An accident waiting to happen

It sounds like something out of Chelm: A bike path on a narrow street positioned between a parking lane and the sidewalk.

Jerusalem cyclist 521  (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Jerusalem cyclist 521
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
Jerusalemite cyclists have long bemoaned the lack of safe bicycle lanes and bicycle paths in this fair city compared with such capitals as Paris and Vienna, not to mention Tel Aviv. But according to residents of Rehov Sheshet Hayamim in Ramat Eshkol, at least one planned bicycle lane is not exactly a boon for people looking to navigate the home-work-home circuit safely and comfortably.
They consider it, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, a dangerous hazard.
“Every single person on this street came out aggressively against it,” says Bennett Kaplan, who lives on Sheshet Hayamim, where work on a bicycle lane started recently. “We wrote a letter to the mayor in Hebrew and English, and everybody signed it. The next day we were able to get a meeting with [head of the Jerusalem Municipality’s transport and infrastructure development department] Kobi Bartov.” Mind you, that was after Kaplan spent a week making numerous unanswered phone calls to the municipality.
The dubious benefit of the cycling thoroughfare situation on Sheshet Hayamim and, to a degree, the bicycle lane in French Hill, could be best conveyed by paraphrasing an old joke: When is a bicycle lane not a bicycle lane? When it’s been scrapped in mid-construction.
In the case of the lane in French Hill, the response to the comic query would be when access to part of the bicycle lane is obstructed by a lamppost and a tree, as is the case on one side of a bus stop near the French Hill Junction.
Part of the irony of the situation in Ramat Eshkol is that 54-year-old New York-born Kaplan is a keen cyclist himself and would be only too happy to see Jerusalem crisscrossed with bicycle lanes that could facilitate environmentally friendly, health-promoting and human-powered transportation between home and work, shopping facilities and, indeed, anywhere in the city. But the bicycle lane on his street was, he says, a very bad idea for several reasons.
“Look, you’ve got the sidewalk, then the cycle lane, then a parking lane and then a traffic lane. For a start, the cycle lane was only going to be a meter wide and would have been boxed in on one side by the sidewalk and on the other side by a hard partition. That means that if there were any obstructions in the lane, the only way the cyclist could avoid hitting them would be by throwing himself off the bike.”
There’s more. “The cycle lane narrows the street, so that by opening your car door on the driver’s side, you are obstructing traffic. And there are buses that come down here round bends at high speed. I don’t want to go off to work wondering if my wife and kids are safe getting out of the car when they get home.
It’s a ludicrous situation.”
According to Kaplan, no one from the municipality bothered to consult the residents about the bicycle lane beforehand. “They just started building it,” he says. “When we realized what was going on, we started trying to stop it.”
In all fairness, despite starting work on the bicycle lane without sounding out the local residents, it must be said that the municipality – specifically Bartov – responded with alacrity. “Bartov came down to our street, and we explained what our issues with the lane were,” Kaplan continues. “At first he was surprised but eventually, as we say, the asimon fell [the penny dropped] and he said he would think about it. I sent him an e-mail that night, and he answered me back that they had decided to completely stop work on it until they have investigated it further,” Kaplan recounts.
When In Jerusalem asked the municipality for a response to the Sheshet Hayamim bicycle lane saga and about the obstructions to part of the cycle lane in French Hill, the spokesperson declined to address the specific issues or to provide any detailed information about existing or planned lanes in the city, only offering a blanket policy statement. “In general, the Jerusalem Municipality develops feeder bicycle lanes for the light rail, based on a transportation master plan, in conjunction with the Ministry of Transport,” said the spokesperson. “As part of the above project, a system of feeder bicycle lanes (for the French Hill and Ammunition Hill stops) from the districts of French Hill, Givat Hamivtar and Ramat Eshkol is planned.”
Alluding to the stop-start work on Sheshet Hayamim, the spokesperson added, “The planning of the system is now being reconsidered, following the stage of consultation with the public, at the end of which it will be possible to resume work on the system in line with the approved changes.”
CYCLE JERUSALEM representative Pearl Kaplan says that her organization supports the construction of bicycle lanes around Jerusalem and that the process should incorporate all the relevant parties. “We always encourage the municipality to build bicycle lanes and to make cycling around the city safe for everyone concerned,” says Kaplan, adding that Cycle Jerusalem supports the light rail feeder cycling routes project, including the idea of constructing a lane along Rehov Sheshet Hayamim, as long as it is efficient and safe for users of the lane and the street alike.
“I think it is a good thing that the municipality is, obviously, listening to the local residents and wants to take their needs into account. We believe that the light rail feeder lane project can provide a safe solution for cycling here. French Hill is a good location to develop bike infrastructure, as it connects the light rail, the neighborhood and the Hebrew University campus.”
Businessman Kaplan does not mince words about the circumstances on his street, following the currently aborted bicycle lane project, which he calls a situation out of Chelm.
“To be perfectly candid,” he says, “it was an act of supreme arrogance and irresponsibility because nobody knew they were building a bike lane on our street, nobody. Everybody was in shock. They [the municipality] claimed that they leafleted us, which is an absolute falsehood.”
As work on the lane progressed, Kaplan decided to get some information from the source. “I told them this is dangerous for every single aspect of life.”
Kaplan, who cycled for many years in the US before making aliya 18 years ago, backs up his claim with some simple statistics. “Sheshet Hayamim Street, which is not particularly wide, is a very busy corridor for traffic, from French Hill to other parts of the city. The road is three and a half meters wide, and they are taking off one and a half meters for the bike lane, including the partition. What’s left? In order to park my car, I have to stop traffic getting into and out of my car. The buses can barely get by – one of them actually hit my mirror. And passengers getting off a bus straight into the bicycle lane are in danger of being hit by a cyclist. There’s no question that an accident is going to happen. There is simply not enough room for anyone who has any desire to park his car on this street from doing anything other than holding his breath, running out of his car and hoping he doesn’t get killed or kill someone in the process.”
Kaplan says that things would be no better for the people for whom the lane was designed. “This is the most dangerous biking situation I have ever seen in my entire life. I’ll go so far as to say that the welfare authorities could arrest and charge any parent who allowed their child to ride on that lane and that when – not if – an accident happens, the judge will throw the book at the city and say, ‘You are 100 percent responsible.’” For now, the only sign of the aborted bike lane is a scarified strip down most of the side of Sheshet Hayamim 1 with cars parked on it and several heaps of building materials awaiting the municipality’s ultimate decision on the lane.