The Challenge of Sustainable Transport for Israel and Palestine
Planning for environmentally sound transport in Israel and Palestine faces major uncertainties and challenges. As income levels and expectations rise, will planners be• able to learn from - rather than replicate - the past transport mistakes of other parts of the world? Can Arab communities in Israel overcome their relative lack of resources to cater for their population's special needs and circumstances through forward-looking planning, or will their struggle for equality be an attempt to join the general Israeli rush toward mass motorization and car-dependent lifestyles?1 How will global transport trends and patterns play out in the region's unique spatial and demographic circumstances? What kind of physical configuration, political constraints, and population are Palestinian transport planners to plan for? Will the region continue to approximate an island in transport terms, or will the borders open so that it once again serves as a land-bridge between continents? Can such regional expansion of transport systems be done in environmentally sound ways?

Israeli Transport at a Crossroads

Israel itself is currently at a transportation crossroads. Over the last decade or so, the country has been embracing the kind of mass-motorization trends that other advanced countries are, belatedly, coming to regret and attempting to reverse.2 The number of vehicles on the country's roads is growing at 6-7 percent a year, while use of public transport (primarily diesel bus) is rapidly declining, with eroding prospects of rail taking up a substantial portion of this decline in the short and medium range. Land use is increasingly catering to and generating car-dependent lifestyles, in which travel to work, shopping, and recreation involve large amounts of private car travel. An increasing portion of transport is based on environmentally inefficient modes; all these trends fly in the face of the aspirations of the emerging generation of sustainable transport planning. This aims to reduce the total amount of travel required for satisfying lifestyles, to ensure that as much of this travel as possible is conducted on more environmentally efficient modes (rather than private cars), and to make sure that all modes are as environmentally efficient as possible.
This lack of policy vision is particularly worrying in a small, hyper-dense country like Israel, where even today's relatively low motorization rates (cars per thousand people) translate into exceptionally high motorization impacts (cars per square kilometer). Israel's "lag" in motorization is a golden opportunity to leapfrog over outmoded technologies, a gift rapidly being squandered.
Because car-based and sustainable transport solutions compete with one another for funds, passengers, and land-use patterns, the investments made over the next five years will shape Israel's transport future for a generation or more. The country can little afford a "realism" that throws up its hands in the face of motorization trends; these trends are anachronistic and unsustainable, and international experience has shown that they can be slowed and reversed with imaginative and bold policies and planning.3

