Taking Israel's cyclists for a ride

Tel Aviv bike path photo: Meirav Modan

Local authorities in Israel constantly proclaim grandiose plans for bicycle paths, and then fail to carry them out.

The bicycle paths trend has made its way into urban planning. Outline plans seeking to shape the way cities will look over the next 30 years show expressions of an ideal vision of "green networks" that include comprehensive arrays of bicycle paths.

The Ra'anana outline plan, for example, approved in 2014, proposes bicycle paths along the mainly streets (Ahuza, Weizmann, Kazan, Keren Hayesod-Ben Gurion, Hanesi'im, etc.). The outline plan for Ramat Hasharon, whose preparations have been completed but which was blocked by the City Council, uses the same method, portraying a network of bicycle paths on the main streets, so that in principle, a bicycle rider can go from one end of the city to the other and continue to the neighboring cities. The Kiryat Bialik-Kiryat Motzkin outline plan is less pretentious: it shows a bicycle path only along a few main arteries (HaAmakim, Histadrut Boulevard, Ben Gurion Boulevard, Hahashmonaim Boulevard, Tzahal, and Chen Boulevard).

For cities, bicycle paths are regarded at indicators of their environmental correctness. In a July 2017 post on the Kfar Saba municipality website, the municipality boasts that it has 15.5 kilometers of existing bicycle paths plus a master plan with 17 kilometers more along the city's main streets in its first stage.

Tel Aviv, which wants to be a world city and is regarded as a model for Israel, offers over 130 kilometers of bicycle paths. Nearby bicycle paths can be located on the municipal website by typing in an address, and a GIS map displaying the existing bicycle paths is provided.

In theory, everything is fantastic, but the actual situation is not. Israel Bicycle Association director Yotam Avizohar says, "Outline plans may offer bicycle paths networks, but actual progress is slow. Most local authorities have fewer than 10 bicycle paths and the ones that already exist do not form a network on which a person can ride safely."

Activists on behalf of bicycle paths in various cities also paint a gloomy picture. Omri Safran, a resident of Kfar Saba who works in high tech, says, "Many years ago, the municipality issued a masterplan for bicycle paths. They're very proud of it and they talk about it before elections. In practice, however, they pave paths at a rate of maybe one kilometer every five years. They move ahead in the matter before elections. The paths are very fragmented and aren't really effective. The municipality failed to pave paths in the relevant places, which are Weizmann Street, the town center, and the area where schools are on Ben Yehuda Street. When they built the environmentally friendly neighborhood, they built bicycle paths, but they are cut off from the city center."

Bar Shai, who works in high tech and is a member of the transportation committee in Holon, complains, "There are bicycle paths in the city, but most of them aren't good. They were planned a long time ago, so they're close to the building entrances, not to the road, which generates surprises during a ride. A lot of the paths are in parks for leisure. An important path was recently opened connecting Holon Junction with Kugel Square. This path connects Holon with southern Tel Aviv. It has made life safe for people working in Tel Aviv. Even in Holon, they're slowly realizing that this is needed."

Dror Reshef, a high-tech employee living in Givatayim, says, "Nothing has happened n Givatayim and Ramat Gan, despite all the pronouncements by the two mayors. They paved maybe 100 meters of paths on Tuval Street near the Ramat Gan Diamond Exchange. In Givatayim, they're planning this year to pave a bicycle path in the Borochov neighborhood, and that's all - one path in the entire city. The potential is being wasted. This is a very crowded city; people travel in the morning at a speed of 11 kilometers per hour. There should be no problem in reducing traffic, as they do in the Netherlands and New York."

Ariel Margalit, a Ra'anana resident who owns a medical equipment import company, says, "The outline plan is nice, but in practice, the paths in Ra'anana are pretty miserable. There are paths in the new neighborhoods, but in the city itself, there's total neglect. There is a short and uncomfortable riding path on Ahuza Street and another on Ben Gurion Street, but a lot more has to be paved to make the situation reasonable. They should have connected the city center with the industrial zone and completed paths to Herzliya - that's not unachievable. All of the candidates for mayor are making promises and nothing is kept."

Omri Shefer, who is studying transportation engineering at Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, says, "In Haifa, they're building bicycle paths at the rate of 100 meters a year, if you want the numbers, just so that they can say that they're doing something. The mayor used to be very opposed to bicycles in any form. He must have had some childhood trauma, or maybe he thinks that Haifa is unsuitable for bicycles. He slowly changed his attitude, and now he's building bicycle paths for leisure, not transportation, and at a very slow pace. A masterplan for bicycle paths was issued in 2008, of which maybe 1% has been carried out. A masterplan for bicycle paths was published again this year, and I assume that it's connected to the elections. 10 years have passed with nothing happening. They simply recycled the plan."

Asaf Cohen, a sales manager in a high-tech company, lives in Tel Aviv. He returned to the city after a nine-year stay in London. "In the years that I lived in London, it evolved from a place in which few people rode bicycles to a situation in which bicycles were a real alternative to a car. When I got to Tel Aviv, I discovered a place where there were far more bicycles, but where it's much more difficult and dangerous."

