Friday, May 17, 2013

Jerusalem’s Newest Tourist Attraction: Open-Air Escalators in Har Homa


After several years of serving as a test site for an innovative form of underground garbage dumpster, Jerusalem’s Har Homa neighborhood has been designated by the Municipality as the venue for another novel initiative: a system of open-air escalators that will function as a public transportation mode, help residents cope with the neighborhood’s difficult topography, and attract tourists.


Har Homa’s residents – like those of other hilly Jerusalem neighborhoods– are all too aware of the mobility problems occasioned by steep inclines. Although a healthy adult with time to spare might, with only a little huffing and puffing, be able to climb the hundreds of outdoor stairs by which streets are typically connected in these neighborhoods, such is not the case for senior citizens, people with disabilities, mothers with young children in tow, and those faced with time constraints (i.e., parents who need to get their children to school or kindergarten before setting off for work).

One of Har Homa's many "extreme" staircases
Up to now, Har Homa residents have dealt with this problem by using their private cars to get to and from destinations within the neighborhood. The planning echelon, in its wisdom, instituted parking minimums for the neighborhood’s residential projects, translating into the allocation of one, and often two, parking spots per unit. As a result, it was very convenient for the families that came to live in the neighborhood to own two cars, and sometimes more. The availability of these automobiles has made it possible for Har Homa residents to get to neighborhood supermarkets, groceries, health clinics, the well-baby clinic, kindergartens, schools, synagogues, beauty parlors, pizza parlors, candy ‘kiosks’, the community center, and all other local destinations without having to climb endless stairs, or take heartbreakingly circuitous detours in order to avoid the stairs.

But this solution, which leads to horrendous traffic in the areas surrounding the neighborhood’s educational institutions and shopping centers, a Wild-West attitude toward parking, pollution, excessively wide roads, unsafe and unpleasant conditions for pedestrians, and exceptionally unattractive architecture due to the need to house vast numbers of automobiles -- is inconsistent with current municipal policy, which seeks to promote walkability and public transit use, and to reduce car dependency to the extent possible.

It turns out that the Municipality has come up with a new and innovative solution, one that it plans to implement in the coming months: the installation of a state-of-the-art open-air escalator system to supplement Har Homa’s network of outdoor staircases – and, in some instances, to replace those staircases.


Medellin escalator, courtesy of DaniBlanchette, Flickr
Outdoor escalators are operated in quite a few cities around the world, Barcelona and Hong Kong among them. One particular escalator system that has generated considerable interest over the past few years is the impressively large one that was installed in the city of Medellín, Colombia, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods (“Comuna 13”) – an area whose topography greatly resembles that of Jerusalem’s Har Homa. Unlike Har Homa residents, however, the denizens of Medellín’s most notorious slum have no private cars available to them, and until recently were forced to climb stairs equal in number to that of a 28-storey building in order to reach the city’s employment and commercial centers. The escalator, like the cable car system that also serves as a mode of public transit in Medellín, is a social-justice initiative aimed at improving local residents’ living conditions, connecting them to the city and to jobs, and thereby setting real social change in motion. The success of these initiatives earned Medellín the title of Innovative City of the Year for 2013 (beating out Tel Aviv, which placed second).

One may ask: why is the status of a third-world city such as Medellín relevant to a discussion of a Jerusalem neighborhood, most of whose residents fall somewhere along the middle-class spectrum and own private automobiles that give them mobility both within the neighborhood and outside it?

We posed this question to Deputy Mayor Ruth Sela, holder of the Jerusalem Municipality’s planning and environment portfolios, during a joint interview with her fellow deputy mayor, Gabi Ganon.

Sela: “We need to stop viewing the private car as the default solution to every transport situation, and as symbol of status and luxury. The private car is simply destroying our built environment, and our health along with it. The present municipal leadership is an enlightened one that seeks to advance sustainability and promote public health, and the car dependency that currently prevails in Jerusalem’s peripheral neighborhoods is inconsistent with that approach.

