Eating Up the Sidewalks

Israel's cities seem content to let eating establishments pour out onto the street. Apparently it doesn't bother residents either.

It's a familiar scene: A throng of people on the sidewalk makes it hard to get by, especially if you're pushing a baby carriage. What's going on here? Are they giving something away? Filming something? Reminiscent of the splitting of the Red Sea, on one side there's the dense cluster of tables and chairs outside the cafe, and on the other the busy street, with just a narrow passageway between them for you to negotiate. Then there's usually also a large planter or two, a chair for the security guard, a tied-up dog (of some oversize breed, generally), or just someone who doesn't want to budge. Space on the city sidewalk is allotted most sparingly, and a simple activity like strolling is often a daunting assignment.

With winter approaching, one wonders: What would happen if Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem were like Boston, Berlin or any other city where pedestrians have genuine rights, with broad sidewalks lining the impressive avenues?

Elhanan Meshi, the man in charge of business licensing at the Tel Aviv municipality, doesn't see the problem. Meshi is the man whose job it is, among other things, to count the tables and chairs installed at businesses in Tel Aviv and Jaffa. "In all the years we've been allotting places outside, we've received hardly any complaints about tables and chairs taking up the sidewalk," he says. "On the contrary, people are pleased with it: The city is livelier, it's nicer to walk around in the evening, there's no fear. These are the reactions that we get."

According to Meshi, a city bylaw concerning the maintenance of order and cleanliness entitles the municipality to allow dining establishments to place tables and chairs as needed outside their internal space, in return for a fee, and on two conditions. The first is that the area not take up more than half of the sidewalk, and the second is that a walking path at least two meters wide is left for pedestrians.

When business owners don't meet these conditions, citizens are entitled to file a complaint with the municipality. But Tel Aviv residents have apparently come to accept the inconvenience; Meshi says that no more than 10 complaints a year are received about disproportionate use of the sidewalk.

David Cohen, director of business licensing in the Haifa municipality, explains that businesses in that city are also permitted to spread onto the sidewalk, but that the regulations there are a bit vaguer, stipulating that "it is permissible to place on the sidewalk that which does not hinder the public's passage." In practice, pedestrians are allotted a passageway at least one and a half meters wide. In Jerusalem, the wording of the law also differs, and a municipal spokesman says that a business is permitted to place a maximum of 25 chairs on the adjoining sidewalk.

Surprisingly, the fees that business owners must pay for the use of this public space are not high. In all the big cities, they amount to approximately NIS 200 per table and NIS 50 per chair per year. Sometimes, the cities look for interim solutions to ease the crowding: The Jerusalem municipality prepared a detailed computer presentation showing various ways of arranging tables to maintain order and restrict business owners. In Tel Aviv, they're taking a different approach. On Ibn Gvirol Street, which in recent years has become crammed with restaurants, the city is widening the sidewalks (and the streets) at the expense of traffic islands. It's a clever solution, but one that can only be implemented here since something else can be narrowed to make way for the broadened sidewalks. But this is not the case in most places.

One could view the permission given to private businesses to use the public sidewalk as an infringement of basic citizens' rights. But city residents appear to understand that there are two sides to the story. If all tables had to be inside the business, they'd have to wait in line for hours just to eat a sandwich at Aroma or to have a cup of coffee at Lehem Erez. So if that's how it is, maybe it's better to leave the baby carriage at home and try to navigate the crowded sidewalks with the kid in a baby carrier.