Israel Enlists Business to Kick the Car Habit

Congested? Take two shuttles and see me in the morning.

To reduce traffic congestion, the government is earmarking NIS 40 million to give employees incentives to take public transit, and another NIS 28.5 million for employers who encourage their workers to stop driving to work.

The move seems intended to counteract the phenomenon in Israel for the employer to provide a leased vehicle on advantageous terms to white collar workers to make it easy for them to drive to work. However, employers are increasingly becoming receptive to government public transit initiatives as gridlock on major Israelis roads gets worse, fuel and maintenance costs rise and the parking supply fails to keep pace with growing demand.

“We are located in a densely populated area, without enough parking spots,” says the Direct Insurance VP of Human Resources Daphna Kleiner. “Searching for parking squanders our precious work time.” She adds, “The moment you encourage coming [to work] by convenient public transportation, you can recruit good employees even from farther away places.”

In Israel it is common for employers with large numbers of workers without cars, such as call centers that employ large numbers of students, to provide on the company’s dime minibuses that stop directly in front of the office. Such is the case at Direct Insurance, where the demand for daily rides has grown to include one-third of its 1,300 employees.

“The first people who used [these rides] were those who didn't have a car,” says Kleiner. “However, as time passed, employees who preferred to leave their car at home joined.”

At Direct Insurance, the company minibuses depart at set hours from its offices in Petah Tikva to the Petah Tikva train station, making the train a convenient way for employees to get to work. The company has found this method more efficient than another common practice of Israeli employers of sending a minibus to gather and drop off workers at their homes. “[In that case] sometimes you could end up waiting an hour and a half until the minibus finished its route,” says Kleiner. When a worker occasionally misses the company minibus because they must stay late to complete something urgent, the company orders them a cab.

Direct Insurance is a relatively late entrant into the pool of companies providing minibus or shuttle service. Many major companies in Israel have been doing this for years, including Bank Hapoalim, cell phone companies Partner Communications (more commonly known by its brand name, Orange) and Pelephone, Microsoft at its Herzliya office, Elbit Systems at its Haifa office, Comverse in its office in the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Hahayal and Intel for its Negev-based employees.

Showers and parking for bicyclists

Yet there are those who say that company-run shuttles and minibuses are not a growing trend. “There are companies that run minibuses and discovered that it helps them, but that solution isn't been adopted widely,” says Tamar Keinan, CEO of the non-profit Transport Today & Tomorrow.

In 2009, the non-profit in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry published a guide for employers on how to encourage workers to come to work using green-friendly transportation. The guide describes various transportation options like car-pooling, installing office showers for workplace bicyclists and discounts for using public transportation. But according to Keinan, most employers still do not view how their employees get to work as part of their responsibilities.

Nevertheless, a yearly index maintained by corporate social responsibility organization Maala shows that more businesses are encouraging the use of alternative means of transportation to work. The number of such companies increased from 62% of those surveyed in 2012 to 65% this year. Some 20% of companies gave workers a financial incentive not to take their car to work this year compared to 12% last year. 68% of companies surveyed are modifying the workplace environment to facilitate alternative transportation, for example installing bike racks and showers for bicyclists, compared to 60% last year.

Shuttle users giving up on cars

Not only have some employers gotten into the shuttle business, but so has the state. In areas where other, complementary forms of public transportation do not exist, Israel Railways in cooperation with local governments or industrial zones provides shuttle service to the local train station that coincides with the train schedule.

For example, there are shuttle services from the Bnei Brak train station to the Atidim industrial zone in the northern Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Hahayal and the Herzliya train station to the Interdiscplinary Center there. These shuttles each serve between 60 and 300 passengers every day. Similar shuttle services will soon begin operating between Be'er Sheva’s high-tech park and the city’s northern train station and between the industrial park in Kiryat Gat and the train station there.

A better known shuttle service is the one used by the fast lane at the entrance to Tel Aviv. It is a toll express lane built alongside the highway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Close to the entrance to the toll road at Shapirim Junction, one can leave their car in a parking garage and board one of the frequent free shuttles that head to the diamond exchange in Ramat Gan or near the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv. The service is convenient, the parking garage is usually full to the gills and there is a plan to add another shuttle route to Tel Aviv's Rothschild Boulevard, although it is currently on hold.

According to a survey of fast lane shuttle users conducted by Nitzan Bak from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, 52% of respondents used to enter Tel Aviv by car before using the shuttles and 60% said that the shuttle stops are within a maximum of five minutes' walk from their final destination. One-third of respondents said that the fast-lane shuttle saved more than half an hour in transit each day.

However, one major shuttle plan never got off the ground. Starting from July of last year, more than 1,000 employees of Bank Hapoalim and Bank Discount working at offices on Tel Aviv's Yehuda Halevi Street were supposed to be able to reach their workplaces by taking the train and then a free shuttle. The project was promoted and supported for two years by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and reached the trial stage with 650 participants. However, the pilot project was killed following a series of turf battles involving the Transportation Ministry, the Dan bus company and legal challenges.

Tomer Appelbaum