The Bike Project / Bikes on the Rise but Government Spinning Its Wheels

Yom Kippur has become a day of national biking for many. And during the rest of the year, bike usage is up, too. Now the government needs to shift gears to support it.

For the less religiously observant, Yom Kippur has been, for some time, the “festival of bikes.” On October 14, during the Sukkot holiday, a mass cycling event called Sovev Tel Aviv (Cycling in the City), will attract cyclists from all over the country. As riders of all ages take to the streets on these days, the empty boulevards and inter-urban highways turn into de facto bike paths, something greatly lacking in Israel the rest of the year.

Over the past several years, there has been a significant increase in the number of bikes on Israeli streets, a type of transportation revolution. But this popular awakening has not garnered appropriate support from the state. Despite high public demand and the obvious environmental and economic benefits, the Israeli government is not promoting a national program to improve biking infrastructure. Tel Aviv, with its growing network of bike lanes and the successful Tel-o-Fun  bike rental project, is the exception. But outside Tel Aviv, Israel is lagging behind Europe by a generation when it comes to bikes.

Due to pressure from non-profits, particularly the Israel Bicycle Association, there has been some progress with swaying the government. About two years ago, Maria Cohen-Etgar was appointed to the Transportation Ministry to oversee cycling affairs – the first appointment of its kind and the first time a budget was allocated for biking infrastructure.  

Since January of this year, the Transportation Ministry reports that NIS 24 million has been allocated to local authorities for biking-related projects. Additional projects estimated at NIS 75 million are now being planned as well, though this is a small drop in the budget compared to the billions of shekels in the Transportation Ministry’s annual budget. In comparison, the Tel Aviv municipality alone spends NIS 35 million per year on paving bike paths.

“In the past, planning favored motorized vehicles,” Cohen-Etgar admits. “But over the past several years, we have been moving toward more ‘soft’ modes of transportation, such as walking and biking, under the heading of sustainable transportation.”

But at the federal level, it’s difficult to change planning approaches, says Cohen-Etgar.  She points out that the ministry has published a number of documents to assist local authorities expand their urban planning for pedestrians and cyclists.

Outside the State of Tel Aviv

Yael Abadi, a reporter for Army Radio, checked out the bike-friendliness of ten cities recently. Tel Aviv easily took first place but the other cities had a hard time even coming close. In large cities such as Jerusalem and Haifa and mediums ones like Raanana, Rehovot and Ramat Hasharon, there are few bike paths and cyclists have to ride either on busy roads or crowded sidewalks.

In Jerusalem only 15 kilometers of bike paths have been paved, compared to 100 kilometers in Tel Aviv. Half of those paths are paved in Sacher Park where they serve a recreational purpose rather than a commuting one. Additionally, the city’s new light rail forbids bikes on board. In Petah Tikva, Modiin and Herzliya, the situation is better. But despite bike lanes in newly developed neighborhoods, cyclists can’t easily ride to work.

“Tel Aviv is a city with large budgets and a mayor who has decided to move the subject forward,” says Yotam Avizohar, the chairman of the Israel Bicycle Association about why bike culture seems to thrive only there. Avizohar says mayors in other towns complain that they receive no budget from the Transportation Ministry for biking infrastructure but Ministry officials counter that mayors simply aren’t initiating projects or asking for funds.  

Mayors hesitate to add bike lanes at the expense of pedestrians and cars, says Avizohar. Usually, narrowing a sidewalk to add a lane is the most efficient solution but sometimes, parking spaces must be sacrificed, drawing the ire of residents and creating a headache for city officials. Because Tel Aviv already has wide boulevards and promenades, the first option has been easy to implement.  

“The next bike paths will come at the expense of drivers, and that will kick up dust,” says Avizohar, which is exactly what happened when a second bike path was put on Bloch Street in Tel Aviv, igniting resistance from residents.  Though the residents ultimately lost the struggle, the city may think twice before engaging in such a battle again.

Avizohar still takes the Transportation Ministry to task for not requiring more bike routes or getting involved in municipal city planning.  Cohen-Etgar says the ministry cannot determine city policy.  

“These are clearly local needs and the local authority has to take many things into account,” she says. “Awareness of the matter is increasing, but everything takes time, both planning and implementation.”

A cold shower

Lack of lanes aside, the Israeli climate also poses a sweaty challenge to riding during the hot summer months; the frequency of theft makes bike security an issue as well.   

A bill that sought to solve these problems was proposed by the Israel Bicycle Association in 2008, with the backing of MK Dov Hanin. The bill passed its first reading with a huge majority. Even MK Yisrael Katz, today the transportation minister, voted in favor of it. One of the clauses, getting Israel Railways to allow bikes on trains during non-peak hours, has been put into action without legislation.

 “We fought for that for six years,” says Avizohar. “Everything demands a struggle.”

The war against bicycle theft, too, took important steps forward when police began using decoy bicycles equipped with tracking devices to lead them to cartels of bike traffickers.

Of course, the problem with infrastructure relates to safety as well. Last year, 269 cyclists were injured in accidents, thought this was significantly lower than the 352 average over the past five years.  In 2011, 16 cyclists were killed, most of them on inter-urban highways. Since the beginning of 2012, seven have been killed.

About two weeks ago, Katz approved a program to widen the shoulders of highways and increase enforcement against drivers who endanger cyclists.  New legislation is expected require riders to ride to single file and for groups of ten or more to ride with an accompanying vehicle.

“The state has made a lot of statements, but little has been done,” says Shmuel Aboav, the CEO of the Or Yarok Association for Safer Driving in Israel. “Roads are not being closed on Shabbat, and it’s still very dangerous to ride a bicycle.” He says infrastructure for cycling in Israel is not as good as in other countries and he deplores the repeal of the law requiring cyclists to wear helmets. “You’re hurt in the head first of all. The helmet lessens the chance of injury.”