Jerusalem residents want bicycle lanes on Hebron Road, will they get it?

Hebron Road has become one of the most dangerous roads in the country. Between 2003 and last November, there were over 900 traffic accidents on the road involving casualties.

 BETWEEN 2003 and last November there were over 900 traffic accidents with casualties on Hebron Road. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
BETWEEN 2003 and last November there were over 900 traffic accidents with casualties on Hebron Road.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

To apply a Shakespearean flavor to a definitively 21st-century conundrum – to cycle or not to cycle, that is the ongoing question.

As the number of vehicles on our already crowded urban streets continues to escalate, the population grows and high rises proliferate, getting from A to B safely and efficiently is a dome scratcher for users and planners alike.

The latter, in Jerusalem, are largely tackling that problem by pushing on with expanding the Jerusalem Light Rail catchment area, with work on the new Blue Line already underway at the southern extremity neighborhood of Gilo. The 31-km. route will have 53 stops through to Ramot, crucially traversing the full length of Hebron Road.

If you happened to be traveling or walking along that busy multi-lane thoroughfare a couple of weeks ago, you may have witnessed the latest in the periodic group bike rides arranged, for some years now, by AVI (Bicycles for Jerusalem). The January 7 event, which included some 80 cyclists of all ages and fitness levels, was classified as a protest ride. Fittingly, it started off from Safra Square in central Jerusalem and, like all the monthly group rides, was designed to raise awareness of the plight of urban cyclists in their ongoing battle with motorized vehicles and the need to do something about it, something radical. Hebron Road would not be a bad place to up the cycling ante in these here parts.

As a keen cyclist myself and a former Jerusalemite, I can attest to the abundant benefits of using human-powered means of getting around town, meteorological and topographical conditions notwithstanding. That was particularly clear during the seemingly interminable work on the first light rail route, which took around four times longer than was originally forecasted and, if memory serves, cost three times the originally approved budget. Be that as it may, that is all water and millions of shekels under the bridge now. I recall constant traffic jams in the city center as motorists persisted with their customary inefficient polluting means of transport, while I zipped by merrily on my mechanical two-wheeler.

 CYCLING ACTIVIST Oren Lotan feels there is no time to be lost in getting cycling and walking infrastructures installed on the urban artery. (credit: Courtesy Oren Lotan) CYCLING ACTIVIST Oren Lotan feels there is no time to be lost in getting cycling and walking infrastructures installed on the urban artery. (credit: Courtesy Oren Lotan)

SO, WHAT is the municipality doing to develop cycling infrastructure and to enable the people that pay their wages to enjoy safe and comfortable means of pedaling to school, work, stores or a movie, like the taxpayers receive in London, New York or Paris?

In truth, there have been some advances made over the past decade or so, such as the Hamesila Park bicycle path that starts just outside the former Jerusalem Railway Station and is one of the more successful of municipal investments in that area. However, there is still a long way to go before Jerusalem can compete with, say, Amsterdam or Copenhagen in getting the hands of locals off their climate-warming, gas-guzzling, thoroughfare-jamming steering wheels, and onto health-inducing, ecologically-appropriate-and-efficient bicycle handlebars.

AVI is at the forefront of efforts to drag Mayor Moshe Lion and his City Hall colleagues into a more environmentally-friendly, human-friendly world. It is getting plenty of support from other like-minded organizations such as 15 Minutes, which advances the interests of public transport users to improve public transportation services by lobbying state and local authorities.

Oren Lotan, AVI cofounder and mover-and-shaker on all grassroots cycling matters in the city, feels there is no time to be lost on the Hebron Road front. He says the work on the Blue Line provides a golden opportunity to get some city-dweller-friendly infrastructures in place, both in logistical and financial terms. “We are saying to the municipality that if we don’t make the change now, a permanent change, it will never happen.”

What Lotan and his pals at AVI, the 15 Minutes group, anyone who has ever cycled in the region of Baka, Talpiot, the German Colony, Arnona, East Talpiot and other nearby neighborhoods, people who want to cross Hebron Road safely, and kids on their way to and from school want is the ability to get around without having to deal with an urban road that, over the years, has become more akin to a superhighway.

IN FACT, it has become one of the most dangerous roads in the country. The stretch leading from the area of Abu Tor, south towards Gilo, takes in six to nine lanes of traffic, including two bus lanes in the middle, with safe crossing points few and far between. Between 2003 and last November, there were over 900 traffic accidents on the road involving casualties.

That is not a statistic that should be taken lightly by anyone, especially local parents of young children. In a recent interview with Calcalist, Lion was quoted as saying that he likes the plan submitted by 15 Minutes and supported by AVI, which calls for the middle lanes of the road that are earmarked for the light rail to incorporate walking and cycling routes, as well as plenty of healthy-looking, air-cleansing greenery. However, the mayor is wary of overburdening the public with too steep a learning curve. “I believe in the method whereby you can’t educate the resident by force,” he said, adding: “The aim is to get the vehicles off the roads, but you can’t do that now.”

