$100m white elephant or catalyst for a united city? The Jerusalem light railway starts the next leg of an incredible journey
It's been a long time coming but finally the JLR started taking passengers on Friday 19th August. It had set a whole benchmark for the saying, "the train is late," being some five years overdue.
Earlier today, WAN asked Talia Goren from the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan (JTMP) how it was going?; "It's pretty crowded. Tens of thousands of people are using it every day. Of course we have had some problems, (The ticketing system broke so travel is free) the air conditioning has been malfunctioning but people are being patient, it's been a long time coming, they're just happy that it's here at last, and of course it's free!"
The realisation of this highly controversial ten year project had been a journey in itself. Uniting the Jewish West and Palestinian East was never going to be easy with both sides full of distrust. Palestinians see it as yet another Israeli manoeuvre to tighten their grip on the city, whereas the Israelis still mindful of the pre-barrier suicide bombings, many of which were on buses are fearful of sharing trains with Palestinians.
That the railway has been completed at all in the face of these highly charged and complex issues makes it a wonder in itself. Only two days ago, tempers flared when a hard line Rabbi hosting a conference tried to get the train banned from passing through Palestinian neighbourhoods.
The project has already taken its toll on the city and critics from both sides have been vocal, "The residents of Jerusalem paid the price with broken legs and ruined businesses," said Gerard Heumann, an architect, town planner and a vocal critic of the project. "The construction wreaked havoc over the city for a decade." This comment would sound all to familiar to the residents of Edinburgh, many of whose shopkeepers have bitten the dust, unable to keep to going through the construction to reap the rewards which will inevitably come when the tram network is finally commissioned.
But Jerusalem has a whole other twist to the commercial angst. One anti-lobby had been campaigning, unsuccessfully to get the carriages segregated. Others question whole concept. "Why was the light rail routed through Palestinian neighbourhoods?", said Daniel Seieman, a leftwing lawyer in the city. "To serve the myth that Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel. It is a $100m white elephant created to be compatible with the political myths about Jerusalem rather than meeting the urban needs of the city."
Whichever is true, and my guess would be that most likely it's a fusion of all the above, the project is a brave initiative and could just be another example of urban design making a tangible difference to the social workings of a city. PageSoutherlandPage's Discovery Green in Houston, joint winner of last year's WAN Effectiveness Awards shows what can be possible. Detroit's Woodward light railway will connect underprivileged neighbourhoods to downtown.
But JTMP, the visionaries behind the scheme remained resolute in the face of all the critics, "men, women, Arab, Christian and Jew", said Meroz. Muslims in the north and east of the city will be able to travel quickly to pray at mosques in the Old City, he added. "Our project is for all communities, it's a solution for everyone."
Let's hope they're right.
Next week we feature a podcast with JTMP Director, Nadav Meroz about the social aspects of the project.
Editor in Chief at WAN