Get me to the Wall on time

And why are there no bus routes from the city center or the hotel areas?

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is probably not news to anyone who has been in Jerusalem for more than a week or so that public transportation to the Western Wall could use some improvement.
Four bus routes serve the stop closest to the Kotel, inside the Dung Gate: the 1 and the 3, both of which start at the Bridge of Strings and take a circuitous route round the haredi neighborhoods of northern Jerusalem; the 43 from Nof Zion; and the 51, also serving ultra-Orthodox areas.
Routes 1 and 3 run every 15 minutes, with the 1 scheduled to take 38 minutes from the Bridge of Strings to the Wall, and the 3 taking 49 minutes. The 43, which runs eight times a day on Mondays to Thursdays and slightly more frequently on Fridays, takes 27 minutes for its journey; and the 51 – which bizarrely runs only three times a day, Sundays to Thursdays and not at all on Fridays – takes a scheduled 45 minutes for its winding journey around Romema Illit and Geula.
Other bus routes, the 8 and the 38, serve the Jewish Quarter parking lot (returning from a stop some distance away from the Dung Gate), but anyone using these has to walk down a large number of stairs on the way to the Western Wall and endure a fairly long uphill trek to take a bus back to the city center. Obviously, this isn’t practical or even possible for many people.
And why are there no bus routes from the city center or the hotel areas? Plenty of non-haredim, from Jerusalem and beyond, as well as tourists of all religions, visit the Western Wall. Nothing can be done about the difficult topography, of course; no matter how many light rail lines might be constructed in the future, it is impossible to run trams on steep hills and staircases. But it shouldn’t be beyond Egged’s capabilities to add bus routes that serve the wider population and visitors from all parts of the city.
Arye Frenkel, Egged’s spokesman for the haredi sector, asserted that this is the nature of public transportation. When I asked him about buses from, for example, the central Keren Hayesod Street, where there are many hotels, he said tourists can take a bus to a transfer point and another bus from there. He reminded me that the 38 goes from the city center; but when I pointed out that it goes only to the Jewish Quarter parking lot and not everyone is able to walk down so many stairs, he agreed.
The East Jerusalem Development Company recently introduced a free park-and-ride shuttle service to the Western Wall. For this article, I tried it earlier this month.
The starting point is hard to find. The shuttle is billed as departing from the First Station, but in reality it leaves from the far end of the First Station parking lot, so it would be more accurate to call it Baka. It is clearly intended for people parking their vehicles, not pedestrians.
I arrived at the departure point at 10:24 a.m. and saw on the electronic departure board that the next shuttle would leave at 10:40. Even though the minibuses are scheduled to depart every 20 minutes, in fact they go seemingly at random. The driver was ready to leave at 10:30, but one passenger said her friend had not yet arrived – not unnaturally assuming she would have a few more minutes to do whatever she needed to do before 10:40 – and we left as soon as she turned up at 10:32.
The route from the First Station parking lot is rather convoluted, as dictated by one-way streets and other traffic restrictions. After leaving the lot, the shuttle turned right on Hebron Road and continued on Hanoch Albeck Street, where it turned around at the first traffic circle and returned to Hebron Road. It then went past the Cinematheque and entered the Old City through the Jaffa Gate, where it let some passengers off by request. From there it continued through the Armenian Quarter and into the Jewish Quarter parking lot, where other passengers got off. The last stop is outside the Dung Gate.
The return journey is much shorter. The vehicles leave from Ma’aleh Hashalom Street, outside the Dung Gate and past the Egged bus stops, necessitating a considerable uphill walk from the Kotel.
With no problems involving one-way streets, the minibus goes past the First Station on David Remez Street, along Hebron Road and straight down into the parking lot, with no intermediate stops.
Despite the advertised departure time of 11:20 a.m., it left at 11:15 (the driver said he should have gone at 11 sharp), so it’s clear that the electronic boards bear little resemblance to reality, and passengers intending to get on don’t necessarily have enough time to wander off and do their errands before the next departure.
Shari and Mike Finkelstein, visiting from Phoenix, Arizona, said they were very pleased with the service. Mike said they have used it a couple of times, and he wished more people knew about it. Shari added that it’s wonderful, accessible, and the drivers are friendly.
Meir Sigler of Tel Aviv, visiting Jerusalem with his family, said this was the first time he had used it and that he would use it again. He described it as an excellent service, better than parking at Mamilla Mall and walking from there, but said it was hard to find, and that Waze directions were not very helpful.
While the passengers on the minibus on the day I used it were very satisfied, my own feelings were less positive. As a pedestrian and public transportation user (I don’t drive), my take is somewhat different. It’s a real stretch to say the shuttle goes from the First Station to the Western Wall. It provides a very welcome service for drivers but is not a solution for anyone with walking difficulties.
Of course, people with mobility problems can drive or be driven to the First Station parking lot, but what happens when they want to return and have a long walk from the Western Wall to the stop on Ma’aleh Hashalom Street, even farther than the stop for Egged routes 8 and 38? The buses that stop at the Kotel do not go anywhere near the First Station.
A taxi from the hotels on Keren Hayesod Street, at an average fare of NIS 50, is beyond the means of many local residents.
Considering the Western Wall is by any standards one of the top 10 sites in Israel, public transportation access is woefully inadequate.