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What Morning Traffic and the Floods in Germany Have in Common

By Ran Raviv (Published in the Times of Israel (Hebrew), July 25, 2021)

This was a tough week for the world and for climate crisis deniers. A deadly heatwave along the west coast of North America and massive floods in Europe and central China, made it clear, for those who still needed clarification, that no country – no matter how rich – will be able to escape the harm of global warming.

Reports of the World Meteorological Organization, which is affiliated with the United Nations, leave no room for doubt regarding the connection between the frequency of extreme weather incidents and global warming, and the fact that this is a new reality of the 21st century.

Israeli media sets space aside for others’ disasters, which is why we have received an abundance of heartbreaking photos and reports: people who lost loved ones and property in Germany, homes on fire in the United States. The number of lives lost has reached the hundreds in each continent, and more.

Locally, on the other hand, another topic dominates the headlines: the idea of ​​a “congestion toll” to contend with traffic jams, which is intensifying despite dramatic roadwork in paving new roads and interchanges over the course of recent years.

Yet in order to prepare for a new reality of 21st-century challenges, new means are needed along with a shift in perception. Prior to clarifying the steps, Israeli authorities must take to contend with the climate crisis, it is important to place alongside the climate crisis, the process that sets Israel apart in addition to the environmental climate challenge – namely, population growth and its derivative density.

Addressing these two processes in which we’re already in the midst while contending with their consequences, requires systemic thinking that understands the processes and challenges they create for us and offers solutions that reflect such insights.

So, Congestion Tolls Again?

Recently, the wild idea arose yet again, to resolve the problem of traffic jams at the entrance to metropolitan areas at large and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in particular, through a congestion toll. A toll is imposed on vehicles entering metropolitan areas during peak hours, as is customary in several cities around the world (such as London).

Yet the congestion toll leaves those with means, namely those for whom their work will pay the toll, in a private vehicle, off of public transport. It continues to subsidize them through extensive public infrastructure paved within and without the metropolitan area, for private vehicles. A simple calculation indicates that solely a small portion of the cost is imposed upon private vehicle owners.

The new Minister of Transport and Road Safety, Merav Michaeli, is committed to promoting public transportation and is photographed traveling accordingly. This is a refreshing and positive innovation, yet such a toll will certainly not grant powerful echelons any incentive to promote alternative transportation policies that do not focus on the private vehicles via which they get around.

The notion that through paying a toll we’ll enable private vehicles to continue to enter metropolitan areas, reflects a fixation and blindness to the causes of the transportation crisis and means of resolving it while ignoring the need to prepare for the consequences of the climate crisis.

The True Price of Private Cars in the City

It may be claimed that the price of the congestion toll may not solely constitute a means of regulating traffic congestion, but also reflect the cost of using public resources – the road paved with our tax money. Yet such a calculation hones the question of how to price the impact of the vehicle entering the city and the roads paved, for the city and its residents?

How can the reduction of open spaces be priced? The lack of shade derived from the lack of growing trees? How to price narrow sidewalks and pedestrians’ living space? The challenges of the climate crisis pose vast challenges for the city at large and metropolitan areas in particular. Warming along with extreme and sudden rainfall.

Contending with these challenges requires space throughout the city for gardens, parks, and no less important, as part of the street. A place where trees with broad shady landscapes may thrive, and extensive gardening areas that rainwater can gradually permeate.

There’s much appreciation for cost-benefit calculations as a tool for policy-making in Israel. How can the cost of a tree-free street in over 40-degree Celsius heat be calculated? How can the cost of additional heat emitted onto pedestrians from vehicles and asphalt be calculated? How should the cost of recurrent floods and the human toll they’ll take be calculated?

Natural systems that support life are priceless! They’re critical to us and constitute thresholds for thriving human life. Their pricing and renouncement to stronger echelons that will pay a small fraction of the cost of the infrastructure they’re effectively granted, replicates a familiar practice. A low insignificant increase entitles the payer to the entire cash register, or to all the public infrastructure, regarding the case at hand.

Moreover, while the payer gains urban infrastructure, the true price is paid by all residents of the city and other people who arrive there to work, and aren’t commuting in private vehicles.

That is, the distortion here is twofold. The relatively small payment on behalf of those who have allows them a privilege whose price is weightier than the rest.

In the reality of the 21st century, as the climate crisis challenges all cities in Israel (and not just metropolitan areas), while periods of extreme heat and heavy rainfall accompanied by floods grow longer, the need for such solutions that require the allocation of land within urban spaces at large and city blocks in particular, for trees (and their roots) to provide shade and air, and areas that can moderate flooding, is growing increasingly critical. These are becoming a fundamental component of urban resilience in the face of the crisis, for their added value ​​in urban space.

What Can Be Done?

What can be done ahead of the current century’s challenges? The solutions are known. Basing urban planning on non-motorized traffic and public transportation, and allocating space for pedestrians.

Removing the vast majority of private vehicles from the city, and giving preference to non-motorized traffic and public transportation, along with allocating extensive areas of city blocks for sustainable gardening, so as to allow for the gradual permeation of rainwater.

And who will leave private vehicles out of the city in the absence of a congestion toll? We have already developed this mechanism to its fullest, in the form of endless traffic jams. These, if only there were another viable alternative, would shift us all over to sustainable alternatives.

All we need to do now is develop the best alternative for diverse and effective public transportation

Photo by Shai Pal on Unsplash