Tel Aviv Riding Roughshod Over Us, Complain Bicycle Stores

Municipality denies that it is cracking down on the competition to its own Tel-O-Fun bicycle rental service.

Bicycle stores in Tel Aviv claim the city has been harassing them ever since it launched its municipal bike rental service, Tel-O-Fun.

The stores, which also rent bikes, accuse city hall of trying to squelch the competition through frequent fines and other measures that they say they never encountered before Tel-O-Fun was launched in May 2011.

One store owner, Michael Kaserzon, recently filed suit against the municipality, charging that it no longer allows him to display bikes on the sidewalk outside his Ben-Yehuda Street shop and fines him when he does. He said he has also been fined repeatedly on account of bikes left outside the shop by people who aren’t his customers.

The suit, filed in the Tel Aviv District Court, accused city hall of “discriminating against the petitioner, since on one hand, it allows hundreds of bicycles to be stationed on sidewalks throughout Tel Aviv under the project it runs, but, on the other, the petitioner can’t obtain a permit to station rental bikes outside his business.” This prevents the shop from competing effectively against the city’s rental business, it added.

Kaserzon, who opened his store 12 years ago, said he was the first in the city to rent bikes. He stationed his rental bikes outside the shop for years, he said, but was never fined until Tel-O-Fun was launched. Since then, he has received dozens of fines totaling thousands of shekels.

He also put a bike rack outside the shop so people could park their bikes, but the city recently demanded that he remove it, and threatened that if he didn’t, it would do so itself and charge him for it.

A Tel-O-Fun station is located just a few dozen meters from Kaserzon’s shop. “They told me, ‘Just as the Tel Aviv municipality can put out benches and bus stations and you can’t, it can also put out bikes and you can’t,’” he said.

But neither buses nor benches are for-profit businesses, he argued, whereas Tel-O-Fun is – and moreover, it’s a private business. “There’s an entrepreneur who operates it, and earns money from it. So why shouldn’t I get the same conditions?”

Other store owners voiced similar complaints.

“They’ve managed to wear us down. We’re little people, how much strength do we have?” said Tzach Yair, who owns a bike shop on Yehuda Hamaccabi Street. “In the early years, there were no problems. It began only with [Mayor Ron] Huldai’s rental project. This is his flagship project, and he simply doesn’t want any competitors.”

Yair said he, too, had been fined repeatedly. “The harassment is daily. If customers with bikes are standing outside, an inspector comes immediately and makes trouble. There are threats all the time. It’s also not pleasant that you always feel like a criminal.”

Tel-O-Fun has acquired some 17,000 annual subscribers since it was launched, plus an average of 780 one-time users every day. It currently has 170 rental stations with 1,700 bikes, and the city plans to expand it.

The municipality rejected the shop owners’ claims. “The municipality is scrupulous about keeping the sidewalks clear for the public’s benefit; therefore bike shops, like every other business in the city, aren’t allowed to station their merchandise in public areas, and the city isn’t harassing them in any way,” a spokesman said. “When Tel-O-Fun was launched, the city decided to allot it sidewalk space, as is common in all cities worldwide with similar projects.”

He added that the bike shops were “undoubtedly” benefiting from the city’s efforts to encourage cycling, which included paving some 120 kilometers of bike paths.
 

Tomer Appelbaum