Stop working on the railroad!

Mayor Nir Barkat has kindly granted a three-month grace period to continue debating his plans to expand Jerusalem light rail system along Emek Refaim. This courtesy will allow Jerusalem residents seeking to protect their homes, their livelihoods, and their city’s heritage to propose alternatives to this one ill-conceived part of the Blue Line extension — although it’s the municipality’s responsibility to find the right plan.

In a recent City Council meeting filled with many concerned residents from the “Historic Colonies,” Mayor Barkat proclaimed that he wants the Blue Line. Hopefully, he will soon realize he can cement his legacy as the Great Light Rail Extender without destroying historic neighborhoods, ruining part of Jerusalem’s charm, choking narrow side streets with unrealistic traffic flows, and endangering the lives of pedestrians, especially kids, mothers with strollers, and the elderly, menaced by cars rerouted to narrow side streets off Emek Refaim.

The debate has galvanized residents and shopkeepers from the affected areas, but also triggered outpourings of support from across Israel and around the world — emailing nir@barkat.org.il.

People who have sipped coffee on Emek Refaim, who have wandered the quaint tree-lined streets in the German and Greek Colonies or Old Katamon or Baka, who appreciate the these neighborhoods’ elegance as part of Jerusalem’s historic character, detest the plan. There isn’t enough room for the 21st-century light rail on 19th-century Emek Refaim. The way the plan was sprung upon the residents, and the lack of a proper study assessing where all the traffic will then spill over, makes the whole story even more scandalous.

Mayor Barkat is treating opponents of any part of his plan as opponents of the entire plan. While some activists reject the light rail in general — proposing some interesting alternatives — most realize that the light rail train has left the station. This debate concerns one small part of the Blue Line, an unrealistic proposal that would impose the light rail on a historic thoroughfare so narrow that, even after cutting down dozens of majestic, centuries-old trees, destroying the businesses along the way, blasting through some historic facades, and creating absurd traffic mazes, only one set of tracks can fit.

Thus, after causing all that havoc, further chaos would result because two trains going in opposite directions cannot pass simultaneously. The potential for massive gridlock whenever any little thing goes wrong looms large, let alone the inevitable daily traffic chaos written into the plans when things are working.

The planners are suffering from their own version of Jerusalem Syndrome, forgetting how small the city is. Emek Refaim is so short, the entire neighborhood is so small, that the whole area can be bypassed and riders would still have only short walks to other light rail stations.

With many more logical alternatives, including building the Blue Line without that minor extension, Barkat could get a win-win. He can advance the light rail as he hopes, while becoming a popular hero by listening to local concerns and making the necessary minor adjustments.

A second false assumption is that the plan resulted from a logical technocratic process that yielded the ideal solution, rather than from politics, pure and simple. When I met, on the record, with the light rail designers, they admitted that intense lobbying by Baka residents a few years ago eliminated Park HaMesila — the old railroad tracks — as a possibility. I respect my neighbors’ objections, but wonder why objections from even more neighbors to the west of them don’t count.

Emek Refaim is a dumber alternative because the space is so cramped, it’s so central an artery for parents dropping their children off at various schools, and it’s so filled with businesses that won’t survive. The harm would be much greater. The planners — not the citizens — should return to the drawing board, proposing other alternatives along Pierre Koenig, HaTnufa and elsewhere to minimize damage.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a City Councillor from the Yerushalmim Party and holder of the transport and preservation portfolios, supports bypassing the Historic Colonies by running the extension along Pierre Koenig. “Talpiot is a commercial area planned for much more:  both residential and commercial development in the next 10 years,” she explains. “The catchment area of people to serve with the line would be much bigger, would be connecting them to Malcha” with its train station and mall, meaning “it would in general serve the residents of South Jerusalem in a smarter way.”

Finally, the planners’ biggest miscalculation is that the traffic coursing through the area will only be local. The area is now too central for people from Gilo. Talpiot, and Arnona for much traffic to disappear. There are too many schools and kindergartens that attract parents, who are too addicted to their cars for multiple drop-offs of their kids on the way to work to give them up. A look at the gridlock the planners created by Machaneh Yehudah on Agrippas street suggests that urban designers plan one way, but Jerusalemites actually live following their own logic and needs.

Beyond all the technical arguments, broader aesthetic considerations count too. Compare photos of the treeless light rail thoroughfare on Jaffa Road and the trees gently shading Emek Refaim. Mayors of cities like Jerusalem inherit a precious urban ecology they should make every effort to preserve.

Power in a democracy must be wielded carefully to preserve a government’s legitimacy. A great leader must remember his own Hippocratic Oath, “first do no harm.” When you destroy peoples’ neighborhood or business or home, you steal their dreams.

Beyond that is the brutal political calculus. When you destroy someone’s neighborhood or business or home, you make an enemy for life.

The affected residents are mobilizing — and allying with others from Talpiot, Arnona, Gilo, Har Homa, and other neighborhoods protective of this urban jewel.

I have said it before and I will say it again: We speak for the trees, hundreds of years old, that this plan will eviscerate. We speak for the birds, who serenade the neighborhood, who will be banished. We speak for every Israeli and every tourist who loves this little corner’s cafes, shops, and charms, and whom we invite to join our protest. We speak for parents from all over who send their kids to our neighborhood’s schools.

We speak for history; please don’t destroy cherished neighborhoods growing since 1873. We speak for our communities — unique urban spaces — intimate yet grand, lively and flourishing. And, we speak for the pedestrians, who shouldn’t be menaced by cars navigating ridiculous detours on streets designed for donkeys that cannot absorb more diverted traffic.

We speak for them all: Save Emek Refaim, save us!