Opinion

Tel Aviv Light Rail Already Has a Station in Stupidville

Israel is the only country in the world where public transportation is in the hands of the clergy. We need to wrest back control of the wheel

Traffic jams in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana in October 2016.

Is it really possible that the Tel Aviv light rail won’t operate on Shabbat? As things stand, that’s what will happen. We waited decades, we’re investing 17 billion shekels ($4.8 billion), and the train won’t run on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. We must be living in Chelm (a town of well-meaning fools in Jewish folklore).

You have to wonder what the tourists will say. I’ve never understood how they cope. We were born into this absurd situation, but they come from the bigger world where nowhere shutters its public transportation on weekends. Here, a tourist who wants to get around on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday suddenly discovers there is no bus. And if he wants to get to the airport, the train isn’t running, either. Good thing the Israel Electric Corporation still works; otherwise he’d be stuck in his hotel room without an elevator or air-conditioning.

The absurdity of having a train network that doesn’t run on Shabbat or holidays reached a peak this week with the Shavuot holiday and the Shabbat that preceded it. The Israel Airports Authority canceled the bid for taxi operators at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and chaos ensued. Tourists couldn’t get out of the airport because too few cabs were coming in, and the train wasn’t running. They waited hours and had to pay exorbitant prices – if they were lucky enough to get a cab, that is, since each one was rushed by large crowds.

Meanwhile, the finance and transportation ministries are boasting of the large budgets they’ve allocated to develop the train service in Israel so it can serve as an alternative to private transportation. But when the bus service offered by Egged and Dan is so inadequate and there are no buses or trains on Shabbat and holidays, everyone wants to have their own car. There’s a very good reason why 287,000 new cars were purchased in Israel in 2016: For anyone who wants to get to work on time or to take a trip on Shabbat, there is simply no choice.

This amounts to discrimination against those who cannot afford to buy a car. Besides, why is it OK to travel in a private car on Shabbat but not on public transportation? Either one constitutes “desecration of the Sabbath.”

Nor is there any effort to undo the absurdity in which public service workers who have a vehicle registered in their name receive a “car maintenance” allowance, while those who don’t own a car receive no additional money. In other words, the government is encouraging its employees to buy a car, which creates more traffic jams, wastes more time and fuel, harms the environment and increases the number of road accidents.

There is widespread agreement today that more investment must be made in public transportation, i.e., the construction of additional train lines and creation of designated bus lanes. But there are also other smart ways to address traffic jams, such as the Going Green (Na’im Leyarok) program. This attempts to change our driving habits by offering drivers financial incentives to travel at off-peak hours, or to start using public transportation.

In one pilot program, in which hundreds of cars were fitted with monitors, 45 percent of drivers altered their driving habits to avoid peak traffic hours. The Finance Ministry wants to expand the pilot to 100,000 drivers, but Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz is opposed.

Katz is also blocking Uber from entering Israel, even though this would also reduce traffic on the roads without the government having to invest a cent. He is threatening Uber with a lawsuit, in an effort to curry favor with the country’s cabdrivers. Thousands of them are registered members of his Likud party. They have power in the party primary, and that’s what matters most.

Traffic jams have become a plague here. A year ago, we only had to endure traffic jams on Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway (aka Route 20) in the morning and evening. But now it’s hard to find any time without heavy traffic – and things are only getting worse. Ten years from now, it is predicted that drivers will spend an average of three hours per day in traffic here and that the economic damage will reach 50 billion shekels. So Katz cannot sit idly by and do nothing. He must allow the expansion of the Going Green pilot, let Uber operate in Israel, and separate religion from transportation to allow buses and trains to run on Shabbat. It would truly be the height of folly if the Tel Aviv light rail were also to be Shabbat-observant.