Pedal power

Jerusalem’s burgeoning cycling scene negotiates challenging logistics and exciting terrain

Taking part in the 2013 Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia charity bicycle race near the Old City walls, cyclists pass the Tower of David. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Taking part in the 2013 Gran Fondo Giro d’Italia charity bicycle race near the Old City walls, cyclists pass the Tower of David.
Not too many years ago, the chances were good that if you told a Tel Avivian that you got around Jerusalem by bicycle, you would get a look of sheer incredulity. Although it carries many physical and emotional benefits, getting up the capital’s notorious inclines under your own pedal-powered steam can be quite a challenge.
But according to Oren Lotan, biking in Jerusalem has come a long way since then.
“Since the introduction of electric bicycles, riding up the hills in Jerusalem is the same as riding on the flat in Tel Aviv,” he says.
Lotan is a major player on the capital’s cycling scene. He is involved in the AVI – Bicycles for Jerusalem nonprofit, and as such, he is doing his utmost to keep pushing the cycling ante higher here.
He is also working to persuade the municipality to provide cyclists with the requisite infrastructure to ride safely and conveniently between home and work, school and shops.
In previous years, he was part of the monthly Critical Mass rides, which featured a hardy bunch of cyclists wheeling their way along King George Avenue, Emek Refaim Street and other main thoroughfares – some with whistles – to ensure that the city’s motorists knew that non-motorized two-wheelers had as much of a place on the city’s streets as four-wheeled vehicles.
While Critical Mass was about raising the profile of urban cycling, Lotan says he and his colleagues are now opting for a different avenue of promotion. “Critical Mass has ebbed away and isn’t really working, so we’ve decided to channel our efforts into other endeavors. We are organizing a major cycling event for kids and families. It will be an easy ride that will probably follow a circular route from the Israel Museum, down through the Valley of the Cross, around Sacher Park and up to the Rose Garden. That’s around 5 km. altogether. We hope it will take place on the Friday of Succot.”
As an avid road cyclist myself, I’ve found that when people hear I ride around 200 km. a week through the Jerusalem Hills and beyond – besides the riding I do around the city – the initial response is often “Wow! That’s really dangerous!” But the truth is that there are now so many riders in and around Jerusalem that drivers are generally aware that they’re likely to encounter them. As such, most drivers are considerate and don’t overtake when they can’t leave the cyclist a decent berth.
“There is an awareness discrepancy between how people believe drivers behave in Jerusalem, and how drivers actually drive,” says Lotan.
Still, he says, “I ride up and down Bezalel Street every day, and there is always one driver who will hoot at me.”
Lotan advises keeping a tight lid on any negative emotions that such conduct might provoke.
“I tell cyclists not to get into confrontational situations if that happens. It doesn’t help to start a slanging match.
Anyway,” he adds with tongue in cheek, “the driver [who doesn’t keep fit] will have blood pressure problems at some stage, and the cyclist won’t, so just let him go.”
THE IMPRESSION one gets from Lotan is that things are looking up for Jerusalem bikers. That much is evident at the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus, where he and I meet: There is an entrance for pedestrians, and a separate, electrically operated gate for cyclists.
“That’s been around for four or five years,” he says, adding that he and his AVI colleagues did not have to bust a gut to make life easier for pedal-pushing students to get onto campus with their bikes.
“I was pleasantly surprised how simple it was to have the gate installed,” he recalls. “We spoke to the relevant university authorities, and the gate materialized pretty quickly. And there are now all the new parking racks all over the campus. Things are really improving.”
He says that the campus is now the city’s principal cycling hub. “I don’t think there is anywhere in Jerusalem with more cyclists.”
While delighted with the ongoing increase in the number of bikers in the capital, he says there is still a long way to go regarding municipal support.
“I believe that before we get infrastructure in place, [in order to] have them built, there needs to be one person at the municipality who is solely responsible for cycling here. Right now, there is someone at the municipality, Guy Seri, who does that as part of his work. In Tel Aviv, there is someone who only [deals with] cycling, and you can see how things have taken off there. You can take, for example, the situation regarding composting facilities in Jerusalem.
There is one person in the municipality responsible for that, and there are now thousands of composting facilities all around the city.”
Still, he says, there is a senior official who does his best to move things along: “[City councilman] Tamir Nir, who is responsible for transportation at the municipality, does a lot in the field. But to really develop the cycling scene here, you need to have one person who will pester the people in charge.”
Planning is another major area that Lotan says demands urgent attention.
“There is no master plan for cycling in Jerusalem. The general approach is to take a street and put in a bicycle path here and there, but that is no substitute for an actual plan,” he says. “We want an orderly plan, and I propose that starts from Givat Ram, with the bicycle paths spreading out from here over time.”
In fact, there is a municipality scheme, currently in the drawing-board stage, to introduce a “station to station” model that includes dedicated bicycle routes between the central bus station and the Malha railway station, passing through several strategic points on the way.
