Israel 2021: To Get People Out of Their Cars, Give Buses Priority on the Road

Buses of the future will be high-tech, says Metropoline CEO Ilan Karni.

Bus No. 249, which travels between Tel Aviv and the nearby city of Hod Hasharon, boasts a mobile bookshelf, stocked with reading material, so passengers can spend the trip flipping through a novel. Newspapers are also distributed during the ride.

Riders looking for alternative entertainment can tune into one of eight radio channels available at every seat, recharge their cell phones at multiple electrical outlets, or balance their laptops on fold-down seat trays and work on the go.

"One of the big problems of buses is their image," says Ilan Karni, CEO of the bus company Metropoline, which runs the No. 249 fleet. "Most passengers are a captive audience who have no choice but to travel by bus. In order to attract new riders, we have to change the way people feel about buses."

In Jerusalem today, Karni is speaking at TheMarker's Israel 2021 conference, a venue to empower the community to get involved in Israel's socioeconomic future. He will present Metropoline's service concept as model for encouraging the residents of greater Tel Aviv to get out of their cars and take the bus.

"People think public transportation is unreliable," he says. "In the past, buses would arrive late, or they wouldn't stop at all the bus stops. It was impossible to plan your departure and arrival."

There's another problem he can't solve yet, but he knows what needs to be done: "Until we have fast lanes for public transportation only, buses will continue to get stuck in traffic jams like everyone else. But you can still, at the very least, keep the passengers informed."

And that's already happening. "Right now, there are about 150 bus stops equipped with a system telling passengers when the next bus will arrive," says Karni. "They have signs with a clear map of the routes as well as a bar code that smartphone users can scan to find out when the next bus is due."

Q: Generally, public transport companies only make improvements when the government offers them some sort of incentive. To what extent are we talking about a genuine service policy?

"According to new proposals, all the proceeds from bus ticket sales go to the state, while the bus operator gets a rebate that is set according to the number of passengers it transports. Basically, I only make a profit if I attract more passengers. That's why we would improve service."

For the nonce, he sees a moderate increase in passenger traffic, Karni says. More and more people are choosing the bus to commute. But he begs to keep things in proportion. "When the government decided to subsidize student tickets, the jump in student use of public transport was substantial. Overall change, though, happens slowly," he says.

When Metropoline was established in 2000, there was no competition in Israel's public transportation system. There were just two bus companies, Egged and Dan, which had a monopoly.

Reform started in 2002, when private companies were allowed to take over some Dan and Egged routes. The market share of the two companies tumbled from 100 percent to 70 percent.

Nowadays, that remaining 30 percent of the market is divided among no fewer than 14 private transportation companies.

The government, in enacting public transportation reform, was able to shave off NIS 1 billion from subsidies paid out to Dan and Egged. The consumer also saved money thanks to a reduction in fares, which, on average, dipped 25 percent. They also enjoyed an increase in the frequency of buses and an upgrade in their quality and service.

The first stage of transportation reform is over, however. As Karni takes the podium today, the government's next step for public transportation remains unclear.

For real, lasting change, he says, the government has to restructure its roads.

"Improvements can increase passenger traffic by 3 percent to 5 percent a year," he says. "The real way to attract the public is to give buses priority on the roads. That, coupled with real-time information about when the buses will come, will make public transportation both more reliable and more efficient. The national order of priorities needs to change."