Cyclists Fight for Government Support, as Pedestrians Dodge Sidewalk Riders

Although cities like Tel Aviv have come a long way in 'bike friendliness,’ increased traffic has left many feeling unsafe.

Tomer Appelbaum

Representatives of the Israel Bicycle Association were scheduled to meet on Thursday with Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar to try to convince him to support a bill to encourage bicycle use.

The bill would add bike parking to public buildings, allow bikes on trains and buses, and create bike paths. Cities of more than 30,000 inhabitants would be required to prepare a master plan for paths. The bill would also create financial incentives for bicycling.

Until a few years ago, no minister would have bothered to support such a bill, let alone think about creating a budget for it. But demand for bike infrastructure has increased along with bike traffic. In Tel Aviv, bike rides now account for almost 9 percent of trips by residents — a significant increase in less than a decade.

The system of bike paths in Tel Aviv has grown steadily, though its quality and efficiency is uneven throughout the city. The Tel-O-Fun bike rental system, though dealing with various service and maintenance problems, is expanding. Its managers say they are going to sign contracts enabling them to expand the service into cities near Tel Aviv. Newer neighborhoods are being built with bike paths.

In improving accommodation of bikes, Tel Aviv joins many world cities, mainly in Europe and North America. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report from last year notes a consistent decline in the use of automobiles in member countries and that young people are waiting longer to get driver's licenses. These trends have many explanations, including significant improvements in access to urban areas for pedestrians and cyclists, thanks to better walking and biking paths.

In the city of Freiburg in Germany, for example, the network of bike paths grew from 29 kilometers in 1972 to close to 400 kilometers 35 years later, with bikes making up 28 percent of traffic. The result is that car traffic in Freiburg, which made up twice as much of total traffic as the average in West Germany in 1960, fell to 20 percent below the average in 2006.

In many Israeli cities, increased bike traffic coupled with a lack of bike paths has increased friction between bicyclists and pedestrians.

The proliferation of electric bikes, which can reach speeds of dozens of kilometers per hour and pose a real threat, has exacerbated the problem. The legal status of the bikes has yet to be determined, so there is no uniform and binding limit on their power or speed, nor has it been decided who many use them and under what conditions. Several months ago, the Knesset Finance Committee held a debate on the issue. The minutes of the meeting reveal that the Transportation Ministry and police are disorganized and helpless on the issue. A police representative promised that a special committee appointed by the police chief, in conjunction with representatives of the Transportation Ministry, would soon submit proper rules. Similar pledges have been made in the past.

Nonprofit groups dedicated to cycling issues have not ignored the issue of safety. The position of the Israel Bicycle Association is that cycling on sidewalks is illegal. It is clear that the most effective way to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe would be to significantly expand and improve bike paths, though even this is not a perfect solution.

Even as they praise cities such as Tel Aviv for developing bike-path infrastructure, many cyclists say some paths remain unsatisfactory. The paths do not appropriately separate cyclists and pedestrians and are dangerously disjointed at certain points, they say.

Such complaints can be heard not only in Israel, but also in countries like the United Kingdom, where urban bike paths are similarly being expanded. A resident of Brighton, in the south of the country, has even created a website called Weird Cycle Lanes of Brighton with photographs of absurd-looking bicycle paths. For example, one path connects directly to a bicycle parking area with no safe crossing point for the rider. “[The website] is not meant to have a go at our Council or its officers, who are doing a grand job promoting and encouraging cycling,” Alan "Fred" Pipes writes on his website. “However there is always room for improvement.”