Text size

People who use public transportation will enjoy several hours of satisfaction today, as International Public Transportation Day is celebrated in Israel and throughout the world.

To encourage travel on this festive day, train and bus service will be free of charge in the afternoon. Tomorrow, however, bus passengers will return to the sad reality of periodic price hikes in public transportation, obstacles hindering the development of dedicated public transport lanes and the failure to take such lanes into consideration during urban planning. Of course, there is also the aversion to bus travel that has developed in recent years, as buses became targets for suicide bombings.

Israel has taken an important step in advancing an intercity train system, and it is doing wonders in encouraging the use of private vehicles. Israeli motorists received good news last week about the lowering of car prices and a plan to invest NIS 19 billion in road maintenance and new road construction.

What remains deprived is the bus. Hebrew University Professor Eran Feitelson, an expert in transportation policy, calls the bus "a vehicle of the weak" and argues that strengthening the bus offers "even more social importance than the environmental benefits it entails." Even with the expansion of the train system, the bus - which primarily serves a weaker and young population - is still the most efficient public transportation vehicle due to its broad deployment.

According to transportation surveys conducted by the Transportation Ministry and the Ayalon Highways Company in recent years, there are about 560 bus lines in the metropolitan Tel Aviv area, with buses making more than 1 million passenger pickups each day. Nearly half of the bus riders are under 25 years of age. Only 3 percent are not "captives" and could have made the trip in a private vehicle. Some 56 percent of the passengers do not have a driver's license.

The bus system in Israel provides good coverage relative to other countries, but it suffers from many difficulties. Egged published a report last week on the environment and the community, noting that the planning of bus systems by the government, local authorities and planning institutions is steadily deteriorating. Public transport lanes are steadily being encroached upon by private vehicles; main streets are being built with disregard for the needs of buses; speed bumps are being constructed in a way that could damage modern buses, which are quieter and cleaner but also lower to the ground; and so on.

Feitelson confirms these conclusions and adds that the state is acting in a way that is contrary to the strengthening of public transportation. While bus fares are rising as part of a policy of canceling subsidies, car prices are being lowered, creating additional demand for car purchases.

"The Transportation Ministry invests billions in constructing rail lines to Beit She'an and Eilat, but conducts countless studies for projects of public transportation lanes, which are less expensive," Feitelson notes. "It's true that public transportation does not support itself economically, but it has important associated benefits, such as improving accessibility and mobility to workplaces and service centers that the train lacks. Therefore, it is worth subsidizing. Today, policy in Israel has an even more critical significance because there is no longer a single center of services, commerce and employment in the cities, but rather many centers one needs to be able to reach."

There are many examples of strengthening public transportation. Just two weeks ago, Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, visited Israel and spoke about his city's bus system, which has become a model of emulation in the world. In Holland, they understood it was impossible to reduce the number of car purchases, but it was possible to postpone some of them. Thus, they decided to subsidize bus travel by students so that they would not rush off too quickly to buy a car.

The Transportation Ministry is aware of the problems, and in recent years it has even initiated a project, together with the Ayalon Highways Company, "to reorganize public transportation in the Tel Aviv metropolis." Its goal is "to create a new and improved structure for the bus system in the Tel Aviv metropolis, in order to make it attractive to the public." The project is supposed to shorten lines, and increase accessibility and frequency of travel, while reducing noise and air pollution. These improvements are supposed to lead to a situation in which the captives of public transportation become willing captives, and perhaps also induce people to join who do not currently use the system.

Indeed, it is a hopeful vision and a praiseworthy plan. It is just a shame that the transportation and finance ministries are busy reorganizing the private car market and paving new roads. So, it appears the captives of Egged and Dan will continue to ride buses, even against their will, as the willing captives in private cars receive encouragement from the Finance Ministry to consider purchasing a new car. One can already hear them honking impatiently at the sight of a bus that did not get out of their way.