Herzliya to Offer Municipal Funded Buses on Shabbat, Holidays

The law, based on religious status-quo, defines public transportation as a 'service for which the user pays,' but it says nothing about free bus service.

Rafi Kutz

In a groundbreaking move, Herzliya decided Tuesday to start offering public transportation on Shabbat and holidays. Until now, the only cities that provided regular public transport on Shabbat and holidays were those with large non-Jewish populations such as Haifa.

Herzliya’s Shabbat bus service, which will begin on July 1, will be limited to main roads and primarily provide access to the beach, the hospital, the park and the main entertainment district. The buses won’t run through religious neighborhoods. They will operate every half hour from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., and the service will be free.

Although current law, which is based on a decades-old religious status quo, forbids public transportation on Shabbat and holidays in most cities, the law defines public transport as a service for which the user pays. Thus a free bus service wouldn’t violate the law.

Herzliya’s decision was pushed through by Mayor Moshe Fadlon over the opposition of the religious parties.

“The Herzliya municipality seeks to enable all its residents, even if they don’t have cars, to reach entertainment and leisure sites and the beaches conveniently and easily, in an egalitarian manner,” Fadlon said. He added that the routes were “carefully chosen to avoid hurting anyone.”

The city will issue a tender for a company to provide the service in the next few days and hopes to sign a contract with the winning bidder shortly afterward.

Gil Yaakov, director of the organization 15 Minutes, termed the plan an “excellent initiative that doesn’t pass through religious neighborhoods and won’t offend the religious public.” He added that many cities would like to offer public transport on Shabbat and could afford to do so, but don’t due to “extraneous considerations.”

Though Holon has been operating free buses to Tel Aviv and back on Friday nights since 2009, its buses don’t run on Saturday. In a few other cities, private groups provide limited bus service on Shabbat, but these groups receive no municipal funding. In Jerusalem, for instance, a private cooperative called Shabus runs a regular bus route, and a private service called Noa Tnuah operates in Ramat Gan, Givatayim and Tel Aviv.

A poll commissioned last September by the Hiddush organization, which opposes religious coercion, found that 72 percent of Israelis support some kind of public transport on Shabbat, but only 27 percent think cities should offer full bus service; the remaining 45 percent favor a more limited service.

Herzliya’s previous mayor, Yael German, had petitioned the High Court of Justice in 2012 for the right to provide public transport on Shabbat. This past weekend, Fadlon withdrew the petition, for which he was harshly criticized by the city council’s nonreligious parties.

But even now when he is offering a limited free bus service instead, some secular council members aren’t satisfied.

Councilman Yariv Fisher (Meretz) objected both to the service’s limited nature and its being funded by city taxpayers rather than passengers.

“After Fadlon canceled the High Court petition, he had to give secular people something,” Fisher said. “But this is nothing more than a Band-Aid. Herzliya residents want public transportation on weekends, not a shuttle to the sea for a few months.”

On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will discuss a bill that would allow any municipality to provide public transportation on Shabbat within its boundaries, and also on intercity roads, but only in minibuses. The bill was sponsored by three Yesh Atid MKs, Yael German, Karin Elharrar and Yoel Razvozov. It would permit only limited bus service rather than a normal weekly schedule, and the buses would have to avoid religious neighborhoods.

Without public transport, German argued, “The poor are shut up in their houses on Shabbat and holidays and can’t go to the beach, the parks or entertainment centers.” The bill is aimed at “doing justice to this population,” she said.