Cohen cites the redesign of Arlosorov Street in Tel Aviv as an example of a procedure that included participation by the public and at the end of which bicycles were consigned to the bottom of the pyramid. "There are three traffic lanes on Arlosorov Street in each direction and a sidewalk that's not very wide. If they want to create a situation in which a bicycle rider really regards a bicycle as a means of getting from central Tel Aviv to the train station, they have to take one lane on each side. They're not willing to do that. The pedestrians are paying the price. The municipality is creating constant friction between bicycle riders and pedestrians

"The real conflict isn't between the bicycle riders and the people living on the street or the pedestrians. The conflict is between the municipality's desire to create the image of an environmentally conscious and innovative city and lack of willingness to pay the price resulting from this choice."

"Globes": Maybe it is time to give up the idea of bicycle paths and to start riding on the road.

Avizohar: "The law requires the rider to ride on the road when there is no bicycle path, but drivers see us only when we're smeared over their windshield. They don't regard us as a legitimate vehicle. The level of awareness of the riders and drivers has to be raised. They also have to identify the small quiet streets and put signs on them. At the cost of a bucket of paint and a brush, you can categorize dozens of streets and hundreds of kilometers of safe streets."

"No boundaries between cities"

Another problem with bicycle paths is the absence of connectivity between cities. Tel Aviv Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi, who holds the City Council transportation portfolio and also bears the title of "metropolitan traffic forum chairperson," is well aware of the problems involved in riding bicycles, but she is optimistic. "As a metropolitan forum, we brought up the problem so that Tel-O-Fun hire bikes would also start operating cities like Ramat Gan and Givatayim, in the clear understanding that there are no real boundaries between the cities."

Then there may be Tel-O-Fun in Ramat Gan, but there are no bicycle paths.

Lehavi: In the framework of the Ofnidan project by the Ministry of Transport and Ayalon Highways Company, 150 kilometers of interurban bicycle lanes connecting cities in the greater Tel Aviv metropolitan region will be paved at a cost of NIS 500 million. Most of these lanes are in the planning stage and construction will begin next year.

"This is a process of putting a new user on the road. When you come to an existing street and try to put in a bicycle path, it's always at someone's expense. It's hard for residents, who complain about bicycle riders taking away their parking spaces. When you look at the system of balances, the needs of the residents living in the area have to be taken into account."

But the main problem is that there is no connectivity between the paths. You don't seem to have solved this.

"We're constantly proposing solutions to the Ministry of Transport, but they don't approve them. There are no instructions for connecting bicycle paths to intersections. The Ministry of Transport has a team headed by traffic planning department senior manager Irit Sperber. They aren't making the guidelines for me. I get only negative answers.

"They let me operate only on the sidewalk. I suspect that they are evading responsibility, because they aren't responsible for accidents on the sidewalk; the municipality is. Solutions involving the roads are being blocked."

Responding to Lehavi's accusation, a Ministry of Transport source said, "This is completely untrue - look at the Ofnidan project which provides optimal solutions and even priority in lanes for bicycles. In places where there are obstacles, we simply build overpasses or bridges."

"Israel is investing very little in promoting bicycles"

A check by the Public Knowledge Workshop of budgeting for bicycle paths by the Ministry of Transport is excellent evidence of the low priority of the matter on the Ministry of Transport's agenda. Avizohar says, "You can see that Israel is investing very little in promoting bicycles. It should be made clear that most municipalities have no special budget for development of bicycle paths. In other words, if the Ministry of Transport gives a given municipality NIS 300,000 a year for bicycle paths, it means that this is what will be invested that year. Assuming that support comes only from the Ministry of Transport and that building one kilometer of bicycle paths costs NIS 5 million, it means that nothing is being done."

A Ministry of Transport source emphasized the great importance that the Ministry of Transport assigns to encouraging bicycle riding. "We support, encourage, and budget bicycle paths, both on city roads and on interurban roads. We believe in paths not only in large cities, but everywhere in Israel. A few years ago, we asked cities to submit plans defining the bicycle paths in their jurisdiction and we budget 70-100% according to the financial capability of that city. No local authority submitted a request and was rejected. We're the ones that are pushing them. It's true that some cities are more diligent than others."

The source adds that some of those cities are clearly not promoting bicycle paths; these are also the ones that did not want public transportation lanes. "We are in a pre-election year. Professional considerations aren't always what motivate mayors. In the end, bicycle paths come at the expense of something else, which makes things difficult for private transportation and creates traffic jams - and that's less comfortable at election time."

But it is clear that a few of the local authorities have refrained throughout their term from building bicycle paths. How do you explain that?

"Building bicycle paths is above all the responsibility of the local authorities. They are the ones who have to submit the plans to the Ministry of Transport. If they don't file anything, there will be no bicycle paths in their jurisdiction."

Who is responsible for the lack of connectivity of bicycle paths within a city?

"When a municipality submits real and feasible solutions, the Ministry of Transport helps the municipality. This is our policy. It's in our interest; we'll do anything to help the municipalities."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 7, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Tel Aviv bike path photo: Meirav Modan
Tel Aviv bike path photo: Meirav Modan
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