People of the bike?

'In Jerusalem' explores the growing phenomenon of e-biking in the capital.

Bikes in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Bikes in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Scholars differ on who is credited with first articulating the observation that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.
Leading candidates for the honor include Archimedes, Pythagoras and Euclid.
A much more difficult – and for many of us, more pressing – question is: What is the most efficient way to travel the distance between two points in Jerusalem? Jerusalem offers people on the go a variety of ways to get to a destination: private car, bus, light rail, taxi and, increasingly, electric bikes. It is estimated that some 200,000 e-bikes have been purchased in Israel in the past few years, and they are becoming ubiquitous in the capital.
You see them nearly everywhere, but should you consider buying one? What is driving the e-bike craze? In Jerusalem asked some key questions to local e-bike shop owners and enthusiasts and summarized their answers.

What is an e-bike?
An e-bike is a bicycle with a motor in the rear hub that helps propel the rider. E-bikes are more similar to bicycles than they are to motorcycles. You have to pedal them, but the motor assists you, making your pedaling easier.
The motor is powered by a removable battery that you recharge by plugging it into a wall socket. You can adjust how much assistance you want from the motor – most e-bike models offer five levels of power, ranging from 10% to 90%. You can also ride the e-bike like a bicycle, solely on pedal power, without any assistance from the motor. This extends battery life and range by taking advantage of downhills and flat areas when pedal power alone is sufficient, and the extra exertion by the rider increases the fitness benefit.
There is a misconception that pedaling or regenerative braking can recharge the e-bike battery. However, this is not the case.

Why are so many Jerusalemites buying e-bikes?
For many people, e-bikes serve as a sort of poor man’s motor vehicle. Car and motorcycle ownership can be a significant drain on one’s time and resources. Purchasing them, servicing them, paying for driving lessons and a test to get a license, insuring them, filling and refilling the gas tank – these things require a significant time and financial commitment that some people are unwilling or unable to make.
Unlike motor vehicles, e-bikes have no license requirement, no registration, no inspection, no insurance, do not use gasoline, yet they offer a significant degree of freedom and mobility. It is not surprising that so many people are acquiring them as a primary or secondary vehicle.
Here’s how e-bikes fare when compared with cars and ordinary bicycles:

• E-bikes vs cars:

Obviously, one would prefer using a car to travel long distances or to travel in inclement weather, but for a short trip on a nice day in the center of the city, e-bikes, liberating you from traffic jams, can be more fun and even quicker than driving. E-bikes cost much less to own and operate than cars and can go places that cars can’t. The exercise one gets from riding e-bikes makes them healthier to use; and the fact that they are “green” with a relatively light carbon footprint makes them better for the environment. E-bike use improves inner- city air quality, reduces traffic congestion and reduces noise pollution.
Additionally, when you reach your destination, you can hop off your e-bike and park it virtually anywhere at no cost and without hassle, and then take perverse pleasure in watching frustrated drivers circle the block in search of a parking space on the street or in pricey pay-by-the-hour parking lots.

• E-bikes vs bicycles:

Jerusalem is a city with many hills; because e-bikes enable you to go uphill much more easily than you would on an ordinary bicycle, you can arrive at your destination without even breaking into a sweat. The average person can go farther and faster with assistance from a motor than without such aid.
On the other hand, regular bicycles provide a greater health benefit, are usually more maneuverable (for example, they have a smaller turning radius), tend to be more comfortable and ergonomically correct and are much lighter – about half the weight of their e-bike counterparts – so it is easier to carry them when necessary, such as up and down stairs.
Electric bikes may be a bit more dangerous to ride than bicycles because they go somewhat faster, and the motor can sometimes cause the rider to accelerate inadvertently on a crowded street.
One additional caveat for e-bike users: Be prepared to be sneered at by bicycle enthusiasts with rippling leg muscles bulging through their Speedos who just cannot bring themselves to condone the use of motor-assisted bicycles. Plot and wait patiently for your revenge: Smile and wave pleasantly to your sweaty muscle-bound tormentors as you glide past them up a steep incline.
People sit on a bench in a Jerusalem while next to them a bicycle is latched onto a tree (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)People sit on a bench in a Jerusalem while next to them a bicycle is latched onto a tree (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
How fast do e-bikes go? How many hours can you ride them, and how far can they go on a charge?
In accordance with the law, e-bikes in Israel are configured with a top motor-assisted speed of about 25 to 30 kph. They can travel at maximum power assist for up to two hours – as far as 50 kilometers on a charge, depending on the model of the bike and manner of usage. It takes about four to six hours to fully recharge a battery.

How much does an e-bike cost? What makes the more expensive ones worth the extra investment?
Prices of new e-bikes range from about NIS 4,000 to NIS 9,000. The more expensive the model, the better the quality of the parts and performance. All customers are invited to test-ride different models in the area near the store before purchasing.
Additionally, there are almost always used e-bikes offered for sale at bargain prices at Internet sites such as Yad 2.
Some of the extra options worth considering are a child’s seat; a bell for warning pedestrians and other bike riders of your approach (e-bikes are so quiet that they can take people by surprise); and a basket for carrying groceries and other items.

Can you take an e-bike on the light rail, bus or train?
Passengers are not allowed to take e-bikes on the light rail or on inner city (local) buses, but they can stow their bikes and e-bikes in the baggage compartment of intercity buses, which makes commuting to work (or for pleasure) very feasible.
Israel Railways prohibits passengers from taking bicycles and e-bikes on trains on all routes during the times when most people travel – i.e., Sundays through Thursdays from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. However, if the bike or e-bike can be folded, one is permitted to take it on the train at any hour. Conveniently, most models of e-bikes have hinges that enable the bike to be folded and carried easily.

