What is Jerusalem’s cycling situation?

As the popularity of the bicycle spikes amid the pandemic, we check in on Jerusalem’s cycling situation

One of  plethora of dedicated safe cycling routes in Tel Aviv (photo credit: TEL AVIV MUNICIPALITY)
One of plethora of dedicated safe cycling routes in Tel Aviv
It is fair to say that most of us are looking for a comfortable life. That normally involves managing our routine assignments by acquiring various so-called time saving technological means of getting around, and also getting the chores and essentials done.
But comfort doesn’t necessarily deliver efficiency dividends as is often the case, for instance, with navigating our way around town by car rather than pedaling from point A to B. Comparisons between the expediency afforded by the use of gas-operated or even electricity-operated vehicles and their human-powered two-wheeler counterparts often favor bicycles, even of the non-electrical ilk.
While plenty of Tel Avivians have taken that message on board, Jerusalemites have been less enthused about investing physical effort in commuting. That is partly down to the hilly terrain, but also to safety concerns over the need to share the streets with motorized four-wheelers. Yes, there are now more cycle paths in Jerusalem than there were, say, a decade ago, but it is still well-nigh impossible to cycle anywhere around town only using dedicated thoroughfares.
But is that about to change dramatically? As the pandemic rages on, with all its concomitant emotional, financial and personal trials and tribulations, there are some seismic shifts taking place in cycling quarters.
If you are already a keen cyclist, or are just cognizant of the practicality of biking across the city – paucity of bicycle-only routes notwithstanding – you may very well be aware of the transformation the scene is currently undergoing, at least in terms of commercial dynamics.
It appears this is a widespread phenomenon that is sweeping the globe. Bicycle retailers and repair shops, across the board, are experiencing severe stock shortages, while their mechanics are having to work long hours to try to make any inroads into the waiting list of desperate born-again cyclists. People, everywhere, are turning to bicycles as a thoroughly valid mode of urban transport, and/or means of keeping fit.
That is reflected in stats from overseas, with sales in France, for example, more than trebling since this COVID-19 business began, and there are similar returns in Germany, Italy and the US.
Jerusalemites are gradually getting wise to the trend too.
“There have been sharp increases in sales and in the amount of bikes we get to repair these days,” says Ran Mizrahi manager of the Rosen & Meents store in Talpiot. “I’d say sales are up at least 10%, and we get so many bikes in for repair it is hard to keep up. Customers can wait a month or more for new bikes and to get theirs fixed.”
People of all ages, social standings and walks of life are suddenly recalling their cycling salad days, and are exhuming their two-wheelers, dusting them off and taking them over to their local cycle repair shop for a refit. My own bike shop, Pedalim in Talpiot, where I have been a valued customer for years – and quite rightly, considering the amount of hard-earned dineros I have forked out there on repairs, new bikes and accessories – is also inundated these days. I, too, have had to bide my time to get service.
So what has finally gotten Jerusalemites away from the steering wheel, at least for a while, and onto the handlebars?
“I think it is a combination of things,” posits Guy Lamdan, of the Bikeway bike shop in Givat Shaul. “These days, people are scared to use public transport and also health clubs are closed now, so they need to get their exercise elsewhere.”
The current state of affairs is somewhat reminiscent of the lift off of the cycling scene in the Netherlands which, for some years now, has been up there with the most bicycle friendly countries on planet Earth. The surge in popularity of cycling, and the subsequent development of thoroughfare infrastructures that now cover the entire country, was actually generated by a spike in child casualties on the road. After getting off to a good early start, building dedicated paths for cyclists in the 1890s, cars became more affordable after World War II and motorized transport accounted for almost all travel there. It was only in the 1970s, when the number of children killed on Dutch roads spiraled, and parents took to the streets in protest, that the Netherlands shifted toward cycling and away from gas guzzling vehicles.
Perhaps some good will come out of this pandemic morass, in the guise of a move to more environmentally friendly and health-inducing means of getting around town here too.
Bicycles for Jerusalem has been one of the prime movers and shakers behind efforts to facilitate just such an eventuality for some years now. Aviad Cohen is a driving force in the organization, and has the requisite street cred and professional qualifications to offer an informed view of the municipality’s approach to providing the city’s residents with comfortable, efficient and, most importantly, safe ways of getting to work, the stores and school.
“In numerical terms Jerusalem isn’t doing too badly,” says Cohen who, besides being a keen mountain and road biker, also earns a crust as a traffic consultant. His professional purview incorporates cycling infrastructures and he recently completed some work on bicycle paths and lanes in Rehovot.
