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Illustration: A passenger waits at a bus stop. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Although Kafr Qasem's name means "village of Qasem," it is actually a town with 19,000 residents. Whatever you call it, it lies right next to the city of Rosh Ha'ayin, which is linked to Tel Aviv by train.

For years, the residents of Kafr Qasem were unable to take advantage of the endless employment opportunities represented by the train, because the only bus line that passed through their town went to Petah Tikva, not Rosh Ha'ayin.

These possibilities were finally unlocked a year and half ago, when a new bus line began running through Kafr Qasem. The southern Bedouin city of Rahat experienced a similar revolution as new bus lines were introduced over the last five years.

Unfortunately, these stories are the exception rather than the rule. Most Arab towns in Israel suffer from a lack of public transportation compared to their Jewish counterparts.

A recent report by the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality in Israel (Sikkuy) quantifies the gap between access to public transportation in Arab and Jewish municipalities. It shows that 82 percent of Israel's 40 largest Arab municipalities – each with more than 10,000 residents – do not have internal bus lines.

Most of them do have access to intercity lines, but without internal lines, residents have to walk to the edge of town to catch express buses. This is particularly problematic for children, women and the elderly.

And while some of the intercity lines make local stops, they are outrageously slow – the trip from Haifa to Jerusalem takes nearly four hours, double the usual time. 

A lack of infrastructure isn’t the only problem. Arab towns also get less frequent intercity bus service, according to Sikkuy. Comparing neighboring and similarly sized Arab and Jewish cities, the organization's report finds that every day, zero intercity buses leave Kafr Qasem, while 98 intercity buses leave the Jewish town of Shosham. Similarly, 376 local and 419 express intercity buses leave the Jewish city of Rosh Ha'ayin, while 33 local and 6 express intercity buses leave the Arab city of Tira.

Sikkuy's report also shows that Arab municipalities are linked to fewer cities than are Jewish ones. Buses from the Jewish town of Pardes Hanna have 16 destinations; while those from the Arab town of Baqa-Jatt only have three destinations (Baqa has 3,000 more residents than Pardes Hanna).

One consequence of the disparity in access to public transportation is that Arabs have learned to make do without. Families in poor Arab towns have 40 to 100 percent more cars than families in poor Jewish towns. There is no doubt that their use of cars – rather than public transportation – is a product of necessity, not choice. And it takes a heavy toll on poor Arab families' budgets.

Arab families without cars – and even those with one car – struggle to integrate into the workforce, because they can't reach employment hubs. No wonder so few Arab women work.

Houses in the roads

The good news is the State of Israel is aware of the gap in access to public transportation and is working vigorously to narrow it. A spokesperson proudly points out that the Transportation Ministry has invested NIS 400 million in public transport for Arabs in the last five years and that there has been a 53 percent increase in public transportation travel by Arabs in the last six years.

The less good news is that the public transportation gap is being closed at a glacial pace, due partly to the unique problems facing Arab municipalities. For instance, many Arab municipalities aren't well-suited for buses – with narrow streets, no sidewalks, little room for stations and even illegal houses built smack in the middle of routes. There are, then, genuine physical obstacles to bringing public transportation to Arab municipalities.

Furthermore, it is the local authorities who are supposed to overcome these obstacles. The deal is that local governments are responsible for laying the groundwork for bus lines before the Transportation Ministry starts sending buses to them. This works fine with Jewish municipalities, but Arabs towns tend to be destitute, very poorly run and totally inexperienced in planning for public transportation.

In a nutshell, Arab towns aren’t prepared to do what is needed to get bus lines and the Transportation Ministry isn’t responsible for that part of the job, so as things stand Arab towns simply won't get public transportation any time soon.

This conundrum is paradigmatic of many of the challenges the State faces in addressing social inequalities between Arabs and Jews. Often approaches that work naturally with Jews stall with Arabs because of their unique issues. The frustrated ministries can only throw up their hands in defeat.

The ministries don’t have ill intentions; they just lack the will to go above and beyond to help Arab municipalities help themselves. But apparently this is what is necessary. Before even beginning to address transportation, then, they'll have to find a way to improve local Arab administrations.