A primetime television advertising campaign in June by the Ministry of Transport and Ministry of Finance shows Israelis getting on a bus, which travels fast and smoothly along a designated lane, while traffic crawls in the other lanes congested with private cars. The ad slogan, "Get on public transport" is spoken in all seriousness in the ad in which everything in it, except for the actors playing passengers, is animated - the ride, the streets, the cars, the buses, and the buildings. Nothing is real.
"I am not surprised that everything is imaginary. Reality is very different," Nateev Express CEO Hani Daka told the bus operators forum hosted by "Globes" in early July. All the participants - Metropoline Public Transport CEO Ilan Karni, Afikim Public Transportation CEO Ben-Hur Akhvat, and Kavim Public Transportation CEO Zion Pat - agreed wholeheartedly.
"Globes": What are the chances that this clip will ever reflect reality?
Daka: "There is a chance, on the condition that priorities are changed. Israel's population has increased two-and-a-half fold in 30 years, and roads have increased by almost 50%, but the development was for private cars, not public transport. Minister of Transport Yisrael Katz is very pro infrastructures and he is domineering, but he should allocate some of the infrastructures about which he is so enthusiastic, for buses. Interchanges and roads are being built, but as a bus operator, what does an interchange give me? Nothing. I need a bus lane, I need priority on the street, and this the government does not give me."
Notwithstanding all the criticism, the bus operators are seeing a favorable change in the current reality. Karni sees complaints as a good sign. "The public is the most knowledgeable and necessary factor; it is our judge. The public today, with all the social networks, kills us over the smallest problem. This is proof that public transport, which no one talked about ten years ago, is something that increasingly interests people. We only ask for the government to give us the tools to cope and offer the highest level of service, because of the huge increase in public transportation."
By 'huge increase', you mean the number of passengers?
Karni: "The huge increase since the reform is seen in all aspects: the number of users, the number of routes, and buses. Tenders also demand more. Tenders which used to require 100 buses now require 150. In the Eshkol Negev Regional Council where I operate 130 buses, the number will rise to 200 buses in a few months. This increase alone creates a problem; it's a problem indicating progress, the growth in demand and use. It's a good problem, but it needs a solution."
Solutions require infrastructures, and infrastructures cost money. The Ministry of Transport is now being asked to cut billions from its budget.
Akhvat: "There are things unrelated to the budget. For example, on Jabotinsky Street in Petah Tikva, a bus lane has been established, which could speed up bus movement and greatly expedite the arrival of passengers. Today, it's a fiction, it's constantly used by private cars. The police does not enforce the law, and the transport minister is now being asked to finance police for enforcement, just as police are financed for sports stadiums. I don’t know if this is justified, but it's small budget investment, which if the minister would agree to, would enable the use of existing infrastructures."
Pat: "When there is money, the Metronit (Haifa's electric bus network) is built. Build spaceships as far as I'm concerned. But when there are budget constraints, giving preference to public transport and bus lanes will bring just as many passengers, and will improve the level of service in terms of arrival times just as much.
Daka: "For a person to leave his car, which costs the government money, infrastructures, pollution, and health, priority must be given to alternative transport. If a decision is made that, between 7 and 9 am, public transport has priority, tomorrow morning there will be bus rapid transit (BRT) all over the country, in every city. The problem is that no mayor will dare set aside lanes for buses before elections because they are scared of drivers."
There must be a bus ready at the train station
The things you mention as service are the standard for trains. Is it any wonder that trains have a better image?
Pat: "How many Israelis travel by train? It barely carries 40 million passengers a year. Each of the private bus operators in this room carries more than that."
Karni: "There is no proportionality between investment in trains and the number of passengers. The railway has magnificent, but empty, train stations. You need trains, but the transport minister should remember that public transportation does not end with trains."
Daka: "It's necessary to work simultaneously on all types of public transport, in proportion. First, divert investment from private transport to public transport, and then better proportion financing within public transport. Billions is slated for investment in the Tel Aviv light rail, when a fraction of the investment would enable buses to provide far more efficient service than any Red Line, which has again been postponed. The money being spent on the Haifa-Nazareth rail line could provide bus passengers with free rides for 100 years, and would still be much cheaper."
People believe that trains are faster and more convenient.
Karni: "That's inaccurate. Israel Railways says that it takes 55 minutes from Tel Aviv to Beersheva, but that's from the southernmost station in Tel Aviv to the northernmost station in Beersheva. Go to the new Beersheva central bus station; it's one of the most pleasant places to walk around in anywhere in the country. Buses from there to central Tel Aviv take ten more minutes, and just as important, at half the price. Our punctuality, according to Ministry of Transport data, is just as good as the train, and that is despite uncertainty about congestion, traffic jams, and accidents because we share infrastructures with cars, which is a problem the train does not have."
Akhvat: "In the end, actually at the beginning and end of every train ride, you need a bus to get to your destination. Whether it's the office, home, or place of entertainment, the train does not go there. Sometimes, it will get more quickly to the city, but not to the final destination."
In Israel, bus operators must take care of their own service infrastructures, such as parking lots. They complain that there is no corresponding requirement anywhere in the world, citing London, Berlin, and Paris as examples where the city provides them. "Operators should deal with their core business of carrying passengers, not parking lots, stations, the supply of information. The regulator should be responsible for that," says Pat.
In the time of the Egged Israel Transport Cooperative Society Ltd. and Dan Public Transportation Co. Ltd. monopoly, they handled everything.
Akhvat: "Egged and Dan were also allocated land, which today has become real estate from which they make big profits. We must cope with forces ourselves, which is complicated because of the need to coordinate between all the parties."
Pat: "There are places where the Ministry of Transport has organized parking lots, such as the North Tel Aviv train station. Land was also allocated in Modi'in where a terminal will be built for the next operator. In contrast, in Petah Tikva, the bus operator has to wrack their brains to find space for 200 buses in the city center. The same is true at the Carmelit terminal at Tel Aviv's Carmel Market, where operators fight each other over who will enter first, and buses parked on the side get ticketed."
Daka: "The regulator should be responsible for signs and information. Operators can give their share for the infrastructure, but it's wrong for each operator to engage in this on its own. Technology solves part of the problem, such as mobile apps like Moovit, which provides information on bus and trains schedules obtained from Ministry of Transport systems."
Karni: "In Tel Aviv, since the bus stations franchise was given to JCDecaux Ltd., I am banned as an operator from placing signs. I asked to install a Braille timetable, and I had to pay JCDecaux much more than what I would have spent to do it myself."
More buses will need more drivers. Is there a cadre?
Akhvat: "There's a shortage. The basic salary is NIS 32 per hour, which is not enough to attract high-quality drivers. When there's a shortage, drivers work harder, or you face problems of standards and mandated work and rest hours, or you compromise on driver quality, which means compromising on service."
Pat: "The driver is both the strongest and weakest link. He's responsible for a NIS 1 million vehicle, for safety, productivity, and most of all he is at the front, facing the customers. He's the face of the company. He should earn more and the government should help."
Akhvat: "A bus driver doesn’t have to be a preferred profession. It's a lifetime job, and should offer the status that an Egged and Dan driver once had."
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on July 10, 2013
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