Palestine: Time to Think About Transit?

Can good planning help address the grievous problems of the Palestinian territories, including the challenge of conceiving its patchwork of lands as a viable state? My friend Doug Suisman, a Los Angeles architect in private practice, has been working on the problem for years, through a remarkable project called the Arc. The New York Times profiled it five years ago.  Despite all the bad news from Israel and Palestine since then, the work has continued.  The idea is to have a plan for the urban structure and transport infrastructure of a Palestinian state, something that’s ready to go when an independent state is created and that can even be part of the run-up to independence.


As often in the developing world, a type of Bus Rapid Transit is a key early move, with rail further in the future.  The Arc’s planners understand the need for a “Quick Impact” project that will show a transport benefit fast, and an intercity form of Bus Rapid Transit linking the West Bank’s major centers makes sense if that’s the objective.  Compared to the transport options today, even a compromised BRT would be a striking improvement.

Doug recently updated me on this via email:

[W]e’re trying to keep awareness of the project high in hopes that the Obama administration’s negotiating team will see fit to incorporate the Arc into its diplomatic strategy … . The 8-minute video is a quick refresher. You may be particularly interested in the short- to medium-term transit projects we have

Five years ago, proposing swift regional inter-city rail with connecting BRT service at each major Palestinian city – combined with medium density development along the BRT lines – may have seemed somewhat foreign for the region, but as you know in the interim Istanbul has opened 2 BRT lines, Amman is moving ahead pretty quickly with its own BRT system and impressive master plan, and Dubai opened its Metro with plenty of bus connections. Maybe transit and design can, after all, be part of the peace equation!

In some form it will have to be, so it’s smart to be thinking about it now.

12 Responses to Palestine: Time to Think About Transit?

  1. Alon Levy September 11, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    This is woo. I’m sorry, but the Rand monograph, authored by Suisman and four other people, makes more elementary errors about Palestine than a Reason Foundation report makes about mass transit. Namely:
    1. On the list of problems facing Palestine, transit is about priority #50. So is creating mixed-use cities.
    2. For small poor countries, especially ones as disproportionately educated as Palestine, export industries are a better source of jobs than debt-fueled infrastructure.
    3. The Arc idea does less than nothing for Gaza City, the one part of Palestine that has a genuine overcrowding problem that better transit could solve. I’m reminded of how Israel has built nationwide megaprojects of dubious value (*cough* Trans-Israel Highway *cough*) while neglecting the Tel Aviv Subway for decades.
    4. The Arc idea is pitched as a solution looking for a problem. The ROW is proposed for water, energy, and transportation. These don’t need to be bundled if the point is to solve problems, rather than to draw lines on a map.
    5. The idea of amalgamating the West Bank to form a continuous city of 3 million on the model of Brasilia is a throwback to Le Corbusier. It’s about as likely to succeed as American urban renewal did, or for that matter as Brasilia would have if it hadn’t had 170 million other Brazilians to tax.
    6. The Arc-to-rest of Middle East connections don’t stand up to looking at a relief map. Neither does the concept of building high-speed rail, for that matter.

  2. Zoltán September 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    I know less than Alon appears to about this. However, from the extract posted here, I notice that it’s planned for the system to involve three stops in three model districts. This seems an extraordinary neglect for the remainder of this city. As presumably the most pleasant parts of the city with the best transport, it seems difficult to imagine these not being expensive parts of the city, leaving the remainder poorly connected and underinvested in.
    There seems to be something in the Le Corbusier comparison with the idea of building model districts in cities built on a startlingly simple model with little local adaptation. Are we not now beyond the idea that we are in the business of creating idealised cities on a simple model, rather than making the lived-in fabric of cities work well and offer a pleasant environment? If we are, then it’s that sort of city that transit needs to be in the business of serving.
    Nevertheless, if Palestine is indeed to be come a peaceful place fertile for economic growth, something I’m yet to be too optimistic about, then I think there is something very good about the idea of growing around transit, rather than around cars with transit added later. A cost-effective bus rapid transit system that seeks to serve the entirety of all of the Palestinian cities that need it could well be a very good way of doing this, as long as the heads of those planning it are kept out of the clouds.

  3. Mahyar September 12, 2010 at 9:38 pm #

    “the challenge of conceiving its patchwork of lands”
    I’m sorry, there is only a patchwork of lands because of the illegal Jewish settlements. Once they are gone, there is no patchwork, just contiguous land (minus Gaza). Even George Bush the donkey saw this with his references to Swiss cheese.

