Walking in Tel Aviv can sometimes feel like playing an elaborate game of chicken. You spend more time dodging the whizzing, zig-zagging vehicles on the sidewalk than you do moving toward your destination. In these instances, it’s hard to look at bicyclists as anything but a nuisance – much less a social solution. Yet bicycles are a powerful solution to a host of social issues.
In Portland, Oregon, for example, which has the highest rate of bicycle commuters in the United States, healthcare savings by the year 2040 are projected at anywhere between $388 million to $594m.
Biking is a direct boon for economies. The London School of Economics recently reported that cycling contributes the equivalent of over NIS 17 billion to the UK economy. Specific to Tel Aviv, a new study by the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the city has the potential to create over 300 extra jobs by increasing their model share of cycling.
Israel is stuck, however, in a car-first mentality. In 1990, there were roughly 1 million vehicles in Israel. By 2009, that number doubled.
By 2020, it’s expected to double again. On the Transportation Ministry’s website covering land transport, bicycling is not mentioned once. When Jerusalem unveiled its new transport plan in 2010, nothing was said about cycling. When Israel created its National Plan for Transportation, the Israel Biking Association (IBA) had to campaign to include bike lanes.
The IBA has been behind almost every major Israeli development in bicycling infrastructure in the past two decades. I recently talked to Yotam Avizhoar, the IBA’s director, who told me the biggest challenge is not to change the rules, or paint new lanes, but to break the “car-ownership mentality.”
The perception still exists that a bike is a just plaything, useful for no more than a whimsical weekend ride. That view has been prevalent from the very first attempts to build a bicycling infrastructure.
When the IBA’s founders first shared their vision with the Tel Aviv municipality, their contact reportedly laughed them out of his office. He told them about the plans for underground transportation and the need for “real” transportation solutions.
That was in 1995. Everyone now knows the folly of those words. At the persistent encouragement of the IBA, the city began to draw bike lanes on the sidewalks with chalk. What the city has seen since these first slapdash lanes is nothing short of a bicycling explosion.
“The bike lanes created the bicyclists,” Avizohar told me.
By 2009, 100 km of bike lanes had been paved in Tel Aviv. Then in 2011, the city enacted a plan introduced by the IBA two years earlier: Tel-O-Fun bike sharing. Since launching there have been over five million bike rentals, with 20,000 yearly subscribers and a 54 percent overall increase bike usage.
In the battle for people’s minds, it will help to paint a clear picture. When cities change the streets – as the Tel Aviv example shows – people don’t have to re-imagine for themselves what the street is for. Yet cities aren’t usually in the business of changing their roads willy nilly without public support. The IBA had to build a critical mass – organizing massive bike rides through Tel Aviv – before they saw any response from the city. It goes both ways, but it starts with the citizens, and their desires.
Israel is growing. It is now one of the most densely populated countries in the Western world, with an alarming rate of population increase. People are needy, and problems will arise – as they already have – in areas such as healthcare, jobs and transportation.
If Israelis want real solutions, but refuse to look beyond their cars, then really, they are living in a fantasy world.