Tel Aviv may be a safe city, but for years its residents have learned to keep their head on a swivel when they’re walking on city sidewalks, knowing that they can be blind-sided at any moment, perhaps even suffering grave injury.
We’re talking of course about the electric bikes which have become ubiquitous on the sidewalks of Tel Aviv in the past few years, wreaking havoc on pedestrians – especially the elderly and parents with children.
On Monday a new bylaw took effect banning bicycles on sidewalks. Offenders face a NIS 250 fine.
Police are focusing on electric bicycles, which travel at a higher speed than pedal bikes, and are involved in a higher percentage of accidents.
The regulation goes into effect following a campaign over the past few weeks in which the city ran a public relations campaign advertising the changes, including doling out flyers and placing stickers on sidewalks adjoining bike lanes.
The fines follow an uptick in accidents involving pedestrians and bicycles, including several fatal incidents. According to the National Traffic Police, in 2014, 150 people were injured in accidents involving bikes, while in 2015, four people were killed and 483 injured, according to the National Center for Trauma and Emergency Medicine.
The sidewalk on Dizengoff Street looked wider than unusual on Monday morning at 9 a.m., as pedestrians walked at a leisurely pace, seemingly without needing to look over their shoulders.
True, it was just after the morning rush hour, but it appeared that the ban on bicycles on sidewalks was an initial success, as the walkway returned to the walkers.
One young mother stood in the middle of the sidewalk feeding cookies to a baby boy in a stroller, saying “The bikes are very scary. It bothers me very much the way people ride them on the sidewalks.”
Within a few moments, another young mother, Yael, passed by walking a bike with two empty child seats, one on the handlebars for her 2-year-old and the second straddling the back tire for her 5-year-old. She said she wasn’t walking the bike out of fear of a citation; rather, she was trying to concentrate on eating an apple she had cupped in her left hand. Still, as a bike rider and a mother, she had very clear reservations about the new law.
“I think it’s going to do more harm than good. Now we’ll have to ride in the street. With the electric bikes I understand why they banned them. But regular bikes like this, it doesn’t make sense, especially not on streets where there aren’t any bike lanes.”
The shortage of bike lanes is the main reservation about the new law, with opponents saying that they agree that the high number of electric bike riders – especially teenagers riding souped up bikes – pose a menace to pedestrians. Opponents argue that the city and police put the law into effect before building the infrastructure to accommodate it, leaving bike riders to battle in the streets with motorists, who often tend to see bike riders as a nuisance who should be kept far away from their lane.
Streets that have bike lanes – such as Ibn Gvirol – often lack a barrier separating the lane from the rest of the sidewalk. Such bike lanes are used by oblivious or indifferent pedestrians, many with their heads buried in cellphones as cyclists swerve around them. And as anyone can attest who has ridden a bike down streets like Moshe Dayan or Pinkas which have separate bike lanes, those designated bicycle routes are a favorite parking place for scooters, as well as dumpsters and all types of urban obstacles that can make riding in the bike lane a contact sport.
In an opinion piece for Ynet on Sunday, Shmuel Abuav, the head of the NGO Green Light – which advocates for better road safety measures – said “only a combined effort involving improvement of the infrastructure, more information for the public, and enforcement will bring back security for pedestrians on the sidewalks, and prevent the involvement of cyclists in road accidents.”
The lack of bike lanes also puts parents in a bind, especially in suburbs like Ramat Aviv. On any given morning, dozens of junior high and high school age students ride to school at high speed on electric bikes, forming ad hoc sidewalk packs of riders. Besides worrying about younger children getting run over by sidewalk cyclists, parents will now have to consider whether it’s best for their child to risk a NIS 250 fine rather than ride on the street with the cars.
Walking around the city on Monday – and for more than a decade spent as an almost daily bike rider – it’s clear that Israel is a long way from the bicycling culture of places like the Netherlands or China, where cyclists are treated as vehicles just like cars, and where there is an extensive infrastructure of separate lanes to accommodate them.
Israelis largely haven’t adopted the social contract between pedestrians and cyclists, where each side knows where they are allowed, and where and how to avoid one another.
It could be that in a country where people seldom wait for passengers to get off the bus or train before boarding, or where they cut to the front of the line at the bank saying “I am only asking a question,” the learning curve could be long.
According to police figures presented at a meeting of the Knesset Interior and Environment committee in August 2015, between 2013 and 2015, more than 120,000 electric bicycles were imported to Israel.
Their success is largely due to the fact that with or without bike lanes, electric bicycles and standup scooters are a convenient way to travel around central Tel Aviv, where traffic and parking are the bane of motorists.
Now owners of electric bike stores, which have popped up in storefronts across the city in rapid succession, are feeling the affect of the new law. Adam, who has an electric bicycle shop on Ibn Gvirol near the Arlozorov, said he’s seen the impact of the law for weeks already.
“People are already coming in with concerns, saying they aren’t sure if they want to buy a bike anymore because of the new law.”
He said he understands the opposition to the electric bikes, especially the ones – largely driven by teenagers – that have been given souped-up batteries that help them – illegally – reach speeds as high as 45 km per hour.
“There is a problem, and it’s not okay that both cyclists and pedestrians use the same paths,” Adam said, adding, in a commonly heard refrain on Monday “but there just isn’t enough infrastructure to support it yet.”