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Jerusalemites Divided Over Safety, Efficiency of Public Transport

(G.F. Photos)

September 22 was Public Transport Day in Israel. As The Media Line (TML) ventured out into the streets of Jerusalem to seek out the public’s opinion on the subject, a Palestinian woman blew herself up at one of the city’s major arteries, killing two border policemen and herself.

The timing could not better have illustrated the added aspect that Israel must factor into this worldwide debate.

While Jerusalem has arguably suffered more than any other Israeli city since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified four year ago, it is also the country’s poorest city. Thus, it is also the city with the highest proportion of residents riding public transit, according to Rachel Berner, spokeswoman for the Green Course student environmentalist movement.

“The problem in Israel is that people want to use public transport but it’s not useful for them,” she said. “It’s not cheap enough, it’s hard to find out what they need to do to get from place to place, and the train is not connected to the buses.”

One step towards an improved system is the tram system being built aboveground in Jerusalem. Also, the much-delayed construction of a train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is expected to be completed in 2008, said Berner; at the moment, Israel’s train connects its major coastal cities to Beer Sheva in the south.

Green Course activists are in favor of making one all-encompassing ticket that would allow passengers to transfer from bus to tram to train, Berner added.

Public Transport Day in Tel Aviv (Green Course)

Despite the benefits, it is impossible to ignore the risks of riding buses in Jerusalem. While crime is relatively low, terror attacks are a fact of life.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict intensified in September 2000, some 220 Israelis have been killed by suicide bombers aboard public vehicles, according to Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Close to half of those bombings took place in Jerusalem.

That figure does not include the scores of civilians killed in shooting and bombing attacks at bus stops, or by car bombs that exploded close to the bus or car they were riding in.

In 2003, some 485 people died in 18,150 car accidents throughout Israel, according to the Israeli Road Safety Authority. In the U.S. in 2001, there were over 42,000 road-accident fatalities, according to the Bureau of Transportation; if compared in proportion to population, the U.S. had almost twice as many fatalities as Israel.

For Berner, the proliferation of public transport is essential, a need that supersedes the risk of terror attacks. “In Israel, for the past 50 years, we’ve been living in a war. Suicide bombings are something that we have to live with,” she said. Just because of attacks, “you shouldn’t think about the environment and other ways to make life better? You must continue living.”

“We believe that if everyday life would be easier, then this [political] side of attaining peace and eliminating bombings [would be easier].”

Next to the Green Course display on Public Transport Day, hundreds of Jerusalemites stood at over a dozen bus stops waiting for a ride home at Jerusalem’s central bus station.

(G.F. Photos)

For Trudy Greener, the decision not to own a car started off being financially-founded, but soon became ideological as well. In recent years, however, she said, many malls and entertainment venues are being constructed outside of the city cores, in places that are not easily accessible by public transport.

“I think we should support building up the cities and building up places that everybody can come to and not just people who can financially afford cars,” she said.

It is for that reason that Shimon, who was accosted while stopped at a red light on central Jerusalem’s Herzl Boulevard, owns a car. “I need to travel to all sorts of places,” he said. “I would have to switch buses many times, so it’s not worth it for me.”

The same goes for Tanya, an aerobics instructor who lives in Moshav Beit Zayit outside of Jerusalem. She explained that she often has only 15 minutes to travel between classes at different health clubs, making her small, sporty car a necessity. Moreover, “without a car, I wouldn’t be able to live on the moshav.”

“I can’t afford it,” said Binyamin, a native Jerusalemite, who was asking passersby for change for the parking meter, outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. “Public transportation in Jerusalem is too dangerous to take the risk,” he said. “I usually prefer to walk if possible and only take the bus when I have no choice.”

This time, he borrowed his parents’ car.

“I personally don’t enjoy riding buses in Jerusalem because of the risk factor but I find the system here works well,” said Limor Vallin, who rode her bike past the bus station.

“I would not buy a car as long as I live in a city,” she said. “I don’t see the use in buying cars; it’s just traffic and annoyance.”

As such, many of TML’s interviewees agreed that the risk of terror on buses has decreased significantly in recent years due to the Israel Defense Forces’ aggressive actions in Palestinian areas, the security buffer, and increased surveillance on city buses. Jerusalem has not seen a major bus bomb attack since February.

Binyamin said, “There have been measures to make the buses safer, but I don’t know if I can trust the changes.” He explained that many terrorists have exploded on the streets and in other places, so it’s impossible to be completely safe.

The risk of terror is also an issue for David Smith, a Jerusalem resident originally from Alabama. “Sometimes I take public transportation but I don’t tell my wife and kids because I don’t let the kids take it.”

“When I take it, I’m pleased,” said Smith, who was getting out of his car at the upscale Wolfson apartment complex and shopping mall. “They’re doing about what can be done” to prevent terror attacks. “Sadly, a couple of security guards were killed [when the latest suicide bomber blew herself up] but they were doing their jobs.”