  4. Alon Levy September 12, 2010 at 10:20 pm #

    Mahyar, Palestine really is a patchwork – for one, it consists of two separate pieces. But even the West Bank is a patchwork, because its terrain is really mountainous. A north-south alignment would have either sharp curves or long tunnels. For east-west service, it’s even worse: in the 24 km between Ramallah and Jericho, there’s a 1,100 meter net elevation difference, which is beyond the grade-climbing capability of rail. This has nothing to do with the Israeli occupation.

  5. John September 13, 2010 at 11:39 am #

    I believe that in Saudi Ararbia and the UAE, women are not permitted to travel in the same train car or on the same bus as unrelated men. Is this an issue in Palestine too? If so, do they intend to run two buses at a time to deal with this issue?

  6. Alon Levy September 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm #

    You don’t need to go as far as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. There are sex-segregated buses for ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.
    But no, it’s not a problem in the West Bank, which is very secular by Middle Eastern standards.

  7. Nathanael September 13, 2010 at 8:56 pm #

    No hope.
    First problem: Israeli government stealing land, closing roads, and blocking the transit lines.
    Second problem: Israeli government bulldozing the transit lines like they do people’s houses.
    It’s about as reasonable as transit in Somalia, unfortunately. It would be nice to have a plan for after independence, but if the land keeps being stolen, no plan will make much sense any more.

  8. Eric September 14, 2010 at 5:39 am #

    I think that we in more stable societies take for granted the transformative power of mundane infrastructure projects. Any political solution to conflict needs physical/spatial ramifications and Suisman’s idea is nurtured out of this conviction.
    We can debate the merits, but in this case, whether you like the prospectus or its reasons or not, this vital piece of mundane infrastructure will undeniably also provide a necessary and salient physical link serving national identity. To have a viable sense of national identity is critical for a political proposal for a two state solution. The link is a narrow spine that can easily serve as connective tissue where political borders are incongruous and seemingly un-determinable. You get the infrastructure of identity with the infrastructure for transit in this special circumstance (industrial output is an after-affect of political stability).
    But in its temporal and humble operation, transit infrastructure has potential also in playing a vital role healing the bi-national rift, as Romi Khosla and others have pointed out. In all the loopy physical ideas presented in Michael Sorkin’s The Next Jerusalem: Sharing the Divided City, Romi’s stood out to me as the most realistically conceived. Romi noted that passengers interacting among other passengers creates “secular space”. The concourses of transit create multi-layered, politically benign spaces for multiple functions in time and space. In that way, transit functions very similarly to the secular streets in Jerusalem’s sacred geography, which are much more effective peacemakers than politicians and generals ever can be. Nobody appreciates the daily peacemaking going on with amazing resilience in the midst of Jerusalem’s Old City streets, despite the loaded religious and political circumstances they navigate. We need to be aware of that transit can share this role. Can the transit spine create an extension of Jerusalem’s hidden, secular mechanics? Very intriguing question…

  9. Alon Levy September 14, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    Eric: let me stop you for a minute. Let’s suppose that you’re right and dirt poor countries really need megaprojects to thrive (an assertion that would be contradicted by looking at nearly any Tiger economy). Palestine consists of two separate pieces, which Israeli policy treats as two different countries. A megaproject internal to one piece could not promote any coherent national identity.

  10. Matthew September 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    As a one state solution is the only option that will have the potential to address the grievances of the Palestinians, any transit project should be designed with the unification of Palestine in mind.

  11. arab muslim October 16, 2010 at 4:19 am #

    The reasons for Arab-Israeli conflict is the occupation of Palestine in 1948.
    Palestine Arab Islamic state like the rest of the Arab and Islamic states surrounding
    Them. Means that there are Jews and Zionists in Palestine a big mistake, because this entity
    Zionist is not consistent with the surrounding area (such as language, customs, traditions and religion)
    The only solution to end the Arab-Israeli conflict is the expulsion of Jews from Palestine
    All of Palestine. The Jewish people will not rest and will not feel comfortable and stability
    But if it gets out of Palestine and the Middle East completely. If people continue to
    Jews in Palestine and the Middle East, the death and destruction will continue.
    Palestine Arab Islamic state and will remain

  12. Wanderer May 29, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    I’m not sure transport is such a low priority. One of the daily complaints that Palestinians have about the Israeli occupation is the difficulty of just getting around. Certain roads are reserved only for Israelis. Palestinians face long and unpredictable waits at checkpoints. Reliable transport isn’t the solution to the overall problems of war, occupation, terrorism etc, but it would sure make the daily lives of Palestinians better.