Making public transportation on Shabbat happen

A couple of months ago, Getting Around on the Weekends was finally launched, and was a success, both among Israelis who use public transportation, as well among the general public at large.

READY TO ride: Roey Schwartz-Tichon. (photo credit: RONI NAHMANI)
READY TO ride: Roey Schwartz-Tichon.
(photo credit: RONI NAHMANI)
Over the space of one weekend, the penultimate Shabbat of last November, Roey Schwartz-Tichon, 27, managed to check out almost all of the public transportation options in Tel Aviv, Ramat Hasharon, Givatayim and Kiryat Ono, as part of his new project, Getting Around on the Weekends.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with the results,” Schwartz-Tichon gushed proudly. “When I started talking openly about what I wanted to accomplish, people dismissed my ideas outright. Even my immediate family members kept telling me to give up my plan. They kept saying things like, ‘Why don’t you get a real job?’ or ‘It’s time you started investing in your career.’ But, I’m an optimist by nature, so it was enough that I believed in myself.”
A couple of months ago, Getting Around on the Weekends was finally launched, and was a tremendous success, both among Israelis who use public transportation, as well among the general public at large. All the minibuses were full to bursting, and some people actually weren’t able to squeeze in and were forced to miss out on this exciting day. For Schwartz-Tichon, who founded and chairs the Noa Tanua, a nonprofit cooperative association that has been operating bus routes in central Israel on Saturdays since 2015, it’s like a dream come true.
In 2013, when he was still carrying out his mandatory IDF military service, he began formulating this idea into an actual working plan for initiating public transportation on Shabbat.
“I’m originally from Haifa, but I’ve been living in Tel Aviv for quite a few years already,” explains Schwartz-Tichon. “When I was living in Haifa, I had a car, and so I almost never took public transportation. Whereas in Tel Aviv, I can catch a bus to almost every location in the country from my doorstep. Many times, I want to go somewhere on Friday evening, such as to my parents who still live in Haifa, after Shabbat has come in, but it’s impossible since the buses don’t run on Shabbat. This was incredibly frustrating, so I set about trying to find a solution.”
What did you do?
“I began first by educating myself regarding the rules and regulations for transportation. The solution I found was to create a cooperative, which is legally allowed to organize transportation on Shabbat. Public transportation is illegal on Shabbat, but cooperatives are considered private entities. I spent the next two years writing a business plan. I was in the middle of my college degree in economics, so I read lots of surveys and did loads of research about the subject regarding similar situations in other countries. I called up many Israeli bus companies so I could understand what costs were involved. I drove them nuts with my endless questions and crazy ideas of possible options that had never been tried before. After two years, I realized it was time to put my idea into action.”
“That year, 2015, there were three days of the Passover holiday in which there wasn’t any public transportation, and a huge protest began on the Facebook page of MK Israel Katz, who was transportation minister at the time,” explains Schwartz-Tichon.
“What people did was turn his Facebook page into a ride-sharing portal. People would write, ‘Hi, I’m looking for a ride from X location to Y location. Can anyone help me out?’ etc. We just flooded his page with requests for rides. I’d been a member of a small group interested in fighting for public transportation to be made available on Shabbat. At this point, I realized that nothing was going to get done until I was ready to put all my energy into this project. So I dropped everything else I was doing at the time and used all my time for this cause.”
How did your friends and family react to this?
“Absolutely everyone, except for my father, including all of my immediate family and friends, thought I’d absolutely lost my marbles, and that I’d never succeed. My grandfather scolded me, telling me I was silly as a wheel [foolish], and my mother thought I was wasting my time. I didn’t really have anyone working with me at the time, but I was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, so I don’t think I was really inviting help at the time.
“On June 6, 2015, our first line was inaugurated: a bus running between Ramat Gan-Givatayim-Tel Aviv. Of course, my dream was to have a bus that would take me from Tel Aviv to Haifa. I started meeting with people who had experience with public battles and getting things done. The first thing we had to do was raise some money – a few million shekels, actually. These contacts informed me that it was extremely difficult to raise money among secular Israelis, especially when I mentioned that one of our goals was to create a Tel Aviv-Haifa bus line. I realized pretty quickly that most Tel Avivians had no desire at all to travel to Haifa. I understood that if I didn’t offer something that would entice journalists living in Tel Aviv, I wasn’t going to get any coverage.
“I realized pretty quickly that I wasn’t going to find anyone to give me money, so I took my IDF release grant money and all of my savings and invested it in this project. In 2015, I founded the nonprofit organization and set the Ramat Gan-Givatayim-Tel Aviv line into action, which ran two bus lines every Shabbat during the first year. Each line did 10 trips back and forth each Shabbat, which cost thousands of shekels. At the beginning, not many people took the bus, which was hugely depressing. And in order to take this bus, you had to already be a member of the organization, and pay dues, which helped cover the costs of the buses.”
What kind of challenges did you face that first year?
