Getting a handle on traffic

Cyclists are going with the flow as they speed past jammed-in vehicles in the center of town.

cyclists  521  (photo credit: Illustrative photo)
cyclists 521
(photo credit: Illustrative photo)
Unlike those who still rely on their own vehicles or public transportation to get from A to B in this building site of a capital city, Jerusalemites who regularly use humanpowered two-wheeled vehicles to get around town have an entirely different view of life here.
It is probably a contender for the title of the World’s Worst-Kept Secret that maneuvering around town has been a nightmarish exercise since work started on the light rail several eons (actually, “only” five years) ago. The upshot of the ongoing construction work has been the closing of main urban arteries, the rerouting of traffic and a number of about-turns in traffic directions, such as on Rehov Agrippas next to the shuk.
Despite the endless congestion on our city’s streets, people continue to drive into town to shop, work or enjoy leisure activities.
Meanwhile, cyclists go with the flow as they insouciantly trundle past jammed-in vehicles.
The question is whether all this light rail construction upheaval has had any bearing on the mode of transport Jerusalemites use to get to their destinations. Have the endless traffic jams convinced car owners that it is high time they traded in the steering wheel for handlebars? A recent survey by the Jerusalem branch of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) and Cycle Jerusalem estimates that 3,500 cyclists use the city’s thoroughfares on a daily basis.
One Jerusalemite who has opted for the bicycle is 49-year-old Amir Bitan, who pedals from his Arnona home to work on the Givat Ram university campus daily, and even gets in some fruit and veg shopping in the shuk during the week.
For Bitan, the advantages of cycling rather than driving around town are glaringly obvious.
“If I take the straight route to work, it takes me around 20 minutes to get there,” he notes. “It would take me at least 30 minutes by car.”
Mind you, to begin with, there was a social factor that sometimes dictated which route he took to Givat Ram. “I didn’t want to get to the office too sweaty, so if I left home later in the morning in the summer, I’d go via King David Street and the shuk because there are fewer climbs to do that way.”
Still, even the longer detour offered some added value. “I could stop in the shuk and drink something and maybe grab some burekas, which is something I could definitely not do by car. These days, it is madness to drive to the shuk. Sometimes it is even tough for cyclists to get through because the cars are so tightly packed together.”
In the meantime, the perspiration problem has been solved. “I now have access to a shower near my office, so I can take the direct route even in the summer. That really saves me time.”
Bitan says that he gave up his daily car trips for his bike around three years ago because of the increasing congestion. Today, unless he has to do some heavy or bulky haulage, he cycles everywhere he needs to go in Jerusalem. However, a recent incident changed his mode of thinking about the best part of the thoroughfare to use.
“I had an accident a few months ago on Rehov Keren Hayesod when a driver knocked me off my bike. It was after dark and I had lots of lights on me and on the bike. Since then, I use the sidewalk when it is wide enough, and I don’t get in the way of pedestrians, and it is easy to get on and off the sidewalk.”
Bitan adds that his brush with a car did not deter him from cycling through the city. “I would not say I am afraid now, but I am cautious.”
A bicycle lane or two could help Bitan and other cyclists with that, but there are precious few of them in the city.
For 54-year-old Dr. Kobi Benaim, driving from his Baka home to work at various locations in the city center has never really been an option. “We returned from the States 12 years ago and we didn’t have a car at the time, so I cycled everywhere,” he says. “Anyway, it really doesn’t make sense to drive; it is so much faster by bike. It takes me 10 minutes to get to work, and it would take me 30-40 minutes by car. I get to work feeling refreshed by my bike ride rather than lethargic and annoyed because of the traffic jams and having to look for parking.”
There are other advantages to be had and, as a GP, Benaim should know. “Riding to work every day means I ride over an hour and a half a week. To maintain your weight and stay healthy, you should exercise for about 120 to 150 minutes a week. So the cycling, more or less, takes care of that.”
Benaim also says that there is a solution for people who don’t want to get to work in a sweat. “I recently added a small electric motor to my bicycle. I’m not getting any younger, so if I need it, I get help with some of the steeper climbs in town.”
The doctor feels, however, that the municipality could do more to encourage people to cycle in Jerusalem. “They should make cycling sexy and safe by building cycle lanes and providing more bike parking facilities. I often chain up my bike to benches, and I have to be careful it doesn’t get in the way of pedestrians.”
Similarly, 29-year-old Katamon resident Nadav Lachman Lazare has been cycling to work at Givat Ram and to studies on Mount Scopus and to run errands for more than four years. Lachman Lazare is aware of the topography- and safety-related block that some people have with the idea of biking around Jerusalem but feels that should not be an obstacle.
“I don’t think that Jerusalem is particularly bicyclefriendly, but it is definitely possible to get around by bike. The weather is perfect for cycling, although the climbs are the challenging element, and the traffic is the non-friendly component.”
Lachman Lazare, who says he does absolutely everything by bike, provides some pointers for cycling deliberations.
“I lived with my parents in Nataf, and I used to drive into the city by car every day; but since I moved into Jerusalem, I only cycle. I am also getting a trailer attached to my bike, so I can do large-scale shopping with it, too. I started cycling here for ideological and practical reasons. I’d say that it was based on one-third logic and two-thirds practicality. I think that is the right ratio because you have to be practical.
It’s cheap to cycle. I never have the patience to wait for the bus anyway, and I know how long it will take me to get anywhere I need to go. You don’t have that if you use a car or public transportation.”
According to 29-year-old Rehavia resident Doron Greental, the long-awaited version of the latter is currently an indirect factor in temporarily facilitating cycling around time.
“Right now, there are oceans of space for cycling along Jaffa Road because of the light rail tracks. But when the rail system is up and running, all that space will be lost not only to cyclists but to pedestrians as well.”
He reserves judgment on the long-term integrated green advantages of the light rail.
“The new system should have feeder routes for bicycles to the different stops so that Jerusalemites can combine cycling with taking the light rail. If that doesn’t work because the routes are not bicyclefriendly, then cyclists won’t use them and the municipality will probably convert the routes into some other use. That won’t help anyone.”