Reinventing Urban Wheels

Not everyone can leap out of bed at 5 A.M. to take a bicycle ride or have an early morning run. The same is true of the gym. On the face of it, urban residents have a readily available alternative: To increase their physical activity in their daily schedules, by, for example, doing errands on foot or walking, biking or rollerblading to work. It's healthy, environmentally friendly, and circumvents the traffic jams. The problem lies in the current state of urban infrastructure. Cyclists and rollerbladers are constantly endangering their lives, being forced to maneuver between cars. As for pedestrians, they have to share the sidewalk with garbage bins and parked cars, inhaling exhaust fumes all the while.

"Part of a city's quality of life means one can walk from one place to another, ride a bike or use effective and easily accessible public transportation," says Amy Lippman, a researcher in the Tel Aviv University's geography department who is active in Yisrael Bishvil Ofanaim, the Israel Bicycle Association. "The idea is that by walking or cycling from one place to another, you both engage in the recommended 30 minutes of daily physical exercise and you become more aware of your surroundings. Yet contemporary reality has made most of us dependent on cars for even the smallest errands," she says.

Lippman has researched the subject of urban walking and claims that today's reality is a direct result of "car-oriented" urban planning, which examines the distances between destinations according to the time it will take to drive there. "The neighborhood grocery store is dead and we have to drive to the supermarket to buy something as simple as milk. We watch movies in malls, and we drive the children to their after-school activities. High-tech centers, industrial areas and other offices are generally located on the outskirts and therefore not easily accessible without a car. And then, after sitting in their cars, people sit in front of their computers - and that's without mentioning anything about pollution," Lippman says.

"The central question is: Who is the city for - for the car or for the people? If it's for the people, then the city has to meet their needs for accessibility and safety," Lippman says.

"People like to ride bicycles. If you give them the opportunity to start their day by riding to work, many people will do so. The problem is that this alternative does not really exist," says Yotam Avi Zohar, director of the Israel Bicycle Association. Zohar says it is not utopia to get to work by bike or on foot - rather, it is a matter of correct planning and a willingness to promote such ideas. He notes that for most urban residents, their places of residence and employment are located between five and 7 kilometers apart, a distance easily covered by bike or on rollerblades.

Zohar is aware of the hot weather conditions but he points out that in the months between September and May "it is wonderful to ride a bike." Besides, he believes employers should be encouraged to provide shower facilities for workers or to consider a monthly subscription to a shower in a nearby gym.

A question of safety

Zohar points out that several large high-tech firms have already expressed interest in such an idea. Yet, it turns out that it is not sufficient for the impetus to come from the employers alone. One firm responded that it had concluded that it would be better to invest in some kind of sports activity for the workers after hours, whereas the second admitted that the project had failed because of the logistical impossibility of providing showers and because the access routes to the firm are not bicycle-friendly. Both firms preferred to speak off the record. They did note, however, that the main obstacle to the utopian dream of non-motorized, urban traffic was that of safety.

"I am capable of crossing Tel Aviv in less than half an hour on rollerblades," says Elik Mintz, the founder of the Tel-Aviv Rollers organization. Mintz, whose sporty and youthful appearance belies his 51 years, claims he gets from Jaffa to Hayarkon Park within 22 minutes, but that is thanks to the fact that he has had a lot of practice and is "sufficiently brave" to skate on the road. "If they genuinely want to encourage non-motorized traffic in the city, they must provide the infrastructures," he says, "so anyone who is not prepared to take risks can also cycle or skate safely."

Only a city with a proper grid of bicycle paths will solve the safety problem - and it is possible to do so, he adds. "A proper, one-way cycling path is an asphalt strip 1.2 meters wide, whereas a two-way path must be 2.5 meters wide. These are simple paths that do not need to withstand heavy loads or abide by the same standards that apply to streets. This is a very low-cost investment compared with the millions invested in road infrastructures today."

Zohar notes that Tel Aviv has seen a great deal of progress in this regard in recent years, in part because the Israel Bicycle Association started off in Tel Aviv and only became a nationwide body in 2005. Beyond the bicycle paths that were paved in an effort to rehabilitate Tel Aviv's boulevards, an experimental bike path has been paved between the sidewalk and Moshe Dayan Road.

Zohar calls another bicycle path along Ibn Gvirol Street "a mistake," because it was placed on the sidewalk. "That creates a problematic situation of friction with the pedestrians," he says. "In addition, since an official bicycle path exists, it is forbidden to ride on the road." Zohar is also unhappy about the law obliging cyclists to wear a helmet in the city.

But he also notes that even under the existing conditions, about 12 percent of all Tel Aviv traffic today consists of bicycles. In addition, in the past year the Israel Bicycle Association organization has grown to 18,000 members, who are active in different cities. Zohar believes it will soon be possible to take bikes onto the Haifa Metronit. And even cities like Jerusalem and Be'er Sheva, he says, are beginning to understand the advantages of encouraging cycling in the city.