Tel Aviv will soon join the list of cities that offer bicycle rentals at a nominal cost. Municipal officials believe that the new system, modeled after similar programs in Paris and other European capitals, will be ready to roll in 2008.
The program is expected to contribute to reducing traffic congestion and air pollution, which is responsible for the deaths of some 1,100 persons annually in the Dan region. However, the city is worried that the new law requiring cyclists to wear helmets will hamper the project's success.
The details of how the rental system will operate have yet to be finalized, but it will be run under concession by a private enterprise. The tender for the project, which is currently being drafted and is due to be published in the coming weeks, will include a municipal subsidy in the form of the allocation of advertising space.
The plan calls for the establishment of 25 bicycle rental stations. Riders will be able to pick up a bicycle at one station and drop it off at another near their destination. Dr. Moshe Tiomkin, head of the municipality's Transport & Parking Authority, told Haaretz on Sunday that the project will start with 2,500 bicycles and expand as its popularity grows. The stations will be built in central locations such as theaters, hospitals and train stations.
Tiomkin said that the rental cost will be minimal, perhaps only a few shekels. Customers will be charged after each use, probably via a credit card account that they will open with the operating company, in order to prevent bicycle theft.
Yotam Avizohar, director of the Israel Bicycle Association, welcomed the initiative, but expressed doubts about the adequacy of the city's bicycle paths, which currently total 74 kilometers in length. "They are still insufficient," he said, "especially in the southern and eastern parts of the city, even though there are many cyclists there."
Avizohar also maintained that the municipality is promoting contradictory policies. "If the city wants to promote bicycle traffic and walking, it cannot continue to build huge parking lots, roads and more lanes for cars," he said.
In addition, sources at city hall said that the mandatory helmet law recently passed by the Knesset dealt a "serious blow" to the project and will hinder its success. According to Tiomkin, residents will be reluctant to rent a helmet previously worn by dozens of others. The law, which was passed over the objections of public transportation advocacy groups, will go into effect at the end of the month. It requires all cyclists to wear a helmet or face a fine.
A similar bicycle rental program was launched in Paris this year. Yair Engel, founder and director of Kayama - the Center for Sustainable Design in Israel, said that in the first month of the Paris project's operation, tens of thousands of commuters rented bicycles, and the city plans to have up to 20,000 bicycles and 1,500 stations by year's end. Engel and Dr. Roni Lev, a lecturer in biotechnology and sustainable design, have studied similar bicycle rental programs in Lyon, Oslo, Copenhagen, Vienna, Berlin and Helsinki as well. A bicycle rental program is also being considered for London.
But Engel maintains that Tel Aviv's plan calls for too many bicycles at too few stations. The largest distance between stations in Paris is 300 meters.
"People are not interested in going to get a bicycle," Engel explained. "They want the bicycle beside them. If there are too few stations, the main target market - short-distance users - will not be interested."