Rethinking Shabbat transportation

Introducing competition in the area of public transportation will prevent the government from dictating who and where Israelis are allowed to travel on Shabbat.

An Egged bus driving through Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
An Egged bus driving through Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Recently, the government decided to enforce laws forbidding public buses from operating on Shabbat, making it a little bit more difficult for Israelis that are unfortunate enough to rely on public transportation.
Soldiers, students, the elderly and households in the lower income deciles are the ones suffering from this decision. Car ownership among the well-off households reaches 90 percent compared to only 20% among the poorest. Curbing public transportation reduces equal opportunity and prevents the least privileged access to employment, open space and recreational activities.
Even before this latest decision, using public transportation in Israel wasn’t easy or efficient. Israel lags behind almost all developed countries in public travel and infrastructure. As mentioned in the 2011 OECD country report on Israel, “Transport infrastructure has struggled to keep pace with the rapid population growth, and the mix between private and public transportation has become unbalanced, adding to problems of congestion in urban areas.”
Introducing competition in the area of public transportation will prevent the government from dictating who and where Israelis are allowed to travel on Shabbat. It will also reinforce equity between the different socio-economic groups in our society. Why is it fair to prevent “bus trapped” citizen from traveling on Shabbat when anyone who owns a private (or an official government) car may drive anywhere they see fit? The way to solve this latest social crisis is simply to transform public transportation into a private commodity. If public transportation was organized by private companies, seeking to maximize profits, the market and not the government would dictate if buses or trains or cabs were to run on Shabbat.
Socially, the privatization of public travel will allow each Israeli, regardless of their religious beliefs, to “buy” the type of transportation that they prefer, and that is most appropriate for their individual needs. Economically, competition will also benefit all members of society through better customer service, lower taxes, lower prices and higher disposable income.
THE TRAJTENBERG Commission recommended in 2010 introducing full competition in the transportation market by accelerating the privatization of bus lines and allowing more collective taxis to operate.
Most empirical studies on privatization of ground transportation consistently find that the private sector lowers costs, increases efficiency and improves services to commuters in comparison with the public sector.
Today, Dan and Egged are still operating in a quasi-monopolistic environment and are heavily protected from any serious competition.
The same holds true for the Israel Railways company, that is a monopoly. Collective taxis and private taxis are over-regulated as well and shielded from the competition of new entrants to the market.
If privatizing and introducing competition to the market is seen by our politicians as a too bold and unrealistic task, other simple, ready to- use solutions exist. One of them is to let “ride sharing” companies such as Uber or Lyft or Sidecars enter the Israeli market. Those companies use a smartphone application to receive ride requests, and then send these trip requests to their drivers. Anyone who holds a driving license and has successfully passed a criminal and safety background check may start offering rides in his private car.
Former Transport and Road Safety minister Yisrael Katz vehemently opposed the introduction of “ride sharing” companies and was quoted in June as saying “(they) won’t be allowed to operate here under a different set of rules and laws than the ones applied to taxi drivers and everyone else.” This statement de-facto bars their entry in the market since only individuals who hold a taxi license may charge passengers fees. Even giving a ride to a friend in exchange for sharing the cost of gas is prohibited in Israel.
This missed opportunity is a shame for Israel. Letting paid peer-to-peer cab rides operate freely offers many benefits. The cost of transportation will be lowered. Anyone who owns a car will be able to become a parttime driver, helping many Israeli households increase their disposable income. It will reduce pollution and traffic congestion as less “single-occupant” vehicles will be on the road. Last but not least, it will able people to travel on Shabbat at reasonable prices when no public transportation is available.
The author is director of the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.