents are poor and have low car ownership rates. Instead, the route through Jaffa is on the surface and follows Jerusalem Boulevard, a less busy road built by the city’s then-mayor out of envy of then-separate Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. This serves the more gentrified Jewish parts. Ajami is gentrifying – it’s close to Central Tel Aviv, is right next to the coast, and has stunning architecture – but is still majority-Arab.
The other neighborhood that due to ethnic differences is viewed separately from Tel Aviv, Hatikva, is also underserved. In this case, the residents are Jewish, but are predominantly Mizrahi and traditional-to-religious, with high poverty levels. The plan does serve Hatikva, but much later than it should given the neighborhood’s density, intensity of low-end commercial activity, and proximity to Central Tel Aviv. A northwest-southeast line, following Dizengoff and then serving Central Bus Station (a larger transportation center still than any mainline rail station) and Hatikva before continuing east into the inner suburbs, should be a high priority, but isn’t. The Central Bus Station area is also a concentration of refugees, another low-income, low-car ownership population, though since this concentration is more recent than the plans for the subway, the lack of priority service to the bus station is not a result of racism.
It’s not only about class reasons, or racial ones: Tel Aviv had to fight to get the Ministry of Transportation to agree to build the second line underground under Ibn Gabirol, and that’s to an upper middle-class Ashkenazi neighborhoods. The common thread within the city proper is a preference for new modernist luxury towers over serving existing walkable density, even when that density is hardly lower than what the towers are providing. (The towers can be built more densely, with less open space; by the same token, the low-rise buildings could be upzoned from one half the lot and four story to three-quarters and six stories.)
Another example of bad politics is the way military bases are served. The very center of Tel Aviv is home to the Ministry of Defense and the main military headquarters, the Kirya. The inner urban area is ringed with much larger military bases, including Tsrifin to the south, Glilot to the north, and the Bakum to the east. But the officer corps is concentrated in the Kirya, while Tsrifin is a more general base, Bakum is dedicated to new draftees so that they can be told what unit they’re to be sent to, and Glilot is somewhat higher-end than Tsrifin due to its role in military intelligence but. Since draftees almost never own cars and often ride buses for hours, the three outlying bases are all natural outer anchors for lines, and Glilot and Tsrifin both lie on easy spurs from the mainline rail network. Despite this, there are no plans for regular service, while the Kirya is part of the subway line under construction and is the intersection point with the second line to be built.
Even on pure geography, the plan makes critical mistakes. The eastern leg of the line under construction is much better than its southern leg: it goes straight from the train station through Ramat Gan and Bnei Brak to a secondary anchor in Petah Tikva. And yet, the station spacing in Bnei Brak, the densest city in Israel, is the widest, even though higher density allows shorter station spacing. In contrast, the surface segment in less dense Petah Tikva is intended to have denser stop spacing. Moreover, despite the advantages subway-surface operation has in terms of branching, the branching is meant to be really a short-turn, with half of all trains going straight to the depot still in the underground section and half continuing to Petah Tikva. Central Petah Tikva is well to the south of the line, which is intended to terminate at Petah Tikva’s peripherally located central bus station, but there is no branch serving that center, despite high intended frequencies (3 minutes on the surface, 1.5 minutes underground).
I believe that in addition to an electrified mainline rail trunk, Tel Aviv needs a driverless subway network that looks roughly like an E: one or two north-south lines (west of the freeway if one, one on each side if two), three east-west lines intersecting the mainline rail at the three main Tel Aviv stations. The east-west lines should be anchored at the eastern ends at Petah Tikva, Bar Ilan University, and the Bakum or Kiryat Ono; the north-south lines should go about as far north and south as required to serve the center, letting mainline rail take care of destinations roughly from Glilot or Herzliya north and from Tsrifin south. Such a network would not serve political goals of making Tel Aviv a luxury city; it would just serve the transportation goals of the urban area’s residents.