Arab Communities within Israel: Aiming for More Than Just a Fair Share

Arab communities within Israel have different motorization and land-use patterns, less access to resources and planning facilities, and different travel needs, so that their transport future deserves separate discussion.4 Currently, the number of cars per 1,000 people in the Arab communities is 35 percent that of Israel as a whole (due in part to larger-than-average family sizes), though the rate of motorization is growing twice as fast.
The 1948 emptying or near emptying of the larger Arab towns now within the Green Line truncated the upper end of the settlement-size spectrum, with remaining populations living primarily in villages. These were characterized by low-density single- or double-story homes on relatively large plots, and low levels of mobility between villages, except for the men who traveled for employment rather than working their land. Many of these villages are still usually connected to the outside world with a single large road (often bisecting the village). Smaller, winding streets feed into this with little hierarchical ordering of size. Residential quarters and markets are historically designed for pedestrian and animal traffic, not motor vehicles.
Today, the increasing number of cars moving and parking is incompatible with these villages and with traditionally styled urban areas. As vehicle use rises, congestion becomes a major problem, and with pedestrians ill¬separated from traffic, accident rates are high. Widening and straightening these roads invariably infringes heavily on property, leading to conflict, and in some cases destroys the character of a town's historic core.
Adequate public transport has been hampered by the lack of access to national resources and by a transport system oriented toward Jewish needs. Buses are often limited to a service leaving the village to a Jewish population center in the morning, and returning after work (a pattern particularly restrictive for Arab women). In many cases, a single bus line will pass through many villages, making travel slow. There is little radial connection between villages, and buses are often old models that have been phased out of the fleets that serve Jewish cities.
Not only has there been a legacy of proportional under-investment in Arab communities, but it is doubtful whether a sufficient portion of Israel's planned transport investments over the coming years is designed to serve the special needs of the one-fifth of the country's population that is Arab. In response to this, some planners emphasize greater investment in the road system in order to relieve the growing transportation stresses in Arab villages: constructing a hierarchical system of straight, wide roads according to national standards, multiple road entries into villages, and ring roads around them.5 "The solution for the transportation problems in these settlements," claims one of the few overviews of the topic, "demands a correct planning, similar to that which is done for Israel's large cities."6
No doubt in some cases there is a need for new roads to serve new centers arising from a much-needed investment in Arab economic growth, and to divert traffic that is ruining town centers. But should catching up and leveling standards of road capacity be the primary emphasis? The challenge is not simply to attain a fair share of the development pie, but to use this share for a transport system that is forward-looking and suited to inhabitants' needs, not just mimicking of prevailing trends.
Thus, portions of some Arab villages retain the kind of pedestrian livability that contemporary transportation planners are struggling to achieve, and these will be threatened by mass motorization trends. Israel's car-dependent suburbs are hardly a model for emulation. Can Arab villages and towns take advantage of their "lag" in motorization levels to build more sustainable transport planning? The priorities would seem to be the following: town planning that lessens the need for travel (retaining and strengthening mixed-use zoning and opportunities for local work while removing hazardous economic activities away from residential and commercial areas); accommodating and encouraging pedestrian and bicycle access for daily needs, especially in town centers; and - while the potential is still very high - building a solid public transport system responsive to the Arab community's travel needs.

An Immediate Issue: Planning for the Trans-Israel Highway

The proposed Trans-Israel Highway, Israel's largest-ever transport infrastructure investment, to run the length of the country from the border with Lebanon to south of Beersheba, has been much debated because of its environmental implications for Israel. There are those who argue that the massive uncertainty as to the road's cost, value, land-use and environmental impacts, and its questionable priority with respect to other urgently needed transport investment, all demand that the project be frozen pending the comprehensive analysis that was never done?
But if the road goes ahead despite its flaws in conception and evaluation, it will raise additional questions for the Arab communities along the road's right-of-way on both sides of the Green Line, and for the relation of Jews and Arabs within Israel. While land for the road will be appropriated from both Jewish and non-Jewish settlements alike, the consequences for Arab villages may be particularly severe as they have suffered a series of expropriations over decades, and have less access to other land and to non¬agricultural forms of income. Similarly, as has been the case in the past, Jewish kibbutzim and moshavim may be in a better position to plan around and utilize the road's consequences to their benefit, through the construction of shopping and business areas alongside.8 And beyond the Green Line, the implications of the road - a massive magnet for future development - are still unclear, as is the extent to which the project is being incorporated into Palestinian Authority planning (See Figure 1)

