Tel Aviv Slow to Debug Its Bicycle-rental System

Technical and mechanical problems continue to plague the city's Tel-O-Fun service a year after its inception.

"Feel free!" may be the slogan of Tel Aviv's much-publicized bike rental program, Tel-O-Fun, but "feel frustrated" might be more appropriate. Technical and mechanical problems continue to plague the service a year after its inception, say exasperated residents and tourists.

During the past two weeks, Haaretz documented many complications that customers faced at some of the 150 rental stations across the city. These complications included bikes that were registered in the system as "faulty" but appeared to be rideable, bikes that failed to unlock from the docking poles, and stations that could not dispense tickets because the printers had run out of paper.

Andrew Esensten

Tel Aviv resident Avner Sadot, an early adopter of Tel-O-Fun and one of its 16,250 annual subscribers, said he has lost patience with the system. "They're not debugging it fast enough and I'm about to give up," Sadot said, noting that he can rent a bike on the first try only about 30 percent of the time, and that he has been late to work as a result of the glitches.

The Tel Aviv municipality said in a statement that it is "investing lots of effort and resources" to improve the service and that a period of "labor pains" was to be expected. "Based on the data from similar projects in other cities worldwide, it takes over a year to become familiar with the nature of the stations and to overcome obstacles and transportation difficulties," the city said.

The subscription-based rental service - the first of its kind in Israel - launched last May to great fanfare as an environmentally friendly alternative to driving (and parking ) in a car-choked city. Daily subscriptions became available on January 1 of this year, allowing tourists to use the service. During Passover, tourists accounted for about 300 of the 2,000 daily rentals by occasional customers, the city said. There are 8,000 rentals per day on average.

But the service can be especially difficult for tourists to use, as was evident at two stations along the Tayelet on a recent Saturday. Stations rejected international credit cards seemingly at random. Visitors from France, England and Brazil struggled to unlock the bikes and frequently lost them to other customers who, due to an apparent computer glitch, were able to select the same bikes and then successfully unlock them. While the instructions for renting and unlocking bikes can be viewed in five different languages, including Russian and French, the map of nearby stations appears only in Hebrew.

So much for a relaxing ride

Many tourists were lured to a Tel-O-Fun station by the prospect of a breezy ride along the Mediterranean Sea, only to be disappointed. Heidi Arenstein and her daughter Jade waited in the sun for 20 minutes for two bikes to be returned to the Carlton Hotel station.

When the bikes became available, the South Africans scanned their tickets and received errors: The system had frozen them out as a security precaution because they had tried to unlock more than one bike in a short period of time. They decided to walk to another station. A worker who identified himself as Shai, and who said he had been subcontracted by Tel-O-Fun to assist customers, stood nearby, blaming the difficulties on the computer system.

"In South Africa we're used to things not working, but this is actually shocking by South African standards," Arenstein said. "The concept is so simple, and because it's so simple I think it's even worse that it doesn't work."

It was not the first time Arenstein had tried to use the service. The day before, she and her family ventured from their hotel on Sheinkin Street to the Tel Aviv port with a group of about 10 other tourists and Israelis in search of available bikes. "When there were bikes, we knew that the station wasn't working," she said. "It's a joke."

They gave up after five stations.

The city employs 70 workers to maintain the stations and operates a 24-hour customer service call center. But Brian Arenstein, Heidi's brother-in-law from Australia, pointed out that tourists who do not have Israeli phones cannot call Tel-O-Fun for assistance. "It's just an absolute waste of time," Brian said. "You might as well walk to where you're going because you'll get there quicker."

Those inexperienced customers who did manage to rent bikes in the presence of a Haaretz reporter were either very persistent or received help from strangers.

Jinet Hason and Siret Sadi, new immigrants from Turkey, could not figure out how to change the system language at a station near Bograshov Beach. Daniel Sarig, an Israeli who had used the service before, offered to help. With his acoustic guitar strung over his back, Sarig chose bikes for the women and unlocked one of them. "The system is not good for tourists, so I try to help whenever I can," Sarig said. "It's romantic," Hason said.

But Sadi, meanwhile, had trouble unlocking her bike, so the friends had to wait 15 minutes for another one to become available, leaving them only 15 minutes to get to their destination before Hason faced an additional usage charge. (Only the first 30 minutes of a daily subscription are included in the subscription fee - see box. )

As part of the next phase of the project, the city said it will address the shortage of bikes at the most popular stations by installing 30-50 more stations with 300-500 more bikes.

Doron Eliaz, the front office manager at the Carlton Hotel, advises tourists to rent from one of the bike rental shops on Ben Yehuda Street instead of from Tel-O-Fun because they will receive personal service and, more importantly, they will know up front how much the rental will cost.

Owners of two such shops attested that residents and tourists have struggled mightily to use a service that is advertised as simple and efficient. Michael Kaserzon, owner of O-Fun Bike Rentals, said people have mistakenly called him to complain because the name of his business is so similar to Tel-O-Fun. ("Ofun" means wheel in Hebrew. )

"People phone me and start shouting," Kaserzon said. "I tell them, 'It's not me, sorry, can't help.'"

While the service may be economical for locals with short commutes to work, said Kaserzon, Tel-O-Fun's prices are not favorable to tourists. A rental from Tel-O-Fun lasting three hours costs NIS 84, compared to NIS 60 for a full-day rental from either O-Fun (197 Ben Yehuda Street ) or Cycle (147 Ben Yehuda Street ). Plus, he said, the Tel-O-Fun bikes do not come with helmets, even though Israeli law requires riders in many cases to wear them.

Kaserzon related the story of a couple from England who paid for a weekly subscription to Tel-O-Fun, thinking they could keep the bikes over the weekend. When they returned the bikes they faced a fine of several thousand shekels, he said.

As for the bikes themselves, Sadot, the annual subscriber who said he is fed up with the service, trashed the design: They're heavy, the lights seldom work, the ergonomic handles are always sticky, the carrier straps break easily - and, quite simply, the bikes aren't cool, said Sadot.

"They don't fit the look and feel of Tel Aviv or add to the splendor of the city," he added. "It took France and Germany years to perfect their bike rental programs. This program is typical of Israelis who think they can do everything better."

Bike rates in TA

Daily subscription: NIS 14 (weekdays), NIS 20 (Saturdays and holidays) first 30 minutes included
Up to 30 minutes: Included in subscription fee
Up to 60 minutes: NIS 19 total on weekdays, NIS 25 on Saturdays/holidays
Up to 90 minutes: NIS 24, NIS 30 on Saturday/holidays
Up to 150 minutes: NIS 44, NIS 50 on Saturdays/holidays
Fine for returning the bike late: NIS 1,200 during the first 24 hours, 800 for each subsequent day

Cycle(147 Ben Yehuda):
No subscription fee, lock and helmet included
Up to 60 minutes: NIS 25
Up to 24 hours: NIS 60

O-Fun (197 Ben Yehuda):
No subscription fee, lock and helmet included
Up to 60 minutes: NIS 25
Up to 120 minutes: NIS 50
Up to 24 hours: NIS 60
Fine for returning the bike late: 60 NIS if one day late, NIS 300 if one week late, NIS 100 to keep it over the weekend

Wheel Bee ( 7 Hahalfanim, Jaffa):
No subscription fee, lock and helmet included
Up to 3 hours: NIS 40
Up to 6 hours: NIS 55
Up to 24 hours: NIS 75