Disaster-proofing transit systems: Tel Aviv’s Red Line

Public transportation systems can be a great source of pride for cities. Places like New York City, London, and Moscow wouldn’t and couldn’t be themselves without their subway systems; their iconic undergrounds help define the identities of these cities. The relatively high ridership of these subway systems (by residents and visitors alike) has undoubtedly contributed to the widespread admiration these systems enjoy.

However, the fact that heavily travelled transit systems have a tendency to develop into their host cities’ central nervous systems overtime can make them pretty vulnerable. And not just vulnerable to your typical service disruptions due to maintenance or construction, but vulnerable to more severe service disruptions as well. We only need to look at the extensive disruptions in NYC’s subway service that followed 2012’s Hurricane Sandy to see that vulnerable transit systems, when faced with extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances, can leave a metropolitan area paralyzed.

Another event which exposed the vulnerability of transit systems were the attacks on several commuter trains in Madrid on “3/11” 2004. Leaving over 2,000 commuters wounded and killing 191, these attacks took place on four seperate train carriages during the morning rush hour commute. Whilst people were quick to point out that transit systems are increasingly vulnerable in a post-9/11 world, these kinds of attacks have been around almost for as long as transit systems themselves. In the 1970s, groups of armed Indonesian terrorists have held entire trains hostage in the north of The Netherlands twice, in one case for as long as 20 days (!) and ending in a military operation in which not only the six hostage-takers were killed, but two passengers as well.

Spanish daily El Pais reports about the attacks on the city’s commuter rail system the day after they took place. Source: El Pais.

Spanish daily El Pais reports about the attacks on the city’s commuter rail system the day after they took place. Source: El Pais.

A year after the attacks in Madrid, on 7/7 2005, yet another European capital’s transit system got hit with a series of coordinated suicide attacks which targeted commuters using the transit system during the morning rush hour. Aboard London’s underground trains, three bombs were detonated in quick succession; a fourth went off aboard a double-decker bus later, leaving Europeans convinced that the Madrid-incident of the previous year wasn’t just a one-time thing, and that more structural measures were needed to protect transit systems.

Of course, security measures had already been expanded all around the world after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Most of these measures were rather simple, such as having expanded police presence in transit stations and aboard trains and buses. Various transit authorities also put more of their own security personnel in their stations.  Almost everywhere, the security measures that have been adopted typically changed how transit stations were used, but not how they were designed. Rather, security measures (like bag checkpoints) have fit within pre-existing stations. Of course, new transit stations and systems only get built so often, maybe that’s why we haven’t seen security concerns reflected in transit station design. That’s about to change though.

In Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, Dutch engineering firm Royal HaskoningDHV is designing a new subway line extension of the city’s “Red Line”, in what will become one of the largest (and priciest) engineering projects in Israel to date. The realization of the Red Line itself symbolizes a longstanding desire –cherished by local inhabitants and commuters alike– to resolve the completely gridlocked traffic situation in and around this expanding metropolitan area. Whilst a comprehensive regional mass transit system is being planned for the Tel Aviv area, the Red Line extension will become the first in a series of underground mass transit connections. Other sections of the Red Line (as well as several other lines) are being planned in conjunction with the underground extension. Most of the system will consist of above-ground light rail, though there are plans to add BRT lines as well. Work on the above-ground sections of the Red Line has started in September 2011, and is projected to be completed in 2017. The underground section is currently scheduled for 2020.

Too many cars, not enough public transportation: a condition that has long characterized Israeli cities. Source: Haaretz.

Too many cars, not enough public transportation: a condition that has long characterized Israeli cities. Source: Haaretz.

The design program is rather unusual for a transit system: next to relieving the  overly congested roads and highways that serve this region of 3 million people, the Red Line’s design will also take possible rocket attacks into account, and double as a series of bomb shelters. When the Tel Aviv region was threatened by rockets fired from the nearby Gaza strip in November of last year, the need to consider future attacks during the design phase of the new subway line became evidently clear. The ten planned underground stations along the Red Line are being designed to offer shelter to 2,000 people each, in case of emergency. As if that wasn’t unusual enough, each station is being designed to allow all these people to survive underground for five days, without any help from the outside world. And so, the Red Line effectively will become a series of interconnected bomb-shelters upon its completion, offering 20,000 people a wartime refuge.

The Red Line in Tel Aviv, as envisioned upon completion. Source: Metropolitan Mass Transit System (www.nta.co.il).

The Red Line in Tel Aviv, as envisioned upon completion. Source: Metropolitan Mass Transit System (www.nta.co.il).

Before long, security concerns had penetrated every aspect of the planning and design of the Red Line extension. For instance, preexisting underground shelters below Tel Aviv will have to make way for the security facilities integrated into the Red Line, which offer upgraded protection against newer threats that the old shelters were not designed for. Speaking about the project, lead designer Jack Sip notes: “We’ve never experienced that such stringent security requirements were asked of a station. I think this is unique in the world”.

Design Manager Tie Ang also observes that “The desired protection against rockets and attacks with chemical and biological weapons results in higher design requirements of all components of the stations. […] We have never experiences anything like this before”. 

The security demands are pushing the designers to come up with creative solutions in order to guarantee the speed at which passengers will eventually be able to use the system (in addition to their safety). Bag checks are a standard procedure for bus, train and plane passengers in Israel; passengers also must go through gates equipped with detectors. How the station design will handle this, is yet unknown, but could significantly alter the way in which transit stations are designed in the future. A key challenge is to keep people moving even though these elaborate security-checks take up time. However they turn out, one thing is clear: Tel Aviv’s Red Line extension has already made a departure from conventional station design by emphasizing concerns that are not immediately related to the primary purpose of the line—to move people around the metropolitan area.

Whilst highly unusual, I personally think that two birds are killed with one stone here. Much like increased density often parallels the construction of new subway or light rail lines in cities that have adopted Transit-Oriented Development policies, in Tel Aviv there are enhanced security provisions that are piggybacking off transit development.

As such, the Red Line serves a purpose beyond just offering alternative travel options.  It’s also unique amongst transit systems today in the sense that it’s the first of its kind where security measures have been elevated to a primary concern in the initial design phase. It remains unclear if cities and transit systems in other countries will follow suit—it is indeed hard to think of a place where security concerns are as pivotal as they are in Israel—but it is an interesting development, and one that could possibly be applied to protect transit systems from being disrupted in the face of emergencies, regardless of whether we’re talking about security issues or natural disasters.

Do you know of any other transit systems whose designs has been influenced by security and safety concerns? Have any ideas how transportation planners and engineers can design transit systems in a way that maximizes the resiliency of these systems in the face of disruptions? Have any thoughts on the design philosophy embraced in Tel Aviv? Please let us know by commenting below.

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2 Comments on “Disaster-proofing transit systems: Tel Aviv’s Red Line”

  1. aharoni April 10, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    Moscow? Pyongyang?


  2. Rene Krueger January 14, 2014 at 3:31 pm #

    “We’ve never experienced that such stringent security requirements were asked of a station. I think this is unique in the world”.”

    And I think with this lack of knowledge he might be the wrong person in charge.. Just thinking about Singapore with its 33 MRT shelters.


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