For the first time since it was founded 110 years ago, Tel Aviv ran a public bus service on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.
The service also encompasses the nearby towns of Givatayim, Kiryat Ono and Ramat Hasharon.
At 9 P.M. Friday night, Tzachi was waiting to board on Tel Aviv’s Ibn Gvirol Street. “Fantastic, the system works,” he said happily as he boarded the packed minibus. Most of its 19 seats were already taken.
“The idea is great,” agreed Rom, another passenger, who was heading to a Tel Aviv restaurant with his girlfriend Michal from their home in Givatayim. “It was a bit late, 15 minutes, but we’ll forgive it.”
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A few stops later, Tal got on. He had just switched buses on his way from Ramat Hasharon to Jaffa, where he planned to go to the theater.
Until this weekend, he said, he would have had to take a bus to Tel Aviv before Shabbat started, hang out at a friend’s for several hours and then take an electric scooter to Jaffa. But now, “this whole problem has been solved.”
“This is a historic day; I’m not kidding,” he added.
Next to board were Noa, from Haifa, and her friend Melissa, originally from Mexico and now living in Germany. “I’m really excited,” Noa said. “And it’s free – fantastic!”
The buses are free, for now, because public transportation services can’t charge money on any day of the week without a permit from the transportation minister. And getting a permit is a bureaucratic headache. This creates an absurd situation in which Orthodox Jews, who object to public transport during Shabbat, which goes from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, are actually paying for it with their municipal taxes since the participating cities can’t collect fares to cover the costs.
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The initial budget for operating the system, which was approved by the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality’s finance committee about two weeks ago, is 1.5 million shekels ($433,000) through the end of 2019. The annual cost of the project (52 weekends) is estimated at about 12.5 million shekels, but would presumably increase if additional cities join.
The bus service includes six routes about 300 kilometers in length with over 500 bus stops. It operates from 6 P.M. to 2 A.M. on Fridays and from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. on Saturdays. The minibuses set out at half-hour intervals, on the hour and the half hour, with the exception of Bus 710 from Kiryat Ono, which sets out every hour on the hour.
Another Tel Aviv suburb, Ramat Gan, chose not to join the project, for reasons that remain unclear. But the Ramat Gan municipality said it can run its own bus service on Shabbat for the same cost and with greater flexibility.
Roy Schwartz Tichon, 27, is no ordinary passenger. The Haifa native, who now lives in Tel Aviv, founded an organization called Noa Tanua in 2015 that launched a private, nonprofit bus service on Shabbat in several cities, including the first line between Ramat Gan, Givatayim and Tel Aviv. But he always thought there should be public transportation on Fridays and Saturdays – and this weekend, his hopes were finally fulfilled.
The new public service has a few teething problems; some of the drivers still haven’t learned their routes. The bus Haaretz tried out, for instance, circled Jaffa’s Clock Square twice before the driver figured out which exit he needed to take. But the launch passed quietly despite a threatened protest by Tel Aviv’s ultra-Orthodox residents.
“The most amazing thing about bus service on Shabbat is that people at the bus stops are smiling, and board the bus with a smile,” Schwartz Tichon said. “On weekdays, you don’t see that.”
Now, his goal is to expand public transportation on Shabbat throughout the country, and for it to include train service as well. According to him, 80 percent of the public supports this goal. But it will require Knesset legislation, and he knows that won’t be easy, since for most people, public transport on Shabbat isn’t a voting issue in Knesset elections.
Nevertheless, he is convinced it will happen, because “we’re seeking to carry out the will of the most of the Israeli public.”
After all, he recalled, when he started Noa Tanua in 2015, people also thought he was crazy. But Friday night, as he stood with a smile on his face and watched the passengers filling the minibuses, he received his vindication.