Even before the country was shocked by the death of cyclist Shneur Cheshin two weeks ago, cyclists long bemoaned the fact that intercity paths are almost nonexistent and riding in the cities means praying for a miracle while narrowly avoiding swerving Egged buses. As a bike commuter and avid rider in Jerusalem, I could palpably feel the difference on the roads after Cheshin’s death – drivers were honking (a little) less, giving me (a little) more room, and I even got a couple of inspirational fist pumps from taxi drivers who two weeks ago would have been breathing down my rear wheel. But it shouldn’t take a death to make cities more bike friendly.
As an environmental columnist, I’ll be reporting on environmental issues and hopeful solutions, hence the name “Unpaved Paradise,” a play on the Joni Mitchell song.
A new NIS 164 million initiative led by the Tourism Ministry to add paths and improve services for cyclists could lead to some hope on the horizon for the country’s bikers. The five-year plan, approved by the government in early June, is an attempt to attract international cycling tourists and encourage Israelis to get into the saddle.
The project manager for the Tourism Ministry’s biking initiative, Cami Zrihen-Heller, is not just a paper pusher, but an enthusiastic cycler herself, clocking 40 km. off-road twice a week on her trusty mountain bike. “I’m one of the people who’s scared to ride on the roads because the drivers are not considerate to riders,” she says. “I love mountain bike riding; I ride for fun, and also competitively.”
Regardless of the success of the plan, at least bikers can appreciate that Zrihen-Heller knows her stuff: For her, the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem path isn’t just some line that looks good on a map, it was a muscle-wrenching 75 km. with fantastic views and a wicked climb through Nahal Sorek that she finished a few weeks ago. I caught up with her to talk about what the government’s approval of the plan means for cyclists around the country and around the world.
“Our goal is to get the public, of all ages, into biking activities,” she says. “When bicycles start becoming a vehicle for daily transportation, this helps the Transportation Ministry’s initiatives encouraging the use of bicycles and alternative forms of transportation, which reduces the problem of traffic in crowded urban areas. The five-year program brings together a lot of ministries and organizations because everything fits into each other. It’s very far-reaching; it’s not something that we can do today or tomorrow, but we need to start it.”
The initiative brings together an impressive array of nongovernmental and governmental organizations in one of the largest biking efforts the country has seen. The Environmental Protection Ministry, Interior Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office, Agriculture Ministry and nongovernmental organizations like Israel Bike Trail and the Israel Cycling Federation are working together to increase bike paths from 600 km. to nearly 7,000 km. over the next five years.
“It's not the Tourism Ministry’s job to figure out where the bike paths should be; there’s a committee within the Transportation Ministry that’s researching where to put the intercity bike paths, which will publish its report in 2011,” Zrihen-Heller explains. “But it’s in our interest to have good intercity bike paths so that tourists will come here to bike.”
Getting tourists to believe that Israel can be a premier biking destination is one of the main motives for this initiative. The Tourism Ministry believes that with some additional amenities, like more intercity paths that include historical sites, bike parks full of single-track routes and hotels that cater to bikers with storage space and massage services, this will become the winter playground for affluent cyclists.
“The bike park in the Negev will attract tourists who come here just for the biking, similar to ski tourists who travel to specific mountains,” says Zrihen-Heller. “This type of tourist usually spends much more than a normal tourist, and they need all sorts of additional services.
“OK, so we can’t compete with summer biking in Europe. But Israel is very suitable for winter tourism, when bike tourists in Europe can’t ride. In the Negev area, you have a combination of weather that is wonderful for bike riding, as well as gorgeous paths. Israel can be a great training place during the winter for competitive athletes. Already, people from all sorts of riding clubs have come here to train.”
Bike tourism will also bring positive economic benefits to the
peripheral areas, which offer some of the country’s most scenic biking.
Bike touring for Christian pilgrims, already a popular pastime in
Spain, could really take off here, the Tourism Ministry believes.
Creating biking infrastructure for tourists is great – as a
long-distance bike tourer myself, I appreciate the need for amenities
and infrastructure that supports and welcomes cyclists. And the 6,500
km. of new trails, illustrated by the initiative’s trail map, makes my
wheels spin with ideas for future bike tours.
But those new trails are years in the future, and I want to know about
what’s happening for bikers right now with our biggest concern: safety.
According to the Israel Cycling Federation, an average of 14 cyclists
die on the roads every year. Most do not garner the same amount of
media attention as Shneur Cheshin, son of former Supreme Court justice
Mishael Cheshin, a father of three who was training for an Ironman
Triathlon near Rosh Ha’ayin when he was struck by a drunk driver.
“I agree with you that in Israel drivers aren’t concerned, they have no
patience for bikers,” says Zrihen-Heller, who doesn’t ride on streets
herself because of safety concerns. “It’s true both inside the cities
and on roads between the cities. It’s going to take education,
collaboration and, of course, a lot of time.”
She explained that the Education Ministry and the National Road Safety
Authority are partnering to figure out ways to educate the public, both
cyclists about safe riding practices and drivers about sharing the
road. “It’s a long process,” she sighed. About a quarter of the NIS
164m. budget from the new initiative is dedicated to community events
and education. That money will also go to fund 250 new cycling clubs,
which will bring about 8,000 more riders into the sport, the ministry
“Our big goal, our big mission, is about increasing the number of
bikers,” says Zrihen-Heller. “Our feeling is that when you have more
and more people who bike, they also drive cars, and they’ll be more
careful around bikers... When there are more and more bikers of every
age, from teenagers who ride to their classes at the community center
to serious athletes who mountain bike in the wilderness, all of these
people together help biking reach the point where it becomes something
normal and day-to-day. We want people to remember, wait, if I need to
get from point A to point B, and I enjoy biking, I’ll do it by biking
instead of taking a car.”