Two Years On, Tel-O-Fun Bike Renters Still Facing Bumps

The much-touted 'green bikes' that are now ubiquitous in Tel Aviv have been incredibly popular, but glitches with the rental system and technical issues with the bikes continue to confound tourists and locals alike.

Two years after the Tel Aviv municipality introduced its Tel-O-Fun bicycle rental service, several glitches that agitated early adopters have yet to be fixed.

The lingering problems, some of which primarily affect tourists and were documented by Haaretz last May, include confusing instructions on the computer screens at the rental terminals, the rejecting of international credit cards and the inability of those without local cell phones to contact a special Tel-O-Fun hotline when prompted on the screen to do so.

“The bike rental process is really frustrating,” said Lynn Kahn, who tried to rent the ubiquitous green bikes while visiting last week from New York. All three of the American credit cards she tried were declined, so Kahn and her family rented bikes from a shop on Ben Yehuda Street and arranged to store them in their hotel overnight.

“I don’t want to be walking into the lobby of the hotel with the bike,” Kahn said during a break from an afternoon ride along the Tayelet. “It would be so much better if we could rent those green bikes, park them at night and rent another one the next day.”

Another tourist who was visiting from Canada said that she, too, would have preferred to rent a Tel-O-Fun bike because it can be cheaper than renting from a private company. But her credit card was declined.

“I ended going to a place on Ben Yehuda and paying 63 shekels for one day, which seems very high,” she said. By comparison, a daily Tel-O-Fun subscription costs NIS 17 during the week and NIS 23 on Saturdays, plus extra fees that accrue after the first 30 minutes of the rental. (For example, a 2.5 hour ride costs NIS 47 on weekdays and NIS 53 on Saturdays.)

The municipality said in a statement that the rental system is designed to accept all major international credit cards, unless they are maxed out or restricted. In a subsequent phone call, a spokesperson told Haaretz that the city would have to investigate the matter further.

The concierge at Herod’s Hotel suggested that tourists were probably just confused by the on-screen instructions, which prompt them to enter an Israeli ID and telephone number after swiping their cards. “It’s not so clear that they can skip these screens,” the woman said, adding that she recommends the service to hotel guests but coaches them in advance on how to use it. (The instructions can be viewed in Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and Russian.)

Since introducing Tel-O-Fun in 2011 as part of a plan to decrease the number of private cars in Tel Aviv, the city has taken several steps to improve the service, the spokesperson said.

Twenty new stations were added in the past year, for a total of 165 across the city, and 20 existing stations in high-traffic areas were enlarged. The map of nearby stations, initially available only in Hebrew, was translated into English. And, in response to complaints, the city directed FSM Ground Services Ltd., the company that operates and maintains Tel-O-Fun, to change the unlocking mechanism so that customers no longer have to enter a personal code to release the bike from its docking pole – a step that baffled tourists and native-born Israelis alike. Now, the customer can unlock a bike by selecting its number on the screen.

Ori Abramson, a resident of Tel Aviv with an annual Tel-O-Fun subscription, said he called the city to suggest other ways to make the service more user-friendly, such as allowing customers to manually reset the computer system when they encounter a problem rather than having to call the hotline and have a representative do it for them.

“There are very simple steps they can take to make it better, but they’re not listening,” Abrahamson said before riding off with his surfboard under one arm.

On a recent afternoon at a station on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, tourists – who accounted for over 30,000 rentals last year, according to the city – consistently failed to successfully rent bikes on their own.

In one instance, a couple from the country of Georgia rented two bikes only to discover after riding off that one of them had a flat tire. When the man, Vakhtang Butskhrikidge, returned to the station and tried to take a different bike, the system prevented him from doing so, indicating that he already had an active rental.

“In other countries, we tried renting bikes and it was much easier,” Butskhrikidge said. “This is a very bad service.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part, tourists said, is that they cannot call the 24-hour Tel-O-Fun hotline from the rental stations because they do not have local cell phones. Some who encountered problems last week were observed either asking bystanders to borrow their phones or simply giving up.
 

Tomer Appelbaum
Alon Ron