Transport for Palestine: Planning in the Face of Uncertainty and Occupation

The transport planning realm within the occupied territories is hampered by massive political constraints, uncertainty, and lack of resources. Severe management of Palestinian mobility, coupled with the preservation of freedom of movement for Israelis within the territories, is a cornerstone of the occupation.
Planners must work with uncertainty regarding critical questions: will the transport-related components of the peace accords (safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza, a port, an airport) be implemented fully? Will Palestinians have control over their ability to travel between the currently fragmented pieces of their own country, and will they be able to travel into Israel? Will a dual infrastructure designed for occupation continue? (Currently, extensive new high-quality roads allow settlers to live in the territories without encountering Palestinian residents, who themselves rely primarily on an old, inconvenient and poorly-maintained road system.)
They must also provide guidance for some hard choices. Without a sustainable emphasis, it is likely that transport improvements will focus on improving the extent and quality of the road system (accommodating and encouraging private use) and on autonomy-giving port and airports, at the expense of less obvious and longer-term measures. The former is the principal emphasis in the few existing planning documents, which predict that political independence will bring a drastic rise in income levels, car ownership and use, and volumes of traffic. Measures of equal or greater importance - such as public and non-motorized transport, and the design of pedestrian-friendly city centers and mixed-use neighborhoods that reduce the demand for travel- receive far less attention.
One can imagine a scenario of continued high population growth rates, increased incomes and social stratification, and the easing of Israeli restrictions on building and travel, together contributing in short order to a wave of unregulated and car-dependent sprawl that will precede and soon preempt more sustainable alternatives. Such planning issues would challenge any society, so with scarce resources, high uncertainty, and massive external constraints, Palestinian transport planners have their work cut out for them.
Yet, precisely because it is starting late, this fledgling state can avoid building yesterday's transport solutions into its future. In doing so, it will reduce the long-term liabilities of mass motorization, which have become clear over recent decades. Lessened car dependency would reduce travel¬related health costs, slow the destruction of open areas and communities through road-building, free up salaries for investment rather than car purchase and maintenance, and avoid building into the economy a constant drain of foreign currency for the purchase of cars and fuel. An increasing number of experts from around the world show that progress and motorization need not be equated.
To the extent that this fledgling state can avoid building its future using yesterday's transport solutions, it will reduce its travel-related health costs, slow the destruction of open areas and communities through road-building, free up salaries for investment rather than buying and maintaining cars, and avoid building into the economy a constant drain of foreign currency for the purchase of cars and fuel. An increasing number of examples from around the world show that progress and motorization need not be equated.
In Gaza, these issues are especially pointed. With astonishing population densities, any rise in motorization rates will make life there even more hellish, especially since these vehicles are, and will most likely continue to be largely older and more polluting, acquired second-hand from Israel. Gaza, being flat, with reasonable weather, low incomes in the foreseeable future, and very high densities, is an ideal site for non-motorized and public transport. Unless demand for sustainable transport arises from within Gaza, and is recognized as cutting edge and compatible with raised standards of
living (it is in Tokyo and Amsterdam that one finds high percentages of trips to work on bicycle), any talk of animal - and human - powered transport may be rejected as an attempt to preserve "backwardness."

Roads to Peace?

While such talk may seem premature now, the transportation consequences of future peace and the opening of borders must be thought about with sustainability in mind. At this point, the imagination of forward-looking politicians falls too readily to circum-Mediterranean highways, and "peace roads" linking the regional capitals.9 When Ehud Barak held the position of foreign minister, Israel's current prime-ministerial candidate defended his party's negotiations with Syria by painting a picture of "full normalization," in which "tourists can travel from Israel to ... Turkey and to Europe in their own cars," while a popular progressive columnist ended his plea for peace with Syria saying, "What more do we need in order to be convinced that peace is a good deal? To give every Israeli a free lifetime supply of gas for trips via Damascus?"
Some of the grander regional road projects initially proposed will, no doubt, evaporate as soon as more careful feasibility studies are done. They are based, in part, on an image of Israel as "the cross-roads of the Middle East," destined to become a regional transport hub. This image may be a largely mythical holdover from the past. Before motorized transport, when trade was far less global than today, foot and animal traffic relied on the land route through Israel with its unambiguous terrain and frequent water stops.10 Today, however, the volume of trade between Arab countries is relatively small (only 2 percent of Egypt's imports are from other Arab countries, for example), and they have developed a transport network quite capable of handling traffic between them, despite the post-1948 closure of the traditional route through Israel. Even the connection between Africa (Egypt and to some degree Libya) and Arab countries to the east is now made via the Sinai-Aqaba ferry. If anything, the "desert route" of Jordan is more likely to become the regional transport avenue.
Thus the motivations for sweeping "peace roads" proposals may be located not so much in real transportation demand as in international donor enthusiasm for projects that link the region's countries - especially Israel with its Arab neighbors.11 This lack of real demand, combined with the stalled peace process, means that the massive proposed regional network of peace roads is not an imminent danger.
Environmentalists must raise questions that are still barely heard. Can we ensure that the pricing of freight haulage reflects the full social and environmental costs of transport, rationalizing decisions of local production versus import? Can rail (with the kind of inter-modal container-transfer now being developed) provide more efficient long-distance haulage than trucks in the long term? How will emission standards of heavy commercial vehicles, which will contribute the majority of pollution from cross-border travel, be coordinated among the region's nations? Can we ensure that increased mobility is not simply achieving flexibility for corporations at the expense of people and places?
Given wage disparities between Israel and the surrounding countries, eased travel could increase firm efficiency, but also overall travel volumes and labor exploitation. As current processes in the textile industry indicate, Israeli firms may choose to relocate labor-intensive portions of their production cycle in Jordan and Egypt, leaving knowledge and technology intensive portions in Israel, increasing the overall haulage volumes, the bulk of which is likely to be road-based.12


