The Big Infrastructure Kvetch

Dear Readers,

I may have the attribution all wrong, but I believe it was the former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who said – and I paraphrase: “I first got into politics because I wanted to solve problems and make people happy.  I’ve learned over the years that the measure of my success as a politician is the size of the problem that people are completely unhappy about. If they are complaining about road conditions and not about the war then I’m doing pretty well. But they’ll despise me all the same.”

Even before arriving in Israel, I heard complaints and warnings from the locals.  “Don’t take the new high-speed rail from the airport to Jerusalem. It’s unreliable. The whole thing is a big balagan (mess). Trust me, you don’t want to do that.”

“But it’s only $4 and I love trains,” I practically begged.

“Just don’t do it. I know what I’m talking about.  Take either a cab that I can get for you, or a sherut.”

(First aside: A sherut is the word for a collective taxi in Israel.  The drivers wait at a central stop – like outside an airport – until they fill up with a certain number of passengers. They then take those passengers where they want to go.  An aside upon an aside is that the word “sherut” means service. The plural of sherut is sherutim. Add a “the” – or “Ha” – to the front of that word and it becomes “ha’sherutim” which is also the word for public bathrooms.  “Eyfo (Where is) ha’sherutim” is the most important phrase to learn for an old man foreigner in Israel!)

So I end up taking the sherut and on the drive to Jerusalem along modern super-highway #1, I look to my north and there are the super-modern bridges and abutments for the high-speed rail line. I’m still desperately yearning to take that train. Both the highway and the rail right-of-way consisted of miles upon miles of bridges spanning huge chasms on the greater than 2000 foot climb into the Jerusalem hills. Nothing less than spectacular – even beautiful – engineering. And for those who don’t get what beauty I’m talking about, check out the Deception Pass bridge.

I have heard several friends and relatives in Israel state something to the effect “The public services in this country are appalling.  Sure we are making some progress in some areas, but we are clearly falling further and further behind.”

And yet, from my American eye, I see first-world public infrastructure broadly distributed. For examples:

  1. My bus number 78, which starts a couple hundred feet from my front door with arrival intervals of 10 minutes – I’ve yet to wait more than 8 minutes for a bus – delivers me close to my ulpan, close to my volunteer office, directly to downtown and Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, directly to the “shuk” (Mahane Yehuda market), directly to the Central Bus Station, a short walk to choir, and 300 feet from my ping pong club.  And if I wanted to walk 500 feet more from my house, I’d have a choice of a half-dozen more bus routes that take me anywhere I would want to go in the city.
  2. At major bus stops there is an electronic readerboard listing the projected arrival times of all buses in the next 15 minutes of so. Amazingly accurate… and comforting as one waits.
  3. The buses themselves are comfortable and modern.  You enter and exit the articulated (bend in the middle) bus at any one of 5 doors. You use a smart card – I bought one with unlimited travel for one month at about $60 – and just press the card against a card reader and it automatically recognizes whether you are paid up or not.  If your card is not unlimited in use but rather you have paid for a certain amount of money in rides, the reader automatically deducts the correct cost and gives you a receipt. The whole system works on a semi-honor system. People can go on and off the bus at their whim, but there is some possibility that an inspector may be present and ding you I suppose.  I’ve never noticed one, but then, like the air marshal in the movie “Bridesmaids” they could be secretly hiding their identity.
  4. The intercity bus system is called “Egged.” (Pronounce it correctly as Egg Ed and consider yourself “Egg-ucated.”)  It goes everywhere in the country and at very reasonable cost. I just took the bus from Jerusalem to the northern part of the country – a greater than two-hour drive – for about $4.
  5. Generally, the roads are well-paved, both in the intercity highway system and the in-town streets. There are problems and inequities that I have seen, but they seem on par with the States. Especially in the older areas, the rights-of-way are narrow and winding. Drivers use their horns frequently – often of necessity but sometimes  – and I am speculating here – based on marital difficulties, work frustrations, or because they are kinda impatient jerks. Probably it’s Obama’s fault… but I date myself.
  6. Pedestrian amenities are inconsistent, but they are clearly aware of their value and improvements are being made. There is a wonderful rail trail that I love and take regularly to school and around the neighborhood.
  7. There has been much rain since I have arrived.  It is gratefully welcomed, and this winter has ended what apparently has been 5 years of drought. But even while this highly arid country has likely been made more so by climate change, potable water availability has been increasing. Why? Because the Israelis have created the most advanced, most extensive water desalination system in the world.
  8. For the most part, sanitary sewerage… check.
  9. Stormwater systems on roadways… check.
  10. Recycling systems in cities for paper and plastic bottles… check.  Though oddly, not metal.
  11. Nationwide telephone system… check. And the country is basically run on WhatsApp.  Get it on your phone for free and call me or any Israeli free whenever you want – just remember the 10 hour time difference.
  12. Wifi – virtually everywhere.
  13. Need to pay for your parking on the street?  There is a fully automated online, GPS-based system activated by your cell-phone.
  14. Health Care – there is a national – and highly imperfect – system for that.  But everyone is covered.
  15. Public Education – universal before college… but funding and curriculum a constant source of concern and tension.

