An undated photo of a bus running in Tel Aviv on the Sabbath. (Tel Aviv Municipality)
An undated photo of a bus running in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. (Tel Aviv Municipality)
Free ride

As liberal cities expand Shabbat bus service, head-on crash with coalition may loom

Local officials say more than just young partyers are taking buses to and from Tel Aviv, and are girding for a fight should the Haredi-backed government try to run it off the road

An undated photo of a bus running in Tel Aviv on Shabbat. (Tel Aviv Municipality)

The 233 passengers who boarded bus 716 in Ness Ziona one weekend in July were just heading to Tel Aviv to hang out, but along the way, they made a little bit of history.

Until recently, those in the city of 51,000 who rely on public transportation might as well have been on another planet from Tel Aviv between sundown Friday night and Saturday night. But over the summer, the city became the latest to join a growing network of bus lines operating on Shabbat, with plans to connect even more of Israel’s secular residents to the nation’s economic and cultural hub on weekends.

“Experience shows that over time, with the change in habits and the reliability of the service, the numbers only increase,” said Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi, who holds the transportation portfolio and has been pushing the project for years, backed by opinion polling showing wide support for buses on Shabbat,

Known as Naim Busofash, a punny Hebrew portmanteau that roughly translates to “weekend travel,” the network has been operating since late 2019, when it introduced lines in Tel Aviv, Givatayim and Ramat Hasharon. But while most Israelis back limited public transportation on Shabbat, governments have refused to support buses on the day of rest, with ultra-Orthodox politicians demanding Israel hew closely to traditional arrangements on matters of religion and state.

Over a single weekend in July, over 10,000 trips were registered on the two lines between Ramat Hasharon and Tel Aviv alone, a sign of the stratospheric growth of the scheme, showing the extent to which it has become a central means of transportation for the city’s 46,000 residents on Friday and Saturday.

“People are convinced that in Ramat Hasharon everyone has two or three cars, but you’d be surprised,” said Avi Gruber, mayor of the leafy suburb north of Tel Aviv. “Even for the young people in Ramat Hasharon to pay NIS 70,000 ($19,000) for a second-hand car, plus insurance and upkeep, and to wait tables all day to pay for it, is difficult. It’s much more fun to get up on Saturday morning, go to a main street and take a free bus to the beach, without looking for parking and other headaches.”

היסטוריה בנסצינעים בסופ"ש – הקבוצה החברתית הגיע הביתה ויש אוטובוס ???? לתל אביב בשישבת!קו 7️⃣1️⃣6️⃣ לתל-אביב מנס ציונה…

Posted by Benny Buchnik on Friday, July 21, 2023

On an average weekend, more than 30,000 passengers use Busofash services, according to official data. Apart from Ramat Hasharon, the cities where the Shabbat lines are most popular are Givatayim (about 5,000 trips on average per weekend) and Kiryat Ono (around 2,500), followed by Modi’in, Hod Hasharon and Kfar Saba (about 1,500 each).

While most of the 10 cities and local authorities currently part of the network are in the Gush Dan region surrounding Tel Aviv, demand extends to other areas as well.

In early June, line 715 was inaugurated, connecting Tel Aviv to Mevasseret Zion, a large suburb west of Jerusalem. Some 400 to 500 passengers have been using it every weekend since.

A Sabbath bus provided by the ‘Pleasant Weekend’ project. (Tel Aviv Municipality)

“Our buses were full from the first week,” said Amir Kochavi, mayor of Hod Hasharon. “Today, there is already a demand for more, but this business is expensive.”

While the law doesn’t prohibit public transportation on Shabbat, it does forbid charging riders a fee, making funding the service a challenge for the various non-profit efforts that first pioneered Shabbat transportation initiatives.

That has changed with Busofash, which brought together local authorities to fund the project from their coffers. Each municipality pays for the mileage within its jurisdiction, and part of the mileage between cities. As the hub, Tel Aviv bears the greatest burden, but other cities say the cost can be an issue.

From right: The mayors of Tel Aviv (Ron Huldai), Kiryat Ono (Israel Gal) and Ramat Hasharon (Avi Gruber) during the inauguration of ‘Pleasant Weekend,’ November 20, 2019 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Gruber, from Ramat Hasharon, said that the lack of budget support from ridership fares meant that buses still had to run at fairly limited frequencies.

“In principle, I think it makes sense to charge NIS 5 ($1.35) for a ride that takes you to the movies or the beach on Shabbat, but we’re not allowed to,” he said. “All in all, it’s a good service that comes close to what public transportation should look like.”

The mayor noted that Ramat Hasharon pays about NIS 1.2 million ($325,000) for Busofash, out of a total municipal budget of NIS 530 million ($143.3 million).

“It may sound like a little, but when you compare it to other items in the budget, it’s not negligible,” he said.

Family dinner or trips to the beach

Because of when it operates, the Shabbat bus service has gained a reputation as a party bus for young people to head into the city to party on the weekends, but its municipal boosters note that the lines serve all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons.

“The use is very diverse,” said Tel Aviv’s Lehavi. “There are young people who live in Tel Aviv without a car and go to their parents outside the city for Friday night dinner. In the opposite direction, foreigners working as home nursing aides will travel from the outskirts to spend the weekend at friends’ apartments in Tel Aviv.”

A picture provided by an activist promoting Shabbat bus lines shows people traveling on a Shabbat bus line. (Roni Rahmani/Naeh T’nua)

Hod Hasharon’s Kochavi has called on students from his city to use the service to visit home on weekends.

“I told them, ‘Come home,'” he said. “I didn’t want it to be branded exclusively as a line for going out for fun in Tel Aviv. In practice, it’s used by diverse populations. I get a lot of feedback from seniors.”

As the bus service has grown though, it has also come under increasing threats from government figures seeking to put the brakes on weekend transport, one of myriad points of friction between liberal Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Haredi coalition.

At the beginning of the year, three lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party proposed a law that would result in the service being shut down, but the legislation has not advanced.

A Shabbat bus in Tel Aviv. (Tel Aviv Municipality)

By working under the radar and avoiding high-profile fights, the service has managed to continue running, and even expand, without crashing into the government.

The Mevasseret line provides a case in point. When first launched, some religious residents of the town protested and the bus had to skip stops. But local council head Yoram Shimon handled the issue quietly and the commotion subsided.

“If you do things quietly, without sticking your finger in their eye just for a headline or to win points with voters, the religious know how to turn a blind eye,” said an official from one of the participating authorities.

But with talks underway to expand the initiative to a number of cities on the outskirts of Gush Dan, the government will likely find it harder to ignore the growing service, raising the chances for a battle royale. Should Netanyahu’s ruling coalition attempt to mothball Shabbat bus lines, it will face blistering opposition from a growing coalition of cities in Israel’s liberal stronghold already largely opposed to the government and its far-right, ultra-Orthodox agenda.

Kochavi said any government bid to shut the service, especially if it came before the municipal election in October, would be in for a “tremendous fight.”

“I’d like to see them try to stop it,” he threatened.

Lehavi noted that cities in Gush Dan had already shown that they can work together on other intercity infrastructure projects.

“Now, on transportation, this project has become a symbol for the cities’ alliance and proof that they can act together for residents’ benefit,” she said. “The incredible [judicial overhaul] protests of the last few months only prove that no one will succeed in stopping free and liberal Israel, no matter how hard they try.”

This article originally appeared in Hebrew on the Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Israel. 

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