A Survey of Bus Stops and Other Things You Didn't Know You Cared About

Flimsy or massive, leaky or air-conditioned, advertising-driven or merely functional – the local world of bus stops is undergoing a metamorphosis

Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On
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A new bus stop in Kiryat Ono.Credit: Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On
Dani Bar On

It was a sleepy midday in Kiryat Ono, but my body suddenly felt wired. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief at the sight: a new bus stop, one worthy of the name. For years I’ve been used to bus-stop poles and bus-stop benches, to get-in-line-behind-me and wait for the bus. And here, suddenly, out of nowhere, the real deal – with a massive, proper roof and long, erect walls. A place where you can actually curl up and protect yourself from the ever-more extreme weather.

Once I concluded that it must be a delusion, I forgot about it. But then, a few days later, I saw another, similar bus shelter on the other side of the country, in Nesher, a Haifa suburb. Again the flat, thick roof; again the impressive walls. It looked like something that could easily withstand a Shahab-3 and emerge intact. Could something possibly be changing in the world of Israeli bus stops?

A bus stop at the Beit Kama junction, 2015.Credit: Eliahu Hershkovitz

“Yes, it’s a new design,” Boaz Roth observed matter-of-factly – he’s CEO of Roth Z. Industries, a metalwork company, and an old hand at bus shelters. With 40 years of experience manufacturing them and other outdoor structures behind him, Roth offered a brief historical survey of the subject.

In the beginning there were brown-and-yellow bus shelters. They were quite closed and protective, as long as vandals didn’t smash their glass walls. We spent our most beautiful childhood years on the yellow seats in those stops. The problem is that those bus stops were a bit costly and a bit big, and their design was considered a bit old-fashioned. Thus began a long and painful process of slimming down and minimalization, as well as of opening up to the four winds, courtesy of the JCDecaux Group.

JCDecaux is a French-based international firm whose public profile is almost as thin as the profile of the structures it creates for the display of street advertising and other information, but whose impact on the lives of millions of Israelis is substantial. The last time this company hit local headlines was a few years ago, when it sponsored a bizarre campaign at bus stops against child obesity, with a drawing of a bloated, ludicrous-looking boy along with the brilliant creative, “When your child gets fat, his smile gets small.” The firm took a lot of flak, before fading back into the shadows.

Nevertheless, the local branch of the company is still fulfilling its obligations as part of a long-term contract with the Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan municipalities. In return for a hefty sum (19 million shekels, more than $5.25 million), the company puts up bus shelters and other structures, maintains them, embellishes them with ads and sells the advertising rights to them. For obvious reasons, its bus stops are attractive but also very airy.

“The user [of the shelter] is a secondary consideration in the matter,” Roth notes. “As far as they [the advertisers] are concerned, it’s better for the passengers to stand on the outside, so they can see the ads.”

A man waits at a bus stop in Tel Aviv, March 30, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

“The bus stops we put up meet the specifications we received from city hall,” Shir Zakai, the new general manager of JCDecaux Israel, says. In my conversation with her, Zakai talked about a “constant improvement of the service,” about “green roofs,” about “innovativeness” and about the “welfare of the residents.”

Tell me, have you ever been at one of your company’s bus shelters when it’s raining?

Zakai: “Even if I have been, I don’t remember anything unusual.”

How do you get to work?

“By car.”

So you don’t use your bus shelters?

“No, but my daughters do.”

JC Decaux has contracts with Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan, but its spirit hovers over many other cities as well.

“Every city that sees what Tel Aviv has, says ‘I want the same,’” Roth says. “If they can, they do a deal with a local ad agency that designs similar bus shelters.” The poorer cities, where advertising isn’t worth much anyway, are compelled to make do with simple shelters financed by the Ministry of Transportation, and they too aren’t exactly the epitome of sophistication or protection of passengers.

Winds of change

The winds of change began blowing about a decade ago from the direction of the light rail train in Jerusalem. The CityPass consortium overseeing the system broke with the standard model and built big, expensive, spacious and protective stops. That generous design spread to nearby bus stops, which disperse the light-rail passengers throughout the city’s neighborhoods. Municipal authorities in Nesher were impressed and installed similar stops along the Metronit rapid transport bus routes. The Netivei Ayalon company, which builds mass-transportation infrastructures, also wanted in. For its new project creating public transportation routes intended to serve Metropolitan Tel Aviv, it has chosen to erect massive stops with travel-information panels, ports for charging cellphones and dark glass walls to filter the sun’s cruel rays.

The Kiryat Ono stop is one of the first of these impressive structures, which will gradually spread to a host of cities in the country’s center, from Kfar Sava to Rishon Letzion. However, the residents of Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan themselves will apparently be spared that pleasure, as they’re bound by a contract with JCDecaux until 2028 and 2033, respectively.

Ofir Cohen, who heads Tel Aviv-Jaffa’s transport, traffic and parking authority, says that the reason his city’s bus stops are relatively small and slender isn’t due only to advertising constraints. It’s also because there is simply not enough space on the sidewalk for them. “They are the result of many constraints,” he explains, with a certain note of sadness. “The solution they provide is far from perfect, but reasonable, I would say.”

As for the Netivei Ayalon project, Cohen says that the contract indeed stipulates that only JCDecaux can erect bus stops in Tel Aviv proper, but he adds that talks are underway with the company about building more substantial-looking bus shelters at locations where this is called for and also feasible. Alternatively, there are places where the municipality wiggles out of its commitment to the advertising firm by indirect means: It doesn’t build lean-to like structures, just benches with shade. The only question is why the city doesn’t use this trick more often.

Some claim that all the fuss about bus shelters is pointless, because what’s important is for public transportation to be efficient, not for the waiting to be pleasant. In Eilat, for example, two air-conditioned bus stops were inaugurated in June at a cost of a quarter of a million shekels (about $72,000) each. That development “slightly bothers” Yossi Saidov, the cofounder of 15 Minutes – Public Transport Alliance in Israel, an organization that lobbies for improvements in mass transportation. The point is that “there’s no point having a stop that’s a palace if the bus doesn’t show up,” Saidov says.

Still, he thinks that even if there’s no reason to go overboard when designing bus stops, it’s impossible to disregard the fact that they must meet minimal requirements. Like not having to huddle in them or stand on the bench so you won’t get too wet in the rain and puddles.

By press time, no response had been received from the Transportation Ministry to a request for comment.

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