Buses overflow as Tel Aviv launches public transportation on Shabbat

Hundreds take advantage of six routes, initially free, in city and surrounding suburbs; municipality will increase number of vehicles due to high demand

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai poses for a photograph at a launch event for new public transportation buses, November 20, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai poses for a photograph at a launch event for new public transportation buses, November 20, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Tel Aviv launched a public transportation program late Friday afternoon, offering bus service to residents of the city and surrounding areas during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Hundreds of riders took advantage of the new initiative, which was introduced despite strong opposition to such programs by Israel’s Orthodox establishment.

The initiative, dubbed “We move on weekends,” includes six bus routes within Tel Aviv and to the suburbs of Ramat Gan, Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim, Holon and Kiryat Ono. The routes, which cover some 300 kilometers (186 miles) in total and include 500 bus stops, do not enter primarily Orthodox neighborhoods.

Minibuses, seating 19 people each, began servicing the new routes as Shabbat began after 4 p.m. They were scheduled to run until Saturday evening, with a break between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.

During the early weeks of the program, the service will be free to all riders. The city of Tel Aviv will pick up $2.6 million of the $3.6 million operating costs for the first year.

A Sabbath public transportation minibus drives down Ibn Gabirol street in Tel Aviv on November 22, 2019. (Screen capture/Ynet)

The first hours of the initiative brought large groups of passengers to various Tel Aviv stations, with some of those waiting being passed by minibuses that were already full. The Tel Aviv municipality told the Ynet news site that it would be increasing the number of minibuses and running them more frequently. Buses were initially only scheduled to arrive every 30 minutes for each line.

In Israel, buses and trains do not generally run in Jewish-majority cities on Friday night and Saturday before sundown. The practice was born of an agreement reached between the ultra-Orthodox community and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, before the formation of the state.

Public transportation on Shabbat is strongly opposed by Israel’s Orthodox establishment, while secular Israelis have long chafed at their restricted mobility during the weekend.

“The ability to move from place to place throughout the week is a fundamental right,” Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai told reporters Monday at a press conference introducing the new program. He challenged the government to introduce a weekend service like Tel Aviv’s to Israeli citizens nationwide.

Other cities recently announced their intention to begin providing public transportation on Saturdays, including Ramat Gan and Ganei Tikva. Earlier this year, a free Saturday bus line was launched in the northern town of Tiberias.

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