Jerusalem downtown rebounds
Finally some good news from downtown Jerusalem. After years of griping about delays and cost overruns regarding the ill fated light rail, coupled with dire warnings from local merchants that their businesses were irreparably doomed, apparently things aren’t so bad after all.
A municipal survey has found an overall increase of 41 percent in the number of pedestrians in the last year. Foot traffic went up from 298,000 visitors in July 2011 (the month before the light rail started service) to 422,000 visitors this past August.
How did the city carry out this survey? Not by asking people at street corners how long they’d been there (that might have an entirely different outcome), but by checking the feeds from 17 video cameras installed around the downtown area.
Some of the interesting results: the largest increase in pedestrians was around Nahalat Shiva (Yoel Solomon Street and environs) near Zion Square, which increased 87 percent since last year. That might have something to do with the brand new Mashbir department store that now anchors the area.
Mahane Yehuda foot traffic was up 38 percent, although merchants there complain that it’s more tourists than locals who actually buy broccoli and bananas. That was part of the reason shuk merchants were less than enthused by this year’s Balabusta festival which brought tens of thousands of visitors during four evenings in August but little additional revenue for the fruit and vegetable sellers.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was thrilled by the numbers. “There is no Jerusalemite that doesn’t get excited to see that the city center is again bustling and active after it has been fading for so many years,” he said in response to the survey.
Barkat is right. The city center died slowly and ingloriously following the opening of the Malcha Mall years ago and city officials have pinned its ressusitation on the light rail and the creation of a pedestrial mall along Jaffa Street. That plan is now bearing fruit.
From a personal perspective, I heartily agree. Jaffa Street is wide and European in flavor now (a good thing since European countries that have introduced light rail have seen similar revivals of their downtown areas, according to Nadav Meroz, head of the Jerusalem Transportation Master Plan in an article published in The Jerusalem Post). It is a pleasure to sit at one of the many outdoor cafes and sip a mango smoothie without the soot and smell of the cars and buses that used to ply downtown’s main drag. I actually look forward to having to visit downtown.
Next week downtown will put through another test as an estimated 1 million visitors from Israel and abroad throng Israel’s capital during the Sukkot holiday, with an emphasis on visiting the nearby Old City after their jaunt down Jaffa.
Yes, the light rail is still slow, it still doesn’t really go anywhere most people need, and Jerusalem can’t hold a candle to the diversity of shopping and entertainment opportunities that Tel Aviv sports in its downtown areas. But we’re on the way, and if the light rail served as a ticket in the right direction, then maybe all the years of aggravation were worth it.