Egged, Riding the Bus

May 16, 2017

by: Janet Aslin, Assistant Editor

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Photo: Michio Nagata, Bridgesforpeace.com

Since I first came to Jerusalem as a volunteer ten years ago, I have been fascinated with Egged, Israel’s largest public transportation system. To explain, I grew up in Alaska, in an area where you were more likely to spot a moose grazing alongside the road than a public bus, so maybe the novelty hasn’t worn off yet. However, I really do think the company and its drivers do an excellent job in a challenging environment. So, I’d like to tell you a bit about the ubiquitous green Egged buses that are part of the fabric of daily life in Israel.

Serving Israel Since 1933

Egged, pronounced using two distinct syllables (Eh-gehd), was born long before the establishment of the State of Israel. The literal meaning of Egged (אגד) is “union,” a name reportedly given the company by one of Israel’s famous poets, Hayim Naham Bialik. True to its name, Egged is the product of several “unions.” In 1933 four small intercity bus companies merged, then another joined in 1942, to provide bus service in the center of what was to become the modern State of Israel. The final “union” in 1951 brought Israel’s northern and southern bus companies on board, uniting the country and forming the young nation’s national public transportation system.

The bus line is very Israeli in its corporate structure. It began as a company owned by its workers and has remained a member-owned cooperative, said to be the world’s largest. Despite deregulation, Egged still provides nearly all Israel’s inter-city service as well as within many communities including Jerusalem, Israel’s largest city and capital.

Growing with the times, Egged has diversified. Egged Tours, a subsidiary, offers tours both internationally and within the country. Surprisingly, the Egged bus line can also be found in several European countries, namely Bulgaria, Poland and the Netherlands.

All in a Day’s Work

Although Egged serves the entire country, I am most familiar with their service in Jerusalem. Being a bus driver here is not the easiest job. The driver must navigate narrow streets; watch out for the motorcycles that zip in and out of traffic; cars that abruptly change lanes without signaling; and sell tickets while driving! I realize this describes the life of any big city bus driver but when we add the “Israel factor,” the challenges are multiplied exponentially.

Egged bus damaged by rocket fire during Operation Protective Edge (2012)
(Photo: Emanuel Yellin/wikipedia.org)

Tragically, during its short history as a modern nation, Israel has experienced terrorism at a level unseen in any other Western country. Many of these terror attacks have been directed at buses. The early years of the 21st century were difficult ones for Egged with a spike in suicide bus bombings. Impromptu memorials of those years can still be seen in the city, such as small stones on the wall along Emek Refaim Street that commemorate those who died in the #14 bus bombing in 2003. Nor has the possibility of a terror attack on the bus ended. Jerusalem’s most recent attack with fatalities occurred in October 2015 when two terrorists, armed with knives and a gun, boarded the #78 bus, killing three and wounding fifteen.

Despite the very real possibility of terror, bus ridership remains high. During times of increased tension, sales of pepper spray skyrocket and passengers may carry improvised weapons, such as the rolling pin seen peeking out of an elderly woman’s handbag. This is consistent with the Israeli mentality—one must maintain a normal daily routine without giving in to fear in order not to hand the terrorist the victory.

A Window into Israeli Society

When you are on the bus, you become part of the Israeli public and participant, to a degree, in the society. Here are a few things I’ve observed over the years. There are no private conversations and you shouldn’t be surprised if the person sitting in front of you turns around to add their “two cents” worth.

Most people are helpful to a fault, especially to those who look particularly needy. Several years ago, Egged upgraded their busiest buses with card readers that looked like big gray eggs with LED screens. When drivers started retraining us to move quickly back and use the new devices, many were puzzled. Those who quickly figured out how they worked were eager to show those of us who were struggling, at times two or three “helpers” competing to see who would teach the new process.

Many school children ride public transportation without their parents. I often see two boys—maybe 8 and 10—with a much younger sibling in a stroller waiting for the bus. At first I was concerned—no adult in sight—but the boys are very attentive. The older one seems more responsible while the other entertains their little sister, often making faces at her that bring forth peals of laughter.

Because many people don’t have cars, purchases must be transported on the bus. I once saw a mini-refrigerator completely blocking the aisle of a very crowded bus. Or the time near Sukkot when a woman got on with a bunch of six foot palm fronds which kept hitting me in the head (she did apologize).

People are generally very tolerant. I remember one bus ride early in the morning with a young man who was listening to music on his headphones…and singing along very loudly and off-key. No one asked him to stop although the sound was jarring.

Riding the bus in Israel is a great way for non-Israelis to look through an open window into life in the Land, offering interesting experiences and the possibility of new friendships. Sure, driving a car might be more convenient and you won’t end up waiting for a bus that seemingly takes forever to arrive but it won’t be nearly as fascinating or fun.

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