Students at Tel Hai Academic College near Kiryat Shmona yesterday protested the lack of public transportation to their school by flying kites, which they said were symbolic of promises by the Transportation Ministry that were "up in the air."
Some 4,500 students and staff at the Upper Galilee college, along with other people from the region who do not own cars, have little access to regular public transportation.
One bus a day currently reaches the college, leaving Kiryat Shmona at 8 A.M. But there is no bus back. Three other lines go by at times that students say are useless to them: 6:30 A.M., 3 P.M. and 7 P.M.
Udi Michael, a student from Haifa now in his third year at Tel Hai, recently gave up his apartment in Kiryat Shmona, from which he had to ride to the college, for a flat in Kibbutz Kfar Giladi that was smaller and more expensive but within walking distance of Tel Hai. "My life is easier, I solved my mobility problem," he said.
Michael said that when he lived in Kiryat Shmona, he had to leave home 90 minutes before his first class to hitch a ride to school. "I never knew how many people would be waiting and how many drivers would stop on a particular morning," he said.
"Everyone who comes here to study knows they'll have to get used to the culture of hitchhiking. Not to mention the options that we don't have that students in the big city take for granted, like going out for some fun in the evening or holding a study group with friends from another community," Michael says.
Student Roni Keren is renting in Kibbutz Kfar Szold. It's only about 10 minutes' drive from the college, but she has to hitch two rides to get there: "The first one to Kiryat Shmona and another one from Kiryat Shmona to the college. I have to leave way ahead of time, and hope I get to the lecture on time."
Keren is active in the environmental leadership group Green Course, which together with the local students union, and backed by the college, started a campaign a few months ago to change public transportation policy in outlying areas.
"The struggle is not only for students' rights," Keren says. "We were also speaking for the elderly who have no way of leaving their communities, and for teens who want to be mobile but don't have a car. Older people hitching rides is a frequent sight in the Galilee," she said.
Calling the situation "absurd," Keren said that on the one hand, "the state charges high taxes on fuel and cars, and on the other hand does not take the inhabitants of outlying areas into consideration at all. The state is in fact forcing me to buy a car and pay a crazy price for gas, as well as not to think about the environment and pollute it. The government claims that raising taxes is also to encourage public transportation, but how can we use public transportation when there isn't any?"
Keren said she and her colleagues thought their struggle had borne fruit. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz visited the college in February and promised that during March a pilot program would be launched in the region to increase public transportation and decrease its cost.
College director Yossi Malka said the Transportation Ministry asked the college to prepare a document outlining the transportation needs of the region - what communities need more buses and at what times.
"We even changed our schedule at the request of the ministry, starting class at 9:00 A.M. instead of 8:30," he said, noting that expectations for change had run high.
However, he says the pilot, inexplicably, has not started.