In a region so troubled, environmental criteria and careful planning have often been secondary to more "pressing" agenda. Yet in different ways, each of the sectors mentioned (Israel, the emerging Palestine, Arab communities within Israel, and the region as a whole) will need precisely this kind of long-term systemic thinking if they are not to waste the moment of opportunity offered by a still-low motorization levels. Without imagination, each can declare it impossible to argue with the demand for car travel, and so scramble to build the infrastructure that will meet and thus encourage this demand; each can regret not having the luxury to put long-term livability ahead of more urgent things. With imagination, on the other hand, policy levers and wise investments might shape, rather than follow, demand; examples of successful and often less-costly alternative practices can be emulated from around the world - including those in places grappling with their own constraints and emergencies. "Lags" can be turned into gifts: relatively clean slates from which to build a different kind of future.


1. Terminology reflects the current political flux and difficulties. Some of the Arabs who came under Israeli rule in 1948 prefer to call themselves Palestinians, rather than Israeli Arabs, highlighting their historical and cultural affiliation. Yet, as the likelihood of a Palestinian state nears, "Palestinian" is likely to carry national connotations that will stand in tandem with these cultural/historical ones. For this reason, I retain, for now, the admittedly problematic usage of "Israeli Arabs" for those within the Green Line, and Palestinians for those who came under Israeli rule in 1967.
2. Michael Wegener, "Issues for a European-American Research Program on the Future of Transport," Journal of Transport Geography 5, no. 1 (1997): 60. John Whitelegg, Transport for a Sustainable Future: The Case for Europe (New York: Belhaven), 1993.
3. See Elaine Fletcher with Yaakov Garb and Gary Ginsburg, Transport, Environment, Equity:
Trends, Prospects and Policy. Adva Institute, 1998.
4. This section relies on the "Israeli Arab Sector" in Fletcher and Garb (1998) and Rassem Khaimaisi, The Development of Transportation Infrastructure in Arab Localities in Israel (Jerusalem: The Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies), 1995.
5. Khaimaisi, ibid.
6. Khaimaisi, p. 6.
7. See Yaakov Garb, The Trans-Israel Highway: Do We Know Enough to Proceed? Working Paper #5 Oerusalem: Floersheimer Institute for Policy Studies), April 1997.
8. See Khaimaisi, report to the Ministry of the Interior, and Floersheimer report, forthcoming.
9. EcoPeace brochure on peace projects; and Shimon Peres, The New Middle East (New York:
Henry Holt), 1993.
10 Gideon Hashimshoni, "Surface Transport Development Policy for the State of Israel," report submitted to the Ministry of Transport, January 1998, p. 88.
IIan Cohn, "Environmental Evaluation of Regional Transportation Projects: The Case of the Middle East," manuscript, April 19, 1997, notes iii and iv.
12. For a reflection of the environmental implications of European Union transport integration, see Chapter 8 in John Whitelegg, Transport for a Sustainable Future: The Case for Europe. While such levels of integration lie far in the future for the Middle East, the patterns described there are suggestive.

Excerpted with permission from an article from World Transport Policy and Practice (4)1, 1998.