By ABE SELIG
It's another hot, sweaty afternoon in Jerusalem, and smiles are hard to come by in bustling Mahaneh Yehuda.
"It's just a mess out here," says Efrat Levi as she sits at the nearby bus stop. "The buses take forever to arrive, and when they do, it's a madhouse with everyone pushing and shoving - I'm surprised nobody's been seriously hurt."
Levi is not alone in her chagrin. Jerusalemites have been slowly uniting in their discontent with the city's public transportation system. Delays are expected, overcrowded buses are feared, and confusion over which bus lines go where have become all too common.
"It's ridiculous," says Mona Schwartz, who has ventured out to the shuk for some groceries. "I used to love coming here and buying all kinds of fresh things, but these days the commute is almost unbearable."
Enter Yossi Saidov, an organizer of the Jerusalem public action group called 15 Minutes.
Saidov and his crew, which has grown to include hundreds of volunteers in the seven months since the group's inception, are working for the betterment of Jerusalem's public transportation system and are sticking it to the Egged bus company and Transportation Authority along the way.
"We started off as a group of people from the Katamonim neighborhood who wanted to improve public transportation in our areas," Saidov says. "But when we held a meeting in February and more than 100 people showed up from all over the city, we realized this was a much bigger problem than we thought."
So Saidov and his counterparts drafted volunteers, broke into groups and began gathering information on the various transportation issues.
"One group deals with complaints," he says. "Others deal with city planning to look for ways to fix the problems in the short and long term."
After gathering a slew of information, 15 Minutes released a report last week detailing residents' complaints with the system. Most of the complaints, says Saidov, have to do with the lack of information, long and seemingly pointless bus routes, and the infrequency of buses..
"Neither Egged nor the Transportation Ministry has ever published a detailed map of all of Jerusalem's buses or their routes," Saidov says. "Which means that to travel in the city, you have to call them, go online or simply hope that nothing has changed." Saidov also cites the absence of information at bus stops regarding times or routes.
"We've approached Egged and the Transportation Ministry," he says, "and their response is that the light rail will fix all these problems. The same light rail that was supposed to be up and running two years ago and probably won't be running for another two years," he comments.
"If you want to get from the German Colony to the Central Bus Station, it will take an hour," he says. "Armon Hanatziv to Hadassah Ein Kerem takes an hour and a half. We think it's ridiculous that it takes longer to get from point A to point B in the city than to get to Tel Aviv."
Saidov also complains that Egged is out of touch with the city's residents.
"Egged recently boasted that they had begun running 'fast lines' from Ramot to Gilo," he says. "But at a recent City Hall meeting, residents from both Gilo and Ramot asked why they had done this. They said, 'What's the connection? We never have to go to Ramot,' and people Ramot said the same about Gilo.
"The only people left who take the bus are students and the elderly," he continues. "Because if you have a car, or a bicycle or any other way to get around, you're going to use it. The bus has become a last resort, and then, once they show up, they're so crowded that it's become a war on board just to get a seat."
Saidov says that at a municipality committee meeting in February, Egged promised to begin disseminating information about the bus lines at local stops. "But that was seven months ago and they've done no such thing," he says. "It's a serious problem. To me this means they don't honor their word and simply don't care."
But such disappointment, Saidov says, is fuel for his organization, which has no budget to speak of.
"We're all volunteers, and we boil our complaints down to a few simple issues: Egged and the Transportation Authority aren't in touch with the residents; they don't listen to them or respond to their complaints. And we believe there's a breakdown in the connection between Egged and the Transportation Authority. They're supposed to be keeping tabs on Egged; they're supposed to plan the bus routes, and Egged is supposed to operate them. From what we've learned, Egged plans the bus lines as well."
Their plan of action? Saidov says that after the holidays, 15 Minutes is going to "take the gloves off" and begin a campaign aimed at Egged's checkbook.
"If you've been waiting for more than 15 minutes at a bus stop, we believe that Egged owes you money. So we're going to start a campaign to log those delays and then assist commuters in taking their cases to small claims court. In addition to our city planner volunteers, we also have lawyers," he says.
For its part, Egged says the current delays and inconveniences are ultimately for the improvement of the transportation system and that once the massive construction projects are completed, things will be better than ever.
"The transportation system in Jerusalem is undergoing large changes and planning as a result of the infrastructure work being done for the light rail," reads a statement from Egged spokesman Ron Ratner.
"Egged, as an active player in the city's transportation system, has implemented the decisions made for this project by the Transportation Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality and other planning bodies," he says.
Regarding changes to the bus routes, Ratner says that once the light rail work is done, a set map of the city's bus routes, along with the light rail route, will be made public.
"The new bus lines have been planned in accordance with the route of the light rail," he says. "As any intelligent person can understand, we cannot revolutionize the transportation system in two weeks; in the meantime, information about our bus routes can be found on our Internet site. After the light rail is completed, Egged will publish a detailed and final map of its bus lines."
Countering the claim that Egged is out of touch with Jerusalem residents, he says, "All the changes in the bus routes were made in conjunction with members of each neighborhood's administrative bodies - representatives who know the needs of each community."
And, he continues, "Egged welcomes the public's opinions and critiques of our service in order to better our operational capabilities and provide a more enjoyable experience."
But Jerusalemites near Mahaneh Yehuda this week weren't biting.
"You mean I have to wait until this light rail is done before things get moving again?" one man sputtered.
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