The Case for Free Public Transportation

Stav Shaffir
Stav Shaffir
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A bus stop in Tel Aviv.
Stav Shaffir
Stav Shaffir

Let me begin with a disclosure: I’m the proud granddaughter of a bus driver, and I have some debt regarding this issue. My grandfather, Isaac, met my grandmother, Doris, when she took the bus he drove every morning, on her way to work. At first, she ignored him, until he finally managed to get a date. When they became a loving couple, she joined him on his drive into Tel Aviv to enjoy his company during his breaks. Since my grandfather belonged to the Dan bus cooperative, she didn’t have to pay for her tickets, which seemed like a dream to us children. What could be better than travelling as far as you wanted, anywhere in the country?

I was reminded of this in the last few days, when I saw how the Transportation Ministry had decided on a way of covering its budget deficit by increasing enforcement against people who evade payment on buses. The treasury claims that this leads to losses totaling hundreds of millions of shekels. I tried to find out how they calculated this, and experts told me that this estimate was exaggerated. That led me to suggest another option, which may help the economy more: Make public transportation totally free.

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This idea has an economic rationale. The state currently invests 8 billion shekels ($2.5 billion) in subsiding transportation for soldiers, seniors, children and the disabled. Revenues from tickets total 2 billion shekels a year, an amount not to be taken lightly, but the problem is that public transportation is underused, which leads to traffic congestion. This congestion costs the economy 35 billion shekels a year, expected to double by 2040.

And yet, to this day we’re encouraged by the government to buy cars. Neighborhoods were built without access to public transportation and without bike lanes. They ignored linking outlying areas to the center and ignored buses, which handle 85 percent of all travel on public transportation. Another problem is the absence of public transportation on Saturdays, which compels many people to own their own car, even when they live in a big city.

It’s true that there are more acute problems, and it’s true that tickets for public transportation here cost less that in other countries, but there’s the rub: The cost of a ticket in Israel is subsidized in any case. Imagine the state offering benefits in exchange for relinquishing ownership of a car. We could take any bus for free, which would turn it into part of the daily routine of many people who so far aren’t used to this mode of transportation. Waiting times for buses will be shortened and allow for a fast turnover. Every car that’s taken out of the congestion on the highways will cut down travel times and benefit workplaces, as well as contributing to a reduction in traffic accidents. Economically disadvantaged families will gain mobility and better work opportunities. Above all, we’ll reduce the use of gasoline and lower air pollution and its horrific impact on health and the climate.

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