Golan Residents, Long Left Out in Cold, Thrilled With Public Transit Revolution

Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi

To Daniella Shaul's delight, two buses, 51 and 52, stopped at the station near her house in Katzrin. After years of deficient public transportation, she welcomed the additional lines and more frequent buses.

"How lovely, what cute buses," she said happily.

A bus in the Golan, . Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Unlike many in the rest of the country, Golan residents, as well as soldiers serving in the area and hikers, celebrated the transit changes, which have revolutionized life in the region.

The reform began there two months ago.

To the planners' astonishment, the number of passengers in the Golan has increased by 100 percent, from 15,500 a day to 31,750. The number of daily trips to and within the Golan soared from 31 to about 140.

Before the reform, the Transportation Ministry and the local authorities operated dozens of urban, regional and inter-urban bus routes.

"The ministry expected a 5-10 percent increase in public transportation use in the first month," said Amir Yigal, CEO of the Golan Economic Company of the Golan Regional Council. "We expected it would take some time for people to get used to the new lines and to start using them instead of cars.

"We were surprised to find that Golan residents, who waited so many years for efficient public transportation, are indeed using the new lines, and this is only the beginning."

Yael Gal, of Kibbutz Ortal in the northern Golan, said the new bus grid has changed her life. She used to drive her daughter every week to violin lessons in Migdal, a community near the Kineret.

"The trips to Migdal and back took five hours a week and I paid a lot for the gas. Now I have a bus that goes there. This is great for many others in the Golan who drive children to extra-curricular activities or friends," she said.

"The new line from Kiryat Shmona to Majdal Shams makes an amazing difference," said Amit Ashtar, 16, of Nimrod on Mount Hermon's slopes. "Until now we had to hitch-hike or our parents had to drive us; there was no public transportation at all. Suddenly I can visit friends in Kiryat Shmona and they can visit me."

"Until two months ago we used to set our clocks four times a day, by the four buses that passed through Katzrin," said Shaul. "Now suddenly, from a distant, sleepy desolate place, we've become a bustling urban community. This has totally altered the Golan's character. But most importantly, it has made life easier. For example, for years we had to pick up soldiers and students who came home for the weekend from Hatzor or Tiberias, and drive them back there on Saturday night so they could return to the center [of the country]," she said.

Shaul, who drives daily along the "waterfall route" in the southern Golan, has been picking up hitch-hikers for years. "Since the reform the hitch-hiking stations have emptied and my trips have become boring," she said.

Golan residents, many of whom cannot afford a car, used to hitch-hike among the area's communities or from their home to nearby towns.

"There is an acute need for public transportation in the periphery," said Yigal. "We looked into why people were not using the bus lines. We found that it was cyclic - the few bus lines served few people, and as a result the supply diminished and so did the demand."

Until two months ago, only 31 buses traveled to and from the Golan daily. The routes were very long, and each bus entered every community. Thus a trip from Katzrin to Tiberias via the southern Golan could take an hour and a half.

Public opinion polls led the authorities to change their approach. Now buses shuttle people free of charge from their respective communities to the nearest central town. From these places, such as Katzrin, Hispin, Bnei Yehuda and Merom Hagolan, fast bus lines take them to the nearby towns - Tiberias, Hatzor Haglilit and Kiryat Shmona. From there they can catch buses to the rest of the country, says Yigal.

Starting at the beginning of the next school year, high-school buses will offer public transportation as well. Students will travel for free, while everyone else will pay.

Transportation Ministry officials said the new lines cost an average of 20 percent less than the old ones. For example, a trip from Tiberias to Katzrin costs NIS 15.50 now, down from NIS 29.50 - making it 48 percent cheaper. A trip from Merom Hagolan to Kiryat Shmona costs NIS 15.50, down from NIS 29, also 48 percent less. A trip from Hatzor Haglilit to Katzrin costs NIS 11, down from NIS 15.40 - 29 percent less. Getting from Tiberias to Hamat Gader costs NIS 11, also down from NIS 15.40.

People are already getting used to parking their cars near local bus stations and taking the bus to nearby towns. "Given the price and frequency, it's not worth taking a private car," said Yigal.

The project did not pass without hitches, however.

"There were people for whom the bus routes had been convenient and the change disrupted their life. Some communities that have no shuttles. Not everything is perfect and we still have to make changes and adjustments," he said.