Jerusalem on two wheels

Fifth year of cycling festival draws 500 people. "Cycling gives me a sense of freedom in many ways," says festival founder.

Jerusalem Biker (photo credit: MASHA LAMBERG)
Jerusalem Biker
(photo credit: MASHA LAMBERG)
Jonathan Plitmann, Festigalgal co-founder, is a Jerusalemite who loves to ride his bike through the city. But Jerusalem is not the most open city for cyclists. To shed light on just how many cycle enthusiasts like Plitmann there are in Jerusalem, Festigalgal was launched.
Now in its fifth year, the festival took place on October 13. With producer Aya Gavriel, co-founder Dotan Brand, and sponsors and collaborators, including Ruach Hadasha, Gonenim Community Center and Israel for Cycling, the festival drew about 500 people.
“We wanted to bring awareness to cycling in the city. Jerusalem is hillier than Tel Aviv but still very rewarding for cyclists,” Plitmann says. “Authorities aren’t giving enough attention to the issue. There aren’t enough bicycle paths in the city. There isn’t enough attention for cycling issues in city planning. Cyclists are not allowed to take their bikes onto the light rail, not even during off-peak hours. I don’t think that the city is unfriendly to cyclists. You gain a lot as a cyclist in this city. But we need to bring awareness.”
Plitmann bikes from Beit Zayit and, with traffic, often arrives at work in Jerusalem before his coworkers with cars do. He points out that the crux of the problem is that while there is a strong lobby for cars that promotes issues relating to cars in the city, including automobile importers and people from the gas industry, cyclists don’t have a strong enough lobby to promote their issues in the Knesset.
Plitmann stresses that he is not against cars, and even uses one for work. But in terms of city planning issues, all kinds of values and views need to be taken into account.
“If you promote cycling, it’s an investment that pays in the long run,” Plitmann states.
Festigalgal grew from a critical mass of like-minded people. Cities all around the world have similar cycling festivals, sometimes drawing thousands of people. Jerusalem’s Festigalgal addresses the issue in a slightly less advocative way; it’s about having fun and not only demonstrating what needs fixing.
“We try to mix a good cause with having fun,” Plitmann adds. “The idea is that we gather at different points in the city and invite artists to make and bring bicycles that are different in some way. We collaborate with Adam Yechin, who builds giant puppets. He’s brought his puppets for the past few years. You could call it a carnival with music and costumes. At the end, the finish line becomes a big party, where even people who don’t have bicycles are invited to celebrate for a good cause.”
This year, Festigalgal began at Gonenim Park in the Katamonim. There was a small event for children to say good-bye to their training wheels, with an instructor who helped them to ride for the first time on their own. There were workshops as well, where children and adults could learn how to decorate their bikes and how to repair them. The workshop, called “Pimp My Bike,” had participants fixing, oiling and then decorating their bikes. Then, the hundreds of Festigalgal participants rode together to Hamiffal by the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where the finish line included a Tigris concert and more cyclist-related workshops.
While Plitmann and the rest of the Festigalgal team were very happy with the turnout, there was an emphasis on quality more than quantity, with goodwill and a shared sense of passion and purpose.
“I hope that someday the municipality will adopt us and we can stop being on a rampage,” Plitmann expresses. “We had a conversation with the city, and they do try to involve cyclists with the planning, so it’s not black or white. But I think much more is needed.
“There are rational reasons for this festival, but there is also something more than rational. Children who participate will have an experience that they won’t forget. Whatever happens after that in their lives, I’m not responsible. It’s like dropping a stone in water. These things do have an effect, even if it’s not immediate, if you keep doing it. It’s a struggle that is needed.”
The changes Plitmann and the Festigalgal team hope to see from the municipality in this coming year include the acceptance of bicycles on the light rail during off-peak hours. Plitmann believes that the city is ready for that. He gives the example of Pisgat Ze’ev, which is not accessible to cyclists. Places like that would open up, if bicycles were permitted on the light rail.
In addition, Plitmann hopes for another bicycle path and more parking spots for bicycles around the city in places like community centers and commercial areas. He believes that both are vital investments for the municipality.
Finally, he would like to see a bicycle-renting system in Jerusalem. Plitmann sees an opportunity to adopt the model that is working well in Tel Aviv, where people can rent bikes at one location and drop them off at other locations all around the city. It is affordable, easy, and enjoyable for tourists and residents alike.
“If there is deliberation, we can overcome problems regarding whether it would be available on Shabbat or not,” Plitmann says. “We can solve these problems so that Jerusalem is not held back in the past."
“I think that some of these things could happen in the next year. The light rail is ready for cyclists, but it’s all about the lobby. There were times that we worked with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and it gave us more power. Right now, there is a lack of organization. We need to promote our issues. Without this, it is a few individuals who are trying to do good for the rest of society. We need a strong organization to adopt us and help promote these matters.”
When asked why he loves cycling so much, Plitmann answers simply: “Cycling gives me a sense of freedom in many ways. Being active makes you feel better. Commuting with a bike allows you to not be tied to the pressure of finding parking and to not be closed off in your car. I like open spaces. It just makes my life better. But I want to cycle feeling protected. That’s what we’re fighting for.”