And yet, for all the jaw-dropping advances, problems are real to people’s lives.  Traffic IS a mess in the big cities. Poorer neighborhoods do have weaker infrastructure.  There are considerable differences and blatant inequities – based on what I have read (much more on this in a future blog post regarding my volunteer work with Bimkom) – with infrastructure in Arab villages and East Jerusalem.  Housing prices are through the roof.

And yet again… Jerusalem is less than 150 miles from Damascus. Less than half that distance from a million Syrian refugees in Jordan. Another million plus Syrian refugees are across the border in Lebanon, joining decades of refugee camp existance there by Palestinians. Gaza is a public health and safety disaster. The West Bank is a simmering powderkeg. As is, frankly, Egypt.

My fondest wish for Israelis and their neighbors is what Olof Palme sought – may their greatest kvetch be the traffic.

11 thoughts on “The Big Infrastructure Kvetch

    1. I look forward to seeing you both. If you have a free Monday night, want to join the choir I’m in? You would fit right in!

      Please remind me when you are scheduled to arrive and depart.


  1. Fascinating. I do think we fall prey to American exceptionalism and don’t realize how far we are falling behind especially in areas like infrastructure


    1. I didnt say higher ed. It is K-12 that is universal and free. Higher ed – while amazing here – does cost.

      As far as socialist, the country started out that way. My cousins I’m staying with this weekend in the northern tip of the country grew up in a kibbutz. Look that up on Wikipedia, but those were clearly socialist models. It does not now see itself as socialist and even the few remaining kibbutzim have a lot of capitalist enterprise about them.

      It is important to add that actual levels of public services are probably somewhere between the US and Western Europe. Its a small, densely packed place, so infrastructure is more efficient to provide.


  2. Hi Daniel, I am really enjoying your “Derekh” writing. It is not derekh at all, but well written and you are quite the “mensch” for undertaking this adventure. I look forward to more.


  3. I read your last post just after attending a meeting on proposed Restricted Peking Zones affecting our street. How fascinating it was hearing speaker after speaker argue (for the most part most coherently and civily) about why it was a good or terrible idea. And without realizing it, I channeled Olaf Plame’s sentiments: if only issues like these were the worst we had to fear!

    So thanks for the perspective and the details about governance in Israel. It sounds like they do an awful lot right.

    Suggested topic: what are you hearing from family/ fellow students/co-workers about Bibi?


    1. Ah… direct discussion of the election. Kinda fraught to engage there. It is VERY complex. I’ll think about that.

      What’s a Restricted Peking Zone? Parking Zone with a typo? 20th Century Beijing thing?

      PS: Please remind me of who you are (off line by email is fine.) I don’t remember a Leila in my present life.


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