Exercise: The wheel deal

'Festigalgal,' 'Ride to Work Day' organizer Plitmann hopes the emphasis on cycling will launch a transportation revolution.

Festigalgal bicycle riders 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Festigalgal)
Festigalgal bicycle riders 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Festigalgal)
‘Lots of people complain about the state of traffic in the capital,” says the introduction to the annual Festigalgal cycling festival’s promotional literature. “Buses and cars have to fight their way along jam-packed roads that were planned to accommodate camels laden with merchandise from the beginning of the last century.”
But the organizers then take the opportunity “to remind all those who complain about the traffic jams, parking problems, the cost of gas, the air quality and noise, that there is a readily available, cheap, green, healthy and enjoyable solution.”
That is the message Festigalgal hopes to make clear when it kicks off in Jerusalem on March 30. The event includes a mass ride, starting at 10 a.m., from the Oranim Junction in Talpiot, through the German Colony, along Hebron Road and around the Jaffa Gate side of the Old City to Musrara. The ride will culminate in a gathering with live music and stalls on Mishmarot Street, with a DJ and Jerusalemite rock band Yuppies with Jeeps on the artistic roster.
On top of that, the Sunday before the ride and Musrara bash will be the city’s first Ride to Work Day. On Thursday, the first 300 cyclists to register for the event received Ride to Work Day shirts, which they will don on Sunday before setting off across the capital to their respective workplaces or other destinations.
“The idea is to generate as massive a cycling presence as possible all over the city,” explains Festigalgal co-producer Yonatan Plitmann, adding that there will be at least one high-profile Jerusalemite wearing a Ride to Work Day shirt: “[Mayor] Nir Barkat will ride to work from his home in Beit Hakerem. Hopefully that will help to draw attention to the event. This year, there will be 300 people riding around town with the shirts, and next year there will be 1,000.”
Overall, it appears that cycling in the capital is on the rise.
“Yes, I think there are more people using bikes here,” says Plitmann, “but we’ll know more after we do a count next month.”
Last year’s not-entirely-accurate cyclist survey at locations across the city indicated that there were around 3,500 Jerusalemites who pedaled around town daily. “There are probably a lot more,” continues Plitmann, “because, for instance, we don’t know how many haredi [ultra-Orthodox] people cycle.”
Still, the cycling ethos has a long way to go here compared with Tel Aviv.
“There are probably around 40,000 people who cycle on a daily basis there,” he notes. “I wouldn’t have any work to do in Tel Aviv, because people there are already aware of the benefits of using a bike regularly.”
Naturally it would help encourage Jerusalemites to swap the steering wheel for bicycle wheels if there were more safe cycling arteries around town. Progress has been made on that front, but Plitmann says there is a still long way to go.
“The cycle lane along Harakevet Street [in Baka] is great – that was built thanks to a dedicated donation,” he says. “But I want to know why, for example, students can’t cycle safely from Mount Scopus to the center of town and back.”
In fact, last year the environs of the university were the scene of a bitter battle between local residents and the municipality after the latter started constructing bicycle lanes alongside some of the streets in French Hill. There were all sorts of safety concerns for cyclists, pedestrians and motorists.  In one spot, the bicycle lane required narrowing the road to the point that buses traveling in opposite directions had to slow to a crawl to avoid scraping each other.
“There has to be planning,” says Plitmann. “You can’t just pour out a load of concrete and say, ‘There’s your bicycle lane.’”
The light rail is also a controversial matter for the local cycling fraternity.
“When they laid down the light rail tracks along Highway 1, for example, they could easily have added a bicycle lane alongside it,” he says, adding that cyclists are not allowed to take their bikes with them onto the trams.
“I put on a little demonstration over that, just me and another cyclist, when we took our bikes onto a tram, but the guard advised – politely – to take the bikes off,” he recalls.
Though the light rail master plan features feeder cycle routes to the tram stations and it would be possible to install bicycle parking facilities, he says this “is not a serious proposition.”
“Can you imagine people locking their bikes at a station and leaving them there all day? Who’s [going] to make sure the bikes aren’t stolen? That just isn’t going to happen.”
But there appears to be hope. The municipality has expressed its support for Festigalgal and for Ride to Work Day, and there are positive murmurings at City Hall.
“There are all sorts of people in the municipality who are trying to help promote cycling in Jerusalem,” notes Plitmann. “We also get support from the National Road Safety Authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the Jerusalem Foundation. Progress is slow, but it is happening.”
Festigalgal’s growth testifies to this. The inaugural event two years ago attracted 60 cyclists, and that jumped to 200 last year. Plitmann is looking at 300 to 500 riders this time around, with more due to join the fun in Musrara.
“We want people to get on their bikes and not think about the dangers of having to dodge traffic,” he adds. “The shirts we’ll wear this Sunday will have the words ‘Ride to Work’ on the front, and ‘Getting Home Safely’ on the back.” •
For more information about Festigalgal: festigalgal@gmail.com or 054-640-4919.