When I asked the municipality spokesperson for a response to the proposal to include cycling and walking facilities in the light rail construction stage, I received a response that had me reaching for my dictionary. I am completely fluent in Hebrew, but there was something in the wording of the answers that had me totally flummoxed.

“Until the completion of the Blue Line on Hebron Road, there will be no change in the traffic route, with a view to allowing the city’s residents the appropriate mobility possibility.” The latter part of that sentence should really feature in some university linguistics course. I read on: “In any case, a cycle path will be constructed alongside the train route.” Well, that sounds just fine. So what are the AVI and 15 Minutes folks up in arms about? Isn’t that what they are looking for? “Did anyone tell you that the planned cycle path ends at Ein Gedi Street [junction on Hebron Road]?” says Lotan.

I went back to City Hall and asked if that was accurate. Does the current plan for the Blue Line cycling route ignore the rest of the main road that stretches all the way south to the turn off to Gilo? The response was, in fact, a complete lack thereof. “I have nothing to add to the response that was released,” was the cold shoulder reply from current deputy spokesperson on social affairs Hadassah Tennenboim.

The original municipal spokesperson’s reply ended with: “After the completion of the Light Rail route there [on Hebron Road], and the provision of an appropriate alternative, further plans will be examined in depth.” Sir Humphrey, the master of double talk from the popular 1980s TV comedy series Yes Minister, would have been proud. Perhaps I should have looked for a book on political psychology instead.

Then again, as Lotan points out, there have been times when City Hall has listened intently, and even gone along with suggestions from AVI and other local cycling activists. Apparently, AVI’s proposal that a cycle lane be installed along busy Golomb Street, which climbs alongside the neighborhood of Ramat Denya, has been given the official thumbs up.

Furthermore, the recently announced municipal budget includes a handsome looking NIS 61 m. allocation for cycling infrastructure construction. Not having handled that sort of cash thus far in my time on terra firma, and not being too knowledgeable about how much it costs to lay down a meter of cycle path, I asked Lotan how far he thought that would go. “The way we would spend the money would help a lot. But if the municipality wants to decorate cycle lanes with Jerusalem stone and all that stuff, that is definitely not adequate.”

YOSSI SAIDOV, founder and head of 15 Minutes, takes a more expansive approach to the Hebron Road scenario, as befitting an organization whose credo states that effective, equitable public transport can function as a powerful tool in reducing socioeconomic gaps, significantly reducing air pollution, and promoting a healthier environment and lifestyle for everyone.

Saidov believes that the main artery can easily be reduced by two vehicle lanes and wants the light rail line to be built next to the road rather than down its middle. “The way things stand, bus passengers have to cross the highway to get to the bus stop and are left stranded there. Anyway, Hebron Road becomes much narrower when you go north to the area of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, so you have a bottleneck there.”

He says cutting down on car lanes is not a problem. “You already have an alternative to Hebron Road, which is Begin Boulevard,” he notes. “Since it was connected to the tunnels road, people who live in Gush Etzion have been using that to get into Jerusalem.”

Saidov says the 15 Minutes plan is a win-win proposition. “We want to include a walking route and a cycle path, a row of trees, a commercial front and that sort of thing.” He posits that the current state of affairs separates the neighborhoods to the east of the road from the rest of the city. “The plan would help to connect the areas of Baka, East Talpiot and Abu Tor. It would turn Hebron Road from an intercity highway into a neighborhood road that serves the local residents.”

BEFORE ANYONE in the municipality gets all heated up about the costs involved in such an ambitious plan, Saidov has news for them: “There is economic growth here. Anywhere in the world where they have adopted a road diet. In America, they have started with that and they are going to invest $100 million in narrowing urban roads. Research shows that in every place they have done that, in the first year local business grew by 20%, 40% in the second year and 60% after three years.”

Saidov cites a living and kicking example very close to home: “Look at Jaffa Road [since the light rail]. It is full of life. Hebron Road is an urban desert. And we would create a continuous green lung all the way through to the zoo.”

“I am trying to help to improve the city in any way I can,” says Sharon Levinson, a relative newcomer to Jerusalem who works with Ba’rechovot Shelanu (In Our Streets) which promotes street level urban initiatives across a range of areas, and he also does his bit for AVI. “Ba’rechovot Shelanu tries to help people walk around town. Hebron Road is our flagship project.”

Levinson sees plenty of scope for enhancing the quality of life along the urban artery. “We want to improve the environment for pedestrians. We want to create a promenade on Hebron Road, something like Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv, with cafés and all sorts of food outlets, bars and that sort of thing. If we can persuade more people to take public transport, walk, cycle, and use cars less, everyone will gain. We need to provide the necessary infrastructure for that.”

That goes double in these trying times, when we could all do with taking care of our respiratory systems and giving our immune system a tune-up. Let’s hope Mayor Lion gives a second chance to the taxpayer-friendly proposals from AVI, 15 Minutes and Ba’rechovot Shelanu.