Train to Nowhere: Israel's Public Transport Is for the Poor and Powerless

The state is caught up in dreams of free markets and privatization. It has no interest in public transport, just as it is uninterested in public medicine or in public housing.

yossi klein
Yossi Klein
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yossi klein
Yossi Klein

A car in Israel is tantamount to a mobile statement of the owner’s monetary worth. Tell me what car you drive and I’ll tell you what your financial assets are. It’s not that owning a car necessarily means you’re rich, but not owning one means you’re closer to being poor than affluent. One of the pleasures of having money is the ability to flaunt it. Rich people’s houses are hard to see since they hide deep within exclusive neighborhoods. In contrast, one can drive up and down all day in a fancy car, calling attention to the rich person sitting behind the wheel.

A bus ticket is also a declaration of one’s capital assets. In Europe, poor and rich alike use public transportation. Here, only the poor do. Research has shown that the income of those who drive to work is, on average, double that of people who take the bus. Remember how much ink was spilled over the story of the righteous Benny Begin who placed his life in his hands when he commuted to the Knesset by bus?

Seventy percent of Israelis, most of them from the so-called middle class, do not use buses. I and my friends never do. No one pays for my gas and the desperate search for a parking spot has become part of the daily grind. Despite this, I would never use a bus or train to get to work.

The bus is a nightmare and the train, an adventure. When you buy a train ticket you enter the charmed world of uncertainty. Loudspeakers at train stations figuratively collapse from the strain of carrying multiple messages that tend to contradict the ones that preceded them. Trains run late, others are canceled, and sometimes the system is just on strike. Occasionally one starts out on a train, only to be transferred to a bus further down the line. Why? Because the line ends or is being repaired. Or, perhaps it was simply sold or stolen. Israel Railways operates in the same way that trains ran during the Ottoman Empire.

Even after surviving the train ride, you usually need a bus for the next stage of travel. This means dealing with waiting, overcrowding and slow progress.

The Knesset Research and Information Center determined, in 2009, that “many bus lines are tortuous and operate at insufficient frequency.”

Optimists believe that the underground train in Tel Aviv will commence operations in 2018, while pessimists believe it will never take off. I’m not sure who is right, but even if it’s the former, I doubt I’ll live to see its maiden voyage or that my Filipino caregiver will have the strength to drag me to the moving opening ceremony.

Last week, TheMarker reported that 90 brand-new buses are parked, unused, in various lots. These buses were supposed to serve as a temporary relief for the poor traveler in Gush Dan until the construction of the temporary light-rail system, which was intended to be a stopgap measure until the completion of the underground, which is supposed to serve as the ultimate solution for anyone fed up with being stuck in a traffic jam − considering that the number of private vehicles is only expected to grow, with a diminishing number of public buses.

Transportation Ministry officials explain that the matter of the unused buses “is a complex situation.” When you hear someone employing the word “complex,” you already know that they’re talking about a lost cause.

The buses will remain stuck in the lot. Economist and transportation planner Yehoshua Cohen told the business paper Globes that Israel is growing at the pace of a developing country, but people expect services befitting Western countries. The state, which is expected to supply Western-style services, is caught up in dreams of free markets and privatization. It has no interest in public transportation, just as it is uninterested in public medicine or in public housing. Leave me out of it, it says. Let the free markets do their work.

The right to convenient and efficient mobility is a basic civil right. But anyone who cannot pay free-market prices lacks the power to demand what he rightfully deserves, regardless of market forces. Infractions of this right are accepted submissively and with understanding by bus and train users, just as they accept the Iranian nuclear threat, cuts to child allowances and the August heat. What did you expect? That they would demonstrate in city squares and depose mayors? Bring the government down? Burn dumpsters?

Bus users have no power, just as people whose child allowances or pensions have been cut are powerless. Soldiers with impoverished parents or students who finance their own tuition also have no clout. Also on this list are single mothers, the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopians and young people who have not yet enjoyed any deductions, but are still busy searching for jobs, apartments to rent or ways to pay tuition fees. The common feature of all these groups is that no one gives a damn about them. Anyone using a bus today will continue to do so for years to come. He, his children and his grandchildren will in turn all experience cuts in their allowances and pensions.

In two months, municipal elections will be held across the country. Everything is being discussed during the election campaigns − everything but public transportation and its users. Responsibility for this topic is the easiest one to shake off. City Hall punts it to the Transportation Ministry, which shifts it over to the treasury. You can forget about the treasury, though. It’s busy on Facebook, and in any case doesn’t understand what is being said.

So has the state abandoned the poor user of public transit? Not quite. There is one thing the state wants every user to strictly adhere to: It wants every user of public transit to strictly observe the Sabbath. The state expects people to stay at home and pray on the Sabbath, or walk to wherever they have to go. There is no law forbidding the operation of buses on the Sabbath, but there are agreements in place. These were signed by people who never dreamed of traveling by bus. There’s television on the Sabbath and no one complains. Rich and poor alike watch TV on that day. There are no buses on the Sabbath and no one complains, because only the poor and powerless use public transit. Show me another country in the entire world where they halt public transportation one day each week, and I will swear that Yair Lapid is the best finance minister in the whole world.

A Tel Aviv bus. Has the state abandoned the poor user of public transport?Credit: Nir Keidar



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