Coming to Tel Aviv? Better bring your bicycle
Some NIS 150 million to be spent in the next five years on building new bike lanes in the city en route to 150 km of designated bicycle routes.
Fourteen years ago, Tel Aviv did not have even one bicycle path. Now the city has more than 100 kilometers of paths, trails and lanes, and bicyclists have become an integral part of the urban landscape. Some even say the rise in bicycle use has outpaced expansion of the infrastructure to handle it, but municipal officials seem to be in danger of breaking their arms patting themselves on the back.
Under Mayor Ron Huldai's direction, the city will spend about NIS 150 million in the next five years on building new bike conduits. When the five-year plan is completed, Tel Aviv should have around 150 km. of designated bicycle routes.
"It's a real revolution," says the director of the municipality's Construction and Infrastructure Administration, Benny Maor, who does not shrink from comparing Tel Aviv with Dutch cities. "It's a replacement for cars - people are switching to bicycles," Maor says, adding, "It's starting to become Tel Aviv's motto."
According to a 2010 municipal poll, 38 percent of Tel Aviv residents own a bicycle. A survey by the city found a 20 percent rise in the number of bike trips in the city between 2007 and 2009, followed by a leap of 30 percent from 2009 to 2011.
The last survey, Maor points out, was before the city-wide bicycle rental program Tel Ofan began last spring. Despite complaints about technical glitches and poor maintenance, membership numbers have surpassed expectations; in seven months, the now-familiar green bikes with the swooping metallic rack in the back have logged more than 280,000 separate rides. City officials say the usage rate is double that of similar programs abroad. In light of the roaring success and high demand the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Economic Development Authority, which runs Tel Ofan, is planning to install 50 additional stations and to purchase 500 more bicycles this year.
The new bike-path plan aims to cope with the growth in ridership, to eliminate points of contact with pedestrians and motor vehicles and to create a contiguous conduit network covering the entire city. Currently, riders are often forced onto the roadway because the bike path they are on simply ends.
The program also aims to encourage bicycle use in Jaffa and south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, and eventually to link the city's bike path network to those of neighboring cities.
One of the new plan's principles is to put the bike paths or lanes on street level, but separated from vehicle traffic. Maor admits that narrow streets and other exigencies can make this ideal difficult to achieve.
Municipal Director General Menahem Leibe stresses that the city's investment in bike paths is part of a clearly defined policy of putting bicyclists and pedestrians first. "It can come at the expense of private cars. There's no such thing as a free lunch," Leibe said, although he adds that the ultimate goal is striking the right balance among pedestrians, bicycles and cars.
On Bloch Street, one end of which faces the municipality, dozens of parking spaces are being sacrificed for bike lanes, to the outrage of people who live or work in the area. "It's insignificant," Leibe said, promising to build more parking lots. He said it's all part of the worldview of the municipality and the man who heads it.
"Our idea is for vehicles to park underground and for pedestrians and bicyclists to be on the ground. It's the right thing, especially in a city as densely populated as Tel Aviv," Leibe said.
Israel Bicycle Association director Yotam Avizohar is pleased with the five-year plan, and points out that many changes were made in order to create a comprehensive network of bike paths in the city and enable riders who don't want to do battle with cars to ride. "The new plan has smarts," Avizohar said.