Bused up

There's a new look for Jerusalem's 99 bus line. But with a reduced route, no accessibility allowances and a steep price, will tourists get on board?

jerusalem tourist bus 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem tourist bus 88
(photo credit: )
In late July, Egged and the private erusalem City Tour company launched a new look for Jerusalem's old 99 city bus line: a London-inspired red, open-top, double-decker model. But the NIS 500,000 makeover didn't end there. The renovated bus now offers earphone-accessible explanations in eight languages (Hebrew, Arabic, English, Spanish, Russian, French, Italian and German) for the two-hour route's 25 stops around the capital. Believe it or not, line 99 has been running since 1986, but until this summer it did so as a standard, single-decker, closed Egged bus led by a live tour guide (also known as the driver) in place of automated commentary. Like the rest of the tourism industry, Egged line 99 suffered with the outbreak of the first and second intifadas, in 1987 and 2000, but even when business was really slow, seasoned driver Eli Agassi boasts, Egged didn't stop running the line. “Egged wasn't ready to cancel the line out of patriotism for the capital,” he declares. The respite in violence in the country and the upswing in foreign tourism in the city caused organizers to re-launch the line now. The present system operates on a satellite interface that synchronizes the bus's location with the prerecorded tidbits about any particular place along the route. The brief blurbs blend historical and contemporary information, interspersed with Jerusalem songs corresponding to the sites, such as “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Haas Promenade. And don't worry if traffic jams arise, the driver is able to shift into manual mode and adjust the recording accordingly. Among its attractions, the panoramic City-Tour 99 includes Mahaneh Yehuda open-air market, Mount Scopus, Jaffa Gate, Ammunition Hill, the Haas Promenade, Malha Mall, Malha railway station, the Biblical Zoo, Mount Herzl, Yad Vashem, the Israel Museum and the Knesset. One of the sights on the map passengers are handed as they board the bus is Shabbat Square, the bustling intersection in the center of the Mea She'arim neighborhood. But line 99 no longer passes this way. According to Agassi, on August 31, at around 1 p.m., as City-Tour 99 neared the square, 60 to 80 haredim surrounded the bus and vandalized it. The mob used screwdrivers to deflate the bus's tires and threw eggs and bottles on tourists sitting in the exposed upper deck, apparently because they were outraged that some of the tourists were dressed “immodestly.” Agassi describes it as a humiliating, traumatic and fearful experience. “We are used to receiving antagonism from the other side, from the enemy how are we to explain to tourists that in this case the source of hatred was our brothers, our nation?” That was the last time City-Tour 99 passed through the Mea She'arim neighborhood; since then Egged has reprogrammed and rerouted the line, a measure that Agassi laments as “a loss for Jerusalem... Tourists will miss out on an important part of Jerusalem's history, and they will not fully experience Jerusalem as it is.” Agassi points out that while Egged “strives to keep the route consistent and to enter as many historical sites as possible,” route changes genuflect to the security needs of the moment, noting, for example, the cancellation of the stop at Lion's Gate. The bus can accommodate 82 passengers, but if you have a mobility, hearing, or mental impairment, you're out of luck because neither the vehicle nor the staff can meet your accessibility needs. Also worth noting is the need for more extensive or at least regular explanations during the ride. At times the Hebrew instruction (sans earphones) on the upper level really doesn't win out against the street noise. Finally, the so-called “stops” barely allow passengers the time to pull out cameras, and compose and take the shot, let alone step off the bus to take in the view. On the up side, the tour is relaxing, even fun, especially if you dodge bad weather. (Come winter, Egged will be switching to a closed double-decker bus.) There's something about seeing the capital even if it's your home perched from above, vulnerable to the elements. Even when the explanations are a bit over-the-edge and the songs a bit hokey at times, it's refreshing and ignites some sort of pride in the city. Agassi agrees. “The double-decker bus elevates Jerusalem citizens' morale; people stop and stare... tourists and Israelis alike learn things about the city that they didn't know.” At present, there is only one double-decker bus operating, but there are others in the making and Agassi estimates that three or four more will be out by next summer. The line operates Sunday through Friday, and the tour begins and departs from the Central Bus Station starting at 9 a.m., and every two hours thereafter until 5 p.m. (except Friday, when the final departure time is 1 p.m.). Bus fare is NIS 45 for adults (elderly included) and NIS 36 for children up to age 12. The tickets are valid for the entire day and passengers are free to hop on and off at any of the stops (keeping in mind that in order to reboard they will have to wait two hours until the bus passes by the same location again). Agassi says that feedback, overall, has been positive, but passengers have complained about the strong wind and sun (not much he can do), inadequate volume for the guided explanations (they're working on it), and grumblings about the price mostly by Israelis. Agassi defends the price, noting that similar tours in other locations around the world not only cost more, but the earphones and in some cases the maps frequently incur an additional charge. “We offer expert staff who not only present skilled explanations, but also are happy to make seasoned recommendations such as the best place in town to get cheap and tasty homemade Israeli food.” On a particular day earlier this month, there were no more than 20 people aboard at any one point in the two-hour loop. Almost all of them chose to sit upstairs. Ranging in age from young adults to senior citizens, most of them did not speak Hebrew. “I am pleased,” says Ruslan, a new oleh from Russia who now lives in Tel Aviv and heard about the new tour bus on the radio. “This is an efficient way to sightsee,” he says, adding that he appreciates the independence offered him in contrast to organized tours or group instruction. “Forty-five shekels," however, “is a bit steep for Israelis,” he adds. Sam Rogg, a twenty-something customer hailing from London, wishes there were more commentary as there are patches along the route that pass without explanation. Rogg adds that the price is cheap compared to England. Sagi made aliya from Germany 30 years ago and presently lives in Ramat Gan. He says he took the bus to entertain an out-of-town guest. “It's a good way to get to know the city,” he says, but points out the need for more instruction. “We're still at the beginning, still learning," states Agassi.