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The Road Not Taken: The Troubles with and Solutions to Israeli Automobile Addiction

By Naomi Tsur

JERUSALEM (Feb. 8, 2013) — Israel is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world, and also among the most urbanized, with more than 90 percent of its citizens living in cities. Over the last two decades the Transportation Ministry has consistently invested in mass-transit infrastructure within the major metropolitan regions — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva — in understanding of the fact that dense cities cannot be served by private cars, because traffic would inexorably grind to a standstill. Jerusalem has proudly launched its first light rail line, with an impressive bus rapid-transit system and a rapidly improving conventional bus network.


Tel Aviv and Haifa also have taken significant steps in the right direction. In Jerusalem, there is no longer justification to take private cars to an increasingly traffic-free and pedestrian-friendly downtown.


Why then are Israeli families so often the proud owners of one, two or even three cars? Again, if we examine the system closely, we discover that this is not the result of necessity but of public policy that comes from a different section of government, the Finance Ministry.


The famous car expenses built in to our salary slip are the government’s way of feeding us with a largish chunk of salary that does not contribute to our pensions. This tempts most people to buy a car, even if they don’t intend to use it on a regular basis. One of the results of this unfortunate strategy is that when we retire, our pension constitutes 70 percent of the basic salary we earned, but a much smaller percentage of our total salary (including car costs and other benefits) before retirement. Additionally, the import of cars is a very good source of tax income for the government, and the sale of petrol generates yet more income.


One aspect of the transport enigma is the impact of heavily polluted air on public health. The clean-air law obligates us to avoid heavy traffic coming in contact with pedestrians, and health risk-assessment experts tell us that many of the cases of hypertension, heart disease, lymphomas, asthma and many other conditions are severely affected by air pollution, which stems largely from traffic.


Recently frightening statistical forecasts have warned that within a couple of decades close to 50 percent of the population will be liable to suffer from cancer at least once in their lifetime. This alarming prediction obliges us to investigate its causes, and hopefully to take the steps needed to lessen the odds. As things are now, cancer is cured more easily and successfully than previously, but it is occurring with ever greater frequency.


Heart disease, diabetes and hypertension also are influenced greatly by lifestyle choices, and in this case a lot of the harm is done through being enslaved by the motorcar, instead of walking, cycling or using public transport.


There are wider economic implications here as well, since the large numbers of people who suffer from these diseases end up in hospital beds, require medical treatment and lose many work hours due to illness. Here we have another party perhaps overly keen to sell its wares: the pharmaceutical industry, geared to treating, instead of preventing disease. These paradigms are an integral part of our modern and enlightened world, but need not be. Can we imagine a workplace that gives a bonus to employees who arrive at work on foot, on a bike, on a bus or a train? It is highly likely that in such a situation many people would sell their second cars, and keep the first one for weekend outings only. Supposing an extra incentive was added, and the bonus was integrated into our salary for pension? Not only would there be far fewer cars on the market, but another cause of human deaths would be impacted positively, since fewer cars on the roads would mean fewer accidents and fatalities. It is well known that an appalling number of lives in Israel are lost as a result of traffic accidents and through diseases related to air pollution.


The reality I have described seems tragicomic in its absurdity, and all the more so since it is we ourselves who have allowed this unintelligent economic thinking to rule our lives. Two weeks have passed since our national elections, and nearly half of the incoming Knesset members are taking up their seats for the first time, giving an unprecedented injection of new political blood into our government. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will attempt to repair some of the flaws in our system, or once again perpetuate the inconsistencies of the past decades.



Naomi Tsur is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem and an Aytzim: Ecological Judaism advisory-board member.



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