“After all, we’ve turned Jaffa Road into the country’s longest and most attractive pedestrian mall. You can’t go anywhere near the center of town nowadays with a private car, and over the coming years this trend will only intensify – pretty soon there will be almost nowhere in Jerusalem to take a car to, or park one in – except the peripheral ‘residential’ neighborhoods! So it makes sense to implement our policy in these neighborhoods as well. Rather than each family owning multiple vehicles just so they can get to destinations within the neighborhood, we’re going to enable them to get to these destinations on foot, and to give up at least one family car.”

But, despite what you’ve said about Jerusalem’s core areas becoming increasingly car-hostile, the residents of Har Homa still need to use their cars to get to jobs and shopping centers outside the neighborhood, in the absence of any viable alternative.

Sela: “Of course we can’t hope to advance the escalator project and promote ‘car divestment’ without drastically improving public transit service to the neighborhood. The frequency of the bus lines that serve Har Homa will be increased to every 10 minutes rather than every 20 (or more) – constituting true ‘rapid bus service.’ We’ll also be annulling the parking minimums for residential construction, so it will be a lot harder to own more than one family car.”

Cancelling the parking minimums will surely be an unpopular move. People might start asking whether the Municipality isn’t intervening inappropriately in residents’ lives. If Jerusalemites have grown accustomed to using their cars for every out-of-home excursion, and if they enjoy the feeling of status and power that it gives them, why ruin it for them?

Sela: “Look, as a public official I have to think, and also act, with my constituents’ long-term interests in view – even if that entails decisions that are unpopular in the short run. The prevailing lifestyle in Har Homa and in Jerusalem’s other peripheral neighborhoods is simply unsustainable and unhealthy. The impoverished residents of Medellín’s worst slum are now benefiting from a neighborhood infrastructure that facilitates walking; they will neither want nor need private cars even once their economic status improves. They’re going to stay trim and fit, while the relatively affluent residents of Har Homa will be quivering gelatinous masses. You know, rumors have got round to us in the Municipality that Har Homa residents like to tie their garbage bags to their car antennas and drive with them to the garbage dumpsters located just a few meters from each building. Too pathetic for words! It’s this kind of behavior that I, as a public official, feel obligated to put an end to.”

That does still have overtones of ‘Big Brother’.

Sela: Hey, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City looks out for his public in just the same way – he takes things even farther. Go into a New York restaurant and open the menu – you’ll find that every item has a calorie estimate next to it. Bloomberg’s even trying to prohibit the sale of sweetened beverages in the city, as a public health measure.”

That particular effort didn’t succeed. It was thought to be too intrusive – and that’s just what people are liable to think about your attempt to separate Jerusalemites from their cars.

Sela: “The escalator project – and the sustainability considerations that lie behind it – fall precisely into the category of urban and transport planning that is quintessentially the purview of a municipal authority. Not only that, but the question of the automobile’s place in the urban environment is absolutely one that municipalities should be facing up to and answering.”

At this point in the interview signs of impatience could be discerned in the facial expressions and body language of Deputy Mayor Gabi Ganon, who up to now had maintained a polite silence.

Ganon: “With all due respect to my colleague and to the sustainability and public health issues that she represents and advances with such determination and skill, I have to take issue with the idea that environmental and health concerns are what ultimately set the escalator project in motion.

“The current municipal leadership is a proudly capitalist one, and it’s not reasonable for the Municipality to undertake projects of this magnitude just to make residents happy and ensure their physical fitness. We’re not a welfare state anymore.

“An initiative has to be potentially profitable – otherwise, how can we fund it? How would we raise the funds for an infrastructural project as complex as the Har Homa escalators?”

Indeed, we were planning to ask just that question. How will the Municipality be paying for the construction and operation of the escalators?

Ganon: “This is the good part. The Municipality won’t be spending a penny of its own money. And it won’t have to go schnorring, either. Two worthy and committed Jews, one Israeli and one from the Diaspora – with the means and the desire to benefit both the city and themselves – will be investing in the project and, in time, will receive an impressive return on their investment.”

How will they get a ‘return’ on a project whose main purpose is to advance the public good, not to generate income? Will users have to pay a toll?

Ganon[chuckling]: “No, no, no toll. It’s an interesting idea, but probably not practicable. No, there are other ways to make money off a project.

