Experts envision future of blissful, bike-filled Israeli streets

“What if the transportation systems existed such that joy, comfort and convenience were possible daily for everyone?”

Bike rental in Tel Aviv  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Bike rental in Tel Aviv
Streets could become tree-lined green paradises for cyclists and pedestrians with buses efficiently making their way through town, urban sustainability experts said Thursday.
Researchers, professors, city planners and “environmental designers” met at the Rethinking Israeli Streets conference at Tel Aviv University to envision this future – discussing ways to redesign city streets to accommodate bikes and pedestrians, incentivize public transportation and lessen the reliance on cars.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Transportation, the TAU Porter School of Environmental Studies, the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology and the United States-Israel Educational Foundation, which sponsors Fulbright Israel programs and provides opportunities for cooperation between Israeli and American scholars.
Opening the conference was US senior Fulbright scholar Mark Scholssberg, who told The Jerusalem Post that one of the biggest issues plaguing Israeli cities is something shared by many places in the past 50 years: streets that were built to accommodate cars and not people – filling downtown areas with traffic jams because “cars take up more space than they need to.”
He said that in Denmark, for example, bicycles are not used solely for being eco-friendly and cost-effective – they are praised for being a space-saving mode of transportation.
Schlossberg, a University of Oregon professor of city and regional planning and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Initiative, said the car culture is decreasing in popularity among 20- to 30-year-olds globally, who increasingly view car ownership as a burden. More and more, he said, cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are realizing this trend.
“Smart cities of the future will redesign themselves to attract and retain young, energetic, smart people, and the way to do that is to provide ways to get around that are not by car,” he said.
He praised the “incredible difference” in Tel Aviv, for example, where he saw many more cyclists than when he last visited six years ago. He said this popularity was driven by Tel Aviv’s Tel-O-Fun bike rental system.
“They are now over capacity and that’s a good thing because it will spur more infrastructure,” he told the conference.
He did point out a few transportation problems in Israel. One is what he called a failure of the government to adequately factor transportation into their plans as they build more housing.
This leaves private vehicles as the only option and excludes the elderly and minors from easily being able to get around.
Another huge street problem in Israel, which Schlossberg says is especially problematic in Haifa where he is currently doing research and teaching at the Technion, is that buses have to sit in the same traffic as private cars, which takes away any incentive to use public transport.
He encouraged looking at Europe as an example, and emphasized that their systems are very much applicable to Israel.
“Streets there used to be dangerous and crowded,” he said. Nonetheless, Schlossberg explained, European cities have made an effort to change and are now havens where even people in tailored suits can be seen riding their bike to work.
He recommended a number of steps to transform streets for the better, such as adding sufficient bike lanes and separating buses and taxis from private car traffic.
Street redesigns do not need to be dramatic, he emphasized, and showed pictures of a street in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon, where a four-lane street was transformed into a two-lane thoroughfare, with a widened sidewalk that allowed the street to be shared with pedestrians and cyclists.
He especially suggested embracing electric bikes, which have exploded in popularity in the past few years.
Schlossberg told the conference that he was most impressed by what he saw this past Yom Kippur, when Israeli streets were “opened up to their other usages” as they emptied of cars in observance of the holiday and people began riding their bikes in the street.
“What if... the transportation systems existed such that this level of joy, comfort and convenience were possible daily for everyone?”