Haredim oppose ads on bus display screens for disabled

Egged planned to cover cost by selling airtime; threats of boycott forced it to back down.

August 19, 2010 02:18
Egged Buses in Jerusalem

buses 311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

A recent decision by the Egged bus company over the purchase of digital informative screens to aid people with disabilities has bus riders in an uproar.

The Jerusalem Post learned on Wednesday that the company had decided to cancel purchase agreements that would see state-of-the-art liquid crystal display (LCD) screens installed in its buses in favor of simpler LED ones. Suspicions that Egged changed its mind because of haredi threats to boycott the company have some accessibility advocates fuming.

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As part of its effort to privatize the public transportation sector and improve service, the Transportation Ministry instructed bus companies to install informative signs on their buses to aid people with disabilities, particularly the blind and the deaf or hardof- hearing. According to the ministry’s instructions, the signs must provide bus riders with information about their route and alert them to upcoming stations, and must also have an audio component to notify those who can’t see the signs.

While some companies, like Dan, Nativ Express and Veolia opted to install systems that met the minimum requirements – in the form of LED-operated signs, which present the information on a running screen – Egged initially opted for something more ambitious. In a pilot project, Egged’s daughter company, Egged Ta’avura, installed hi-tech LCD screens on 72 buses operating in Netanya. These screens are linked to computers, which are in turn linked to a GPSbased network that enables the riders to determine their precise location, tells them the distance and time from the next stop and all other stops on the route, and offers maps, real-time traffic reports and even personal alert announcements for passengers who request them. The technology behind the screens was produced in Israel by a company called Transpot, which operates out of Ramat Gan.

“The system is a great solution for deaf and blind people, but also aids a much larger population.

Because it can display pictures, videos and maps, it is also helpful for people with cognitive disabilities or problems with spatial awareness, or even simply for people who don’t read or understand Hebrew.” said Yuval Vagner, founder and CEO of Access Israel, an organization that advocates on behalf of people with disabilities.

Following the Netanya experiment, Egged decided to have the new system installed in all of its vehicles – thousands of buses nationwide. However, to pay for the system, in between helpful messages to the public, the company would have to broadcast commercials – thus taking advantage of the system as an advertising tool.

Rabbis in the haredi community, concerned that the screens would expose their public to what they consider offensive images, decided to oppose the move. Using their economic clout as representatives of a large portion of the bus-riding community, and the political clout of MKs from United Torah Judaism, the Rabbinical Committee on Public Transportation – a haredi agency that deals with state and private organizations on issues that have to do with public transportation – managed to pressure Egged into agreeing to remove all advertising content from the system.

Access Israel feared that the new technology would be passed up, causing Israel to fall behind international accessibility standards. The group decided to go on the offensive, hiring Knesset lobbyists, creating online petitions and recruiting the media.

It even called on the Transportation Ministry to change its regulations and order companies to install the most advanced systems.

“If the haredim are against the advertising, there’s a solution – don’t allow the company to air commercials, or if they want, air only ads approved by the haredim.

There is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

said Vagner.

“I also want to remind [people] that there are people with disabilities in the haredi community, too, and that they stand to lose just as much as the non-religious,” he said.

It turns out, however, that the haredim are not the only ones opposing installing the Transpot system. Shai Horovitz from the Israeli Public Transportation Users Forum – a new organization that aims to represent public transportation riders – says he has received complaints about the proposed system from a wide variety of people, both religious and non-religious.

“Haredim are not the only ones concerned about advertising in public places. It’s an outrage that private companies, who are heavily subsidized by the government, want to take advantage of accessibility requirements to make money by selling ads,” said Horovitz.

“The riders are a captive audience, and the vehicle’s GPS system enables it to broadcast tailor- made commercials based on the location of the vehicle, but we believe it is a cynical use of what was originally meant to serve a safety and accessibility function.

In a statement to the Post, Egged spokesman Ron Ratner wrote the following: “The issue of accessibility is important to Egged, and we promote it in many ways. These days, the public transportation companies are examining systems that will provide accessible information for the special needs community.

Egged Ta’avura tested a specific company’s system on 70 buses in Netanya, and it turned out that it was unsuitable for use in a national fleet of thousands of buses for professional and other reasons.

“Egged tested additional systems by other companies and decided to install the same information system that was tested and installed in Dan, Metropolin and the other public transportation companies, including Israel Railways. This process was backed and approved by the Transportation Ministry.

“This is a significant process with wide-scale economic implications, and it is desirable that Access Israel act in the interest of people with disabilities and not as a sales promoter for this or that company that wants to sell a specific system to Egged.”

Transportation Ministry spokesman Avner Ovadia, meanwhile, said that the ministry did not have specific regulations regarding accessibilityaiding systems and did not even require existing operators to install them at all. He said that the issue of accessibility systems was only relevant to companies bidding on new routes and that installing them added points toward winning the tender.

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