Five and a Half Days a Week: Israeli Public Transportation

When people tell me about their first visit to Tel Aviv, their stories always include two main themes: Surprise and Contradiction. “We couldn’t believe” they say “that Tel Aviv is so modern and cool. We thought it would be an unsafe desert”. Israel is indeed involved in an unfortunate bloody conflict with the Palestinians, and high percentage of Israel’s land does  consist of desert, but Tel Aviv is a hedonistic bubble, a liberal city far from the desert or the conflict, right by the Mediterranean Sea.

Tel Aviv. Hedonistic bubble in the middle of the Middle East. Picture by ronsho, licensed under Creative Commons.

But it’s not all rosy in Tel Aviv. Due to political and religious reasons, only services which are concerned with life-and-death issues (e.g. police, hospitals) are available on Shabbat (Friday evening until Saturday evening). It is nice to have a quiet day every week, but Israelis, and especially Tel Avivers, are getting ever more concerned by one issue during Shabbat: the lack of public transportation.

By and large, public transportation is shut down in Israel on weekends. Some cities still offer a limited service (again, politics), but in most places the service is down during the Shabbat. After the sun sets on Friday evenings, people should manage transportation on their on. Actually, the public transit doesn’t really work until Sunday mornings, when the Israeli workweek starts.

And then, people do the math, realising that they are offered public transportation services only five and a half days a week. If they are lucky enough to be able to afford a car, they just buy one. If they don’t have the money, they are bound to stay home on weekends. Bicycles are not the solution for everything, especially not for long distances or during the extremely hot summer months. In other words, the lack of public transportation in Israel creates two acute problems:

  1. High usage of private vehicles.

  2. Segregation of large population during roughly 20% of the time.

Both problems raise questions by many, mostly young secular Israelis. Why are they pushed to buy cars? Why can’t they visit their grandmothers in the weekend without paying for  taxis? Why do they need to take a car when going to the bar, instead of being able to drink  and take a bus back home safely? As a result, they demand from the government to allow public transit during weekends. They don’t argue that public transit should be available everywhere, but at least in regions where secular population is the vast majority, for example Tel Aviv. Last week, after almost four days without public transportation services due to the Jewish New Year holiday, activists from the organization “24/7 Promoting Public Transportation” started a viral campaign. People uploaded pictures of themselves to Facebook, holding an ‘under curfew’ sign.

To the left, visually impaired woman living in Tel Aviv’s Metropolitan Area. To the upper right corner, Reshef Eisenberg, an activist for public transportation during weekends. To the lower right corner, Naama Riba, an architect, journalist and one of the protest's initiators. All feel like they are ‘under curfew’. Pictures by “24/7 Promoting Public Transportation

Am I optimistic that we’ll soon see public transit on the weekends in Tel Aviv? Well, it’s hard to say. The Israeli political system is complex, and decision makers just don’t want to irritate the religious leaders, who don’t want to see buses driving on Shabbat. In my opinion, public transport, or rather the option to travel throughout the city safely and affordably, should be seen as civil right. God, if it exists, would have definitely advocated for a greener planet and less segregated societies. God would have taken the bus on weekends, I’m sure about that.

“I’m waiting for the bus on Shabbat. How else will we get to grandma Hannah?!”. Activists from “Free Israel” Organization. Picture by http://bfree.org.il/.

Cover picture by h_kupetsky. licensed under Creative Commons.


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter and .