“Look, the concept of ‘the public good’ has passed its expiration date – it belongs to the socialist era. Today’s philanthropists have learned this very well. They’ve reached the conclusion – and this is very consistent with Jewish tradition, by the way – that the highest form of charity is enabling others to earn a living, not just to throw money at them. And this is where the escalators fit in. The environmental and health benefits will essentially be by-products. The escalators’ real function is to be a tourist attraction, like the ones in Hong Kong, which upgraded a topographically problematic area and turned it into a vibrant, sought-after commercial quarter! The same thing will happen in Har Homa. You’ve got wonderful views of Bethlehem there – Christian tourists will come in droves, once the proper investment has been made. We might even put in a cable car system to run between Har Homa and Bethlehem, like the one we’re planning to operate between the Old City and the Mount of Olives. Kevin Bermeister, the escalator’s main financer (along with Erel Margalit), will buy one of the neighborhood’s residential towers and turn it into a swanky hotel, Erel will open a few non-kosher restaurants, and everybody will profit. It’s a slam dunk!”

What -- drab, lackluster Har Homa, with its monotonous architecture of giant ground-level garages with some residential units stuck on top, is going to become a tourist destination?


Hong Kong (covered) escalators --
 courtesy of Maucaine via Wikipedia
Ganon: “Why not? They predicted at first that the Hong King escalators would be a total failure, but their very novelty attracted people and led to the opening of innumerable businesses, shops and restaurants, situated mainly at the escalator system’s entry and exit points. A form of ‘transit-oriented development,’ if you will. Regarding Har Homa, we’ll soften the regulations so that the garages of the residential buildings can be converted into commercial spaces. There’ll be boutiques, cafés and pubs at the ground level of the buildings.”

Sounds like science fiction. But to what degree is this really agreeable to the residents themselves? Maybe they don’t want a pub at the ground level of every building? After all, it’s a neighborhood consisting mainly of young families, most of them religiously observant to some degree or other.

Ganon: “Look, a pub on the ground floor is a negligible price to pay compared with all the money that’s going to be flowing into the neighborhood -- money that will make it possible to provide Har Homa with all of the municipal services that are currently lacking there – a library, a well-baby clinic equal to the patient load, shade structures in the playgrounds, kindergarten buildings and synagogues in accordance with demand, development and maintenance of green spaces. The Municipality will finally agree to take responsibility for all those areas that have been left in Construction Ministry limbo. All the problems that the folks in Har Homa are constantly whining about will finally be resolved!”

Wait a minute – shouldn’t the neighborhood be getting all these services anyway, in return for the arnona [municipal property tax] that the residents pay?

Ganon: Don’t make me laugh. Did you really think residents are entitled to something in return for their arnona? Arnona barely covers garbage pick-up, after you take into account all the other really important things the Municipality has to finance with its limited resources. New sports and entertainment arenas that overrun their original budgets by a hundred million shekels, for instance. And let's not forget cool events like the Formula 1 road show planned for next month. With stuff like that going on, is it any wonder there's no money left for neighborhood libraries? The peripheral neighborhoods need to stop asking what the city can do for them, and start asking what they can do for the city -- then maybe they'll get somewhere."

But does Jerusalem really need yet another tourist destination? Aren’t the Old City and the revitalized downtown enough?

Ganon: “Decentralization and breaking up monopolies is the name of the game. Why shouldn’t other neighborhoods enter the tourism market? Healthy competition between neighborhoods will ensure optimal delivery of tourism experiences to all those who visit the city – that is, to all customers purchasing the Jerusalem ‘product.’ Basically, I want to do in the urban arena what my brother did in the cellular one – open things up to competition. Besides, we’ve come to realize that the Old City and downtown Jerusalem simply won’t be able to handle the load once we reach ten million and more tourists per year. These areas have no carrying capacity. You throw two falafel wrappers on the ground and the city’s filthy.

“We need neighborhoods like Har Homa to take up the slack.”

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*Note: The above is, of course, a satirical piece; the author hopes that no one will attribute the "interview" statements to any actual Jerusalem deputy mayors, past or present. The "interview" merely aims to take to their logical conclusion certain ideas that have gained currency in recent years, and to provoke thought.

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