Lotan says that while having bicycle paths is all well and good, continuity is integral to their success.
“One of the primary problems with the cycle routes they built at French Hill – and there was massive investment there – is that anyone using that path cannot get from there to anywhere else,” he explains by way of example. “French Hill is not an enormous neighborhood, and even I would walk to [the nearby Hebrew University campus at Mount Scopus] instead of cycling if I lived there.”
But the station-to-station plan, he continues, is a great improvement. “It will [include] an upgrade to the paths in Sacher Park, and the bus stop by the Nayot junction, which is currently right in the middle of the cycle path, will be shifted so that the cycling route can run around the back of it uninterrupted.”
He is also encouraged by his group’s increasingly close working relations with the municipality.
“I don’t know when exactly the station- to-station plan will be implemented, but I saw details of it... because we [from AVI] were invited to see them,” he says. “There is a sense that the municipal council is on our side.”
THE FRENCH Hill situation was initially a disaster and sparked a flurry of protests from local residents. A raised partition separated the “safe” bicycle lane there from the road, and the lane itself was quite narrow. This meant that in the event of a blockage or an incident that made it impossible for a cyclist to proceed, the rider had no way to maneuver around it – an unsafe situation if the cyclist was unable to stop in time. At another point along the route, the construction of the bicycle lane meant that the road was now too narrow to accommodate two buses passing each other at the same time. It did little to make life easier for cyclists, and it certainly did not improve relations among the municipality, the residents, and local cyclists.
Lotan feels that the whole idea of constructing dedicated bicycle routes in French Hill was a poorly advised venture, and that the authorities would have done better to earmark their biking- infrastructure budget for an area that serves more users.
“We say, start from a location where there is already demand for cycle paths – here, in Givat Ram. There are government ministries here, there is the university with lots of students who cycle, and there are no residential areas here, so you won’t have all the fights [with the residents] that you had in French Hill.
You don’t have to remove too many parking spaces for cars, and there is relatively a lot of space around here.”
From Givat Ram, he continues, “cycling routes can gradually spread out... to Rehavia and to Beit Hakerem and to Givat Mordechai. And you know, once you offer the food, people start to get hungry: As soon as you have a safe infrastructure for cyclists, you will get more people riding, and then the routes can penetrate into the neighborhoods, and you can build the infrastructure based on actual demand, rather than on estimates.”
In terms of logistics, he suggests that “you can save a lot of space by just marking out a strip of the road for bicycles on the side of a descent, and only have a separate cycle lane on the ascent side.
That would help when you have a street that is not very wide. My feeling is that the authorities don’t really address the matter from the point of view of the cyclist.”
CITY COUNCILMAN Nir, meanwhile, is looking at the whole issue from a practical point of view. He, too, is an avid cyclist and is looking for ways to make it easier to ride around town.
During the light rail’s long construction period, there was talk in the municipality of having bicycle paths connected to the light rail stations, with secure parking facilities, to enable Jerusalemites to combine cycling with a less physically demanding form of transportation.
That prospect has yet to materialize, although Nir says he is looking at ways of making it possible to take bicycles onto the trains.
Meanwhile, he is enthusiastic about the concept of establishing a bike rental facility near light rail stops in the center of town.
“The issue of taking bikes onto the light rail is very complex, so for now I have proposed that there should be a bicycle rental position at various locations in downtown Jerusalem,” he explains.
He says he would like the service to be as user-friendly and affordable as possible.
“The idea is that I don’t have to come from my home with a bike. I can get on the light rail and take a rental bicycle from where I alight, and the cost of the rental will be included in my validated light rail ticket, within the 90 minutes [during which one can transfer between buses and trains on a single ticket].”
Nir wants to take the Tel-O-Fun model, which has proven such a success in Tel Aviv, and the rental system several steps forward to make it more environmentally and user-friendly.
“I want to use fourth-generation intelligent bicycles that will allow people to rent bikes using their phones,” he says.
“That will make [everything] simpler and also obviate the need for special appliances at the rental position. It also reduces the cost of operating the system by 50 percent and cuts down on energy consumption.”
The Jerusalem bike-rental system is due to be up and running by next spring.
Nir acknowledges that his promotion of that project is part of a broader goal.
“I am hoping that this whole move will generate an upgrade of the network of bicycle paths in Jerusalem. It will oblige the municipality to get into the thick of things, and at the end of the day, I hope it will help to convey the idea of the bicycle as a perfectly acceptable and convenient mode of transport, and not just as something used for sport and leisure-time activities.”
Although his own involvement as a municipal official will doubtless aid this goal, he says that he “would ideally like the pressure [on the municipality] to come from below, from ground level, so that it will actually happen, and infrastructures will be built.”
Meanwhile, the powers that be seem to be getting the message.
“A short while ago, I was present when the municipal engineer, Shlomo Eshkol, said that he didn’t like bicycles but that he now realizes that they are the way forward,” says Nir.