In the vexed region of the West Bank in Palestine lies a small city called Ramallah with a transportation system that has a long way to go, according to locals. Ramallah is the capital-in-practice of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), while the West Bank is a landlocked region that is being fought over by Israel and the PNA – the latter being represented by the left-wing Fatah administration, which is headquartered in Ramallah. Ramallah is home to around 30,000 people and covers 16.3 square kilometers (6.3 square miles). While the city has traditionally been highly dependent on mini buses, just weeks ago, Ramallah opened its arms to Palestine’s first cab-hailing mobile application, the UAE-born Careem.
Ghadeer Qawariq, an environmentalist from Ramallah, tells progrss that mini buses go from city center to each neighborhood for the most part, passing through main streets. “They are easily filled and pretty available, but there’s a problem which is mainstream: most public transport drivers drive like idiots and most accidents include public transport,” Qawariq says. While it is safer and more convenient to take a cab in Ramallah, Qawariq tells us it’s pretty expensive; “Ramallah is a small city and taxis take a minimum of 15 shekels ($4.24) for one or three kilometers (0.62 to 1.86 miles),” she elaborates, adding that mini buses take 1.5 to 5 shekels ($0.42 to $1.41).
“We realize that taxis are very expensive but that’s due to their personal manipulation of the fare which some taxi groups set to control the market,” says Kareem Zinaty, Careem’s Levant operations manager. Even though taxis in Ramallah had meters installed in their vehicles to regulate pricing, taxi drivers stopped using them shortly after they were installed, according to Qawariq. Careem’s Levant operations manager tells progrss that the ride-hailing company has created a pricing structure that is fair to the drivers – otherwise known as captains – and that also make sense to the customer on a kilometers-per-minute basis.
Suad Mansour, a Ramallah resident who works at an advertising agency has heard about Careem launching in the city, but doesn’t think it is going to be very popular. “[Even though] public transportation does not cover all areas in Ramallah, we have taxi offices that you call and [the cab] shows up at your door step in minutes,” Mansour tells progrss.
That said, minibuses don’t go everywhere – and new urban areas are particularly affected. Some neighborhoods and streets are left out of public transport routes, which means that Ramallah commuters often have to resort to walking or expensive taxis. Qawariq would love a public transport system that covers all neighborhoods and districts of Ramallah. “This model made it more feasible for everyone to use Careem [in Ramallah],” says Zinaty. “We have taxis on our platform and the Captains that drive with Careem are very happy about this structure. It includes good pay for them, sustainable demand, trainings and feedback sessions as well as incentive programs, which, to my knowledge, no other company has invested time or money in doing.”
Although the PNA is the formal entity governing the City of Ramallah, the city-within-a-country is often subject to interference and laws set by the Israeli government, and Israeli rules and restrictions still apply. “Israelis [don’t allow] us to have 3G, so GPS and taxi apps wouldn’t work here,” says Qawariq. However, Zinaty argues that this is a misperception. “Palestine has proper mapping and the system works fine; not as good as 3-4G though,” he says. “There are even talks of telcos introducing 3G within the coming months. This is where our role as responsible citizens comes in to create the demand for a service upgrade. And we believe that our entry into Palestine will inspire more startups and tech businesses to explore that market and increase demand for high tech services.”
Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement in November 2015 allowing Palestinians to access 3G frequencies. And although Palestinian Minister of Communications and Information Technology Alam Mousa estimated that Palestinian companies would likely be able to offer the service by the end of 2016, this did not happen.
Thaer Sharaf, a 27-year-old Ramallah resident who works in quality control in a logistics company, describes his recent experience with Careem in Ramallah as “awesome.” He responds to the 3G ordeal by saying that the app doesn’t even need 3G as long as there is WiFi. “There’s WiFi everywhere in the city center, thanks to the Ramallah Smart City Project. It’s way cheaper [than traditional taxis], drivers are always happy and smiling and they can’t manipulate foreigners with prices,” Sharaf tells progrss.
Ramallah’s Smart City scheme includes a number of projects that serve residents through internet technology in order to circumvent restrictions. For example, Safaa Aldwaik, Director of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for the Ramallah municipality developed an alternative to Google Maps – which does not work in the city. Although less sophisticated than Google Maps, the alternative interface can suggest directions to users. The municipality has also released a smartphone application, RAMALLAH, which provides a search engine for local events, a phone directory and other information about the city.
With regards to transportation infrastructure and public transport, interviewees report that municipalities are doing “almost nothing” to improve the situation. “We only hear from the municipality right before the elections. They only do basic stuff like fixing roads and traffic lights, and they don’t follow up to see if the fixes are effective or not,” Sharaf explains. He says that a lot has to be improved in the city’s public transportation system. He explains that, although the city recently painted lanes on the streets, the lines have all but disappeared.
“There are multiple small stations spread out across the city that [have buses that] go to different neighborhoods and areas, which is pretty confusing because there is no clear bus information posted at any of the stations [like] maps, route numbers,” says Alia Rae, 31. Rae, who is a project manager in higher education, asks for more accessible information about the routes posted at stations with realtime updates so commuters can know when to expect their bus – especially buses going between cities. She also believes that the city needs new air conditioned buses that are equipped with accessibility features for persons with disabilities. “A train system would be nice too with stop alerts, if there weren’t checkpoints and the Occupation,” she adds.
Rae lives in a small village between Ramallah and Jerusalem called Qalandia which is heavily populated by refugees from 1948. The village dotted with Israeli checkpoints and is strongly affected by Israeli intervention. “There is often major traffic there [at Qalandia] and the public buses along with many cars go through alley ways and alternative routes to try to dodge traffic,” she elaborates. “This is the most obvious area affected by the occupation since the checkpoint is controlled by the Israeli government.”