“Our first challenge was to convince people to join the organization. But even after we had between 400 and 600 members, we still didn’t have large numbers of people taking the bus. It was so frustrating. We couldn’t figure out why our venture wasn’t succeeding. I’d moved back home to my parents’ place in Haifa, and I was coming down to Tel Aviv every Shabbat morning so I could collect money on the bus, since the driver wasn’t allowed to handle any of the money. There were three of us – myself, my dad and a good friend of mine, Noam Tel-Vered. Each of us would get on a different bus and help people use the app to pay for the bus. I was also super busy dealing with marketing issues during the week, since we still weren’t making money from the buses.”
Wow. That sounds pretty rough.
“Yeah. I couldn’t admit defeat, though, since I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I’d be letting down all the people we were trying to help. I was afraid that haredi newspapers would start reporting that there wasn’t any demand for buses on Shabbat after all.”
Did you receive any threats?
“Not really. A few people wrote some negative things about our organization on Facebook. That first year was really tough. At one point, we had to stop one of the bus lines, and run only one of them. And I personally had completely run out of money, too.”
So how were you able to go on like this?
“A friend of mine, Lior Tavori, invested some money, and also convinced an American foundation to donate some funds. These two good friends of mine – Lior and Noam Tel-Vered – currently sit on our board.
“And then, in the summer of 2016, things started turning around,” Schwartz-Tichon says jubilantly.
“All of a sudden, the number of people riding the bus increased by 80%, and we realized it’d all been worth it. In 2017, we started a crowdfunding on Headstart and raised more than NIS 330,000 from 2,849 people. So few people believed that we would succeed beforehand. We used the money to increase more lines, and we currently have five different lines. You still have to be a member to take the bus. Rides within a city cost NIS 9 and a ride from Beer Sheva to the beach in Ashkelon costs NIS 25 (or NIS 45 round trip). The bus line from Beer Sheva was added following the hard work of a few college students from the city who’ve joined our group.”
One of Noa Tanua’s most significant lines was the Tel Aviv-Bat Yam bus, since it was the first one to involve another municipality.
“A year after the Bat Yam line began running, the sherut taxi reform was passed, which stated that sherut taxis would begin running between Bat Yam and Tel Aviv within two years,” continues Schwartz-Tichon. “Our Bat Yam bus wasn’t profitable yet, but it was very popular. The announcement about the sherut taxis made us sit down and discuss whether we should continue running the line until the sherut service would begin or should we shut it down already. That was the summer of 2018. We knew that we could definitely use that money to develop a new bus line in a different city. Our ultimate goal was not just to provide rides for people on Shabbat, but to convince the government that they should be the ones providing this service. So we decided to end the Bat Yam line and use the money more efficiently to work with other municipalities.
“On September 30, 2018, elections were held for the local municipality heads. We contacted a number of candidates who were running for mayor, and we asked them their opinion regarding transportation on Shabbat. Almost all of them were very positive about the issue and promised that were they to be elected, they would make sure it would be available. After the election, we started making appointments with a few dozen new mayors. The first was Ron Kobi, mayor of Tiberias. We recommended starting a new bus line in the summer. He responded, ‘Why wait? Let’s start this Shabbat.’ Service in Tiberias began February 9 of last year. Some locals were opposed to buses on Shabbat, but this didn’t affect us in any way.”
Soon after, lines were added in Modi’in, Ramat Hasharon, Ramat Gan, Ariel, Ganei Tikvah and Kiryat Ono. Only recently was the Tel Aviv line inaugurated.
“Two years ago, we asked for a meeting with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, even before we stopped the Bat Yam line,” adds Schwartz-Tichon. “He wouldn’t agree to introduce any new initiatives before the 2018 election. We met with him again about a year ago, and then things advanced slowly. In the end, the city of Tel Aviv decided to operate their own buses on Shabbat.”
Was that a big disappointment for you?
“Actually, from my point of view, this was a big success. We started approaching different municipalities to convince them to start running buses on Shabbat. My long-term goal is for there to be public transportation on Shabbat – not for me personally to be organizing buses. When I began running the Ramat Gan line, I would go to sleep at 4 a.m. and then be up again by 7 a.m. If the city of Tel Aviv is willing to run their own bus line, I don’t have to be involved and that frees me up lots of time.
“Nowadays, Ramat Hasharon and Kiryat Ono run their lines in conjunction with Tel Aviv. In Modi’in, the bus ran just in the summertime. We’re now checking if we should expand it. In Ariel we’ve only had a bus running for two Shabbatot, and we saw that there’s lots of demand, so we’re adding to the budget for next year. The line in Ganei Tikva was not so popular. The bus in Ramat Gan was very popular over the summer and we’re working on having a bus running there all year round.”
What is the situation like now?
“Well, I still can’t really believe it’s going so well. Even though we’re not running the bus lines in Tel Aviv, they still ask me to attend their meetings so that I can offer them advice. Our goal was to convince the municipalities to run their own buses on Shabbat, and to bring about legislative change in the Knesset, and it’s finally happening. I’m very optimistic.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.