Are there any laws that apply to use of e-bikes?
The minimum age for riding an e-bike is 14. From 14 to 16 years of age, e-bike riders can ride only in bicycle lanes – not on streets or sidewalks. From 16 and up, riders can ride in bicycle lanes and on streets if there is no bike lane (but not on the sidewalk).
Reflectors and headlights are required, and the use of cellphones while riding is prohibited.
Regulations first enacted by the Transportation Ministry in December 2009, which have been amended only slightly since then, stipulate that the maximum power of the electric engine should not exceed 250W; that the electric motor should be activated by the rider’s pedaling action; and that the motor should cut out completely when the rider stops pedaling and/or whenever the speed of the vehicle exceeds 25 kph.
Fines can be given to e-bike riders who go through red lights or who fail to use bicycle lanes when they are available.
It is recommended to wear a helmet and to drive in a careful and considerate manner whenever there are pedestrians or other vehicles in the vicinity.

E-bike riders are often spotted zooming down Jaffa Road along the light rail tracks. Is this legal?
No, it is not legal to cycle on the light rail tracks along most sections of Jaffa Road. Such riders can be fined. However, enforcement is virtually unheard of in this – as in other matters, such as smoking on the light rail platforms.
However, the issue of lax law enforcement is another topic entirely.

One sometimes sees e-bikes going unusually fast without riders needing to pedal. Are people making illegal modifications to their e-bikes?
There are unscrupulous service people who, for a fee, modify e-bikes to enable them to operate without ever requiring the rider to pedal, and at velocities that significantly exceed the speed limits permitted for e-bikes.
These repair people, when asked, will also install more powerful motors than permitted by law, as well as throttles that allow the rider to control speed – motorcycle style. This is illegal and dangerous. It occurs more frequently than one would hope, and such modifications have contributed to injuries and even deaths in Israel and around the world.

Is safety an issue?
Very much so. All too often, teenagers with little or no experience riding on roads are involved in accidents. Riders with headphones get distracted by their use of cellphones and other electronic devices to the point that they do not pay sufficient attention to the road.
This dangerous and irresponsible behavior often has painful consequences.
In one of the more infamous incidents, The Jerusalem Post reported last year that an 85-year-old resident of Givatayim was struck and killed by a cyclist in Tel Aviv, who fled the scene and has not been caught. The article added that Cmdr. Sarit Philipson of the Traffic Police said that some 150 people were injured in accidents involving electric bikes and stand-up scooters in 2014.
Maya Siman-Tov of the Gertner Institute for Epidemiology and Health Policy Research reported that in the first half of last year, more than 10 people a month were hospitalized from such accidents, including 10% who were seriously or critically injured, and that 8% were hospitalized for a week or more. Of those injured, 14% were pedestrians; the remainder were the e-bike riders themselves. She added that the figure represents a 237% increase over the same period the previous year.
An additional e-bike safety issue is that there have been cases of fires and injuries when the powerful batteries were overcharged or got punctured, but this is rare, and generally occurs only with the most inexpensive e-bike models.

Is theft an issue?
Yes, it is. E-bikes and e-bike parts – particularly the batteries – have a high resale value and thus are an attractive and lucrative target for thieves. There has been much reported theft in our major cities. E-bike owners are advised to remove the battery when the bike is parked in a public and unprotected place.

Do e-bikes require frequent repair?
No. E-bikes are comprised mainly of traditional bicycle parts, and the electric components, well protected from rain, have few moving parts that can wear out and generally require no special maintenance. High-quality batteries can be recharged frequently and serve for years before they need replacing.

Nothing related to technology remains static. What’s new and on the horizon in the e-bike field?
E-bikes have improved dramatically since they first appeared on the local market a few years ago, and they continue to develop.
For example, the frames are getting stronger but lighter; the suspension is being improved for a smoother ride; the new batteries are engineered to last longer; and the styles are more attractive and varied. There are also innovative applications that tie into cellphones to provide a range of geeky data and capabilities.

E-biking in Jerusalem: Are we the people of the bike?
Many people in Jerusalem are voting with their feet – and wheels – by adding e-bikes to their mode of transportation.
While some people who purchase e-bikes find them almost indispensable, it should be noted that others quickly find themselves wondering what they were thinking and end up rarely using them.
An ideal scenario is to have a complete portfolio of options to choose from – a car, a bicycle and an e-bike, as well as a monthly Rav-Kav pass for buses and the light rail – and use each as the situation or mood calls for.
We are far from being the people of the bike, and Jerusalem is very low on the list of the most bike-friendly cities on the planet. Jerusalemites who visit European cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam express amazement at the prevalence of cycling there. In Amsterdam, for example, bikes are reported to outnumber cars by a more than 3:1 ratio (800,000 bikes to 260,000 cars); and in the downtown area, it is estimated that 48% of traffic movement is by bike.
Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry reports that air quality monitoring stations show a major decrease in air pollution on Yom Kippur, the holiday of bikes. In their words, the drop “shows the impact of vehicles on pollution in big cities, since most Israelis do not drive on the holiday.”
One doesn’t need to be an Archimedes, Pythagoras or Euclid to conclude that bikes and e-bikes are beneficial to one’s fitness, to the environment and to urban mobility and quality of life. To improve the cycling infrastructure in the city, the Jerusalem Municipality should take measures that have proved effective in other cities worldwide, such as creating a network of protected bike lanes.
This would encourage cycling and make it easier and safer to pedal from point A to point B so that we can all travel – and breathe – easier.