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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Israel Leading the Way with Anti-Congestion Measures

January was a busy month in Israel as schemes were rolled out to try and reduce the level of congestion.  In just the first month of 2011 Israel has become a global leader in delivering schemes which attempt to reduce congestion along the country's most bus roads.  During the first three weeks of the year Israel opened the first variable priced toll lane in the world, shut Jaffa Street the main thoroughfare through the capital Jerusalem, and the increased level of tax on petrol prices.

In other countries around the world governments have for many years been attempting to introduce policies that tackle the level of congestion on their roads but as in Britain have usually been unsuccessful in the face of public hostility.  For instance the previous Government's policy in Britain to widen the road pricing policy out of London was defeated by a nationwide petition and public referendums in Manchester and Edinburgh.  So why has Israel been successful at delivering these innovative anti-motorist policies?

Part of the reason may lie in the fact that in recent years Israel has become an innovative high-tech economy and last year achieved membership of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Israeli citizens have therefore become receptive to innovative solutions and schemes which they can see will enhance their lives.  It is no coincidence that a country which has been built and developed by pioneers and seen the desert bloom is now leading the way in the 21st Century with technological innovations.

On 7th January 2011 a new toll lane was opened on Road 1 between Ben Gurion International Airport and the entrance of Tel Aviv.  Anyone that has tried to travel into Tel Aviv by road any working day knows how they have suffered from terrible congestion which often more than doubles the journey time into Israel's busiest working city.   Israel's Government therefore took the decision to create a new toll lane to offer a quicker alternative route into Tel Aviv.  This 'Fast Lane' project being run by Shapir Engineering Ltd with the technological support of Siemens allows motorists to pay to travel along the 13 mile route at a normal speed rather than travel at a snail's pace.  In order to use the lane motorists either need to register in advance or travel through a toll booth at an interchange and are later automatically charged when their registration plate is recognised by a camera.  In the first of a kind scheme anywhere in the world the price of the journey is determined by the level of congestion at that time and can vary anywhere from 6 shekels to 60 shekels.  Commuters are also offered an alternative to the car; as a new free park & ride interchange has opened ahead of the entrance to the Fast Lane, which takes commuters into the centre of Tel Aviv.  Vehicles with four or more people are also able to travel on the 'fast lane' for free.

While the launch of the scheme was inaugurated with some complaints that only the rich would benefit from the new toll 'fast lane', the initial few weeks appear to have been a success.  At the end of January the schemes operators are reporting that the lane is being well used while the price has been limited to the minimum price of 6 shekels.  By the end of January the 'fast lane' was operating is at 80% of capacity and according to Nitzan Yotzer the head of operations the new lane already carries more traffic than any of the other lanes on the Road 1.   The operators are therefore predicting that this could be the first of many road-charging schemes into Tel Aviv.

The middle of January also saw the closure of Jaffa Road the major thoroughfare through Jerusalem to all traffic.  This is anticipation of the launch of Israel's first light rail line, which when it travels through the city centre will be the only form of transport along Jaffa Road other than pedestrians.   The introduction of the pedestrianized city centre has led to journeys through Jerusalem becoming slightly more difficult as motorists are restricted to other routes.  However, after many years of road works in the city to prepare for the new light rail line residents are now able to enjoy a nicer city centre and are able to look forward to what could be an exciting and convenient way to travel through Jerusalem.

Most controversial has been the increased tax on petrol that has seen Israel's petrol prices rise to some of the highest in the world.  Whilst Israeli's have accepted the other policies to deter driving, there have been more complaints about the rising price of petrol.  This may be because the Government is attempting to raise more revenue and deter driving  but -   as there are other pressures on Government spending - do not appear to be reinvesting the increased revenue from motorists back into improving public services.  Members of the governing Likud party have therefore started to question whether more can be done to keep petrol prices as low as possible, especially if prices were to rise as the Middle East becomes more unstable.

What may therefore be the case is that while Israelis do look forward to innovative high-tech solutions to reducing congestion on the roads, they are much like people all over the world.  Where the public can see that they are paying a cost for a better service such as a quicker journey or a nicer city they are prepared to pay the price.    However, where they get nothing in return for paying more as in the case with rising petrol taxes we may see more complaints and protests.

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