Guy Lamdan says he encounters very few cycle paths when commuting (Guy Lamdan)
The problem here, he says, is not the cold hard statistical facts, but the geography. “Jerusalem has a large quantity of cycle paths, around 40 km. However, these paths are mostly located in parks. The municipality, at least thus far, sees the paths as something to be used for sport, leisure purposes and by children.”
THAT MAY be well intentioned but it doesn’t help Cohen and his fellow commuting cyclists pedal around the city without having to negotiate their way betwixt hefty polluting cars, trucks and buses. Lamdan says that is par for the course for him.
“I live in the center of town, on Jaffa Road, and I cycle to work in Givat Shaul daily. On the way I see a pathetic strip of sidewalk, around 300 meters in length, marked out by paint which the municipality calls a cycle lane.”
That seems to be the crux of the matter. Take a look at any Dutch town, for example, and you see a network of cycle lanes and paths that enable cyclists to get to practically any urban area without having to use the road. It is about continuity, a factor that seems to be constantly escaping the cognizance of city hall.
If you have been in the environs of the Jerusalem Theater over the past year or so, you will have noted the significant road construction and street refit underway there. The work also takes in a strip of tarmac, approximately 300 meters in length, which is due to serve as a cycle path. How exactly cyclists are to access the path, and what benefit is to be gained from riding such a short distance away from the road, is anyone’s guess. And, presumably, the construction thereof is costing the council taxpayer a pretty shekel or two.
Cohen feels the municipality is thinking along overly intricate lines. “The cycle path along Rupin Street is delightful, stretching 800 meters. There is all this landscaping and attention to aesthetic detail, but providing cyclists with safe and efficient paths and lanes is really a simple matter. There is no need for complex engineering ventures. Just give us a path without the frills.”
OF COURSE, the topography of Tel Aviv is far more conducive to fair-weather cycling than in Jerusalem but, just for comparative purposes, it is worthwhile noting that the metropolis at the other end of Route 1 has announced it is investing heavily in developing its cycling infrastructures.
“The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality is prioritizing pedestrians and cyclists in the city through an ambitious plan which will double [the length of] cycling paths to 310 km. by 2025,” says Ofir Cohen, manager of the municipality Transport, Traffic and Parking Authority.
There’s more.
“We are also developing parking solutions for bicycles in the public domain, including secure parking facilities. And we are carrying out a large number of pioneering projects, such as installing floating parklets for bicycle parking, and cycle grooves on stairways in the city, funding parking facilities in backyards of buildings, and educational and advocacy activities.”
And more.
“During the course of the corona crisis,” Cohen continues, “the municipality started to develop the idea of ‘tactical paths’. It takes around three weeks to plan them and only a few hours to implement them. Pop-up lanes have already been put in place, in Tel Aviv, on Pinsker Street and Solomon Street, and Moses Bridge.”
Bicycles for Jerusalem mover and shaker Aviad Cohen says the municipality is overcomplicating (Aviad Cohen)
It’s enough to make many a Jerusalem-based cyclist weep.
As a professional in the field and an avid cyclist, Aviad Cohen is fully aware of the advantages of such an ad hoc solution, and has been campaigning for their introduction in Jerusalem for some time.
“This is a time when things can be implemented, because there is the aspect of disrupting the routine,” he notes, referencing the pandemic-generated decrease in traffic these days. “The municipality is carrying out roadworks, such as along Begin Boulevard where they are working really quickly. They are making the most of the situation [for drivers].”
It seems there is less alacrity where cycling routes are concerned.
“The thing with tactical lanes is that you make a decision and it is ready within three hours,” Cohen explains, adding that such initiatives are fully within the bounds of legal and administrative provisions. “Tactical paths comply with Ministry of Transport guidelines, regarding safety and such like.”
COHEN POINTS out that if, for example, the municipality were to set about installing a cycle path along Begin Boulevard that would entail significant constructional work, to prevent dangerous encounters between cyclists and motorists. That is clearly not the case with many of the city’s streets.
“On quieter routes, such as Hapalmach Street and Azza Street, you don’t need that,” says Cohen, differentiating between cycle paths and cycle lanes. “With lanes all you need is to mark them out with paint, and they are ready within a few hours. You don’t need an engineer to pore over plans for days on end.”
It is, says Cohen, a win-win situation.
“Based on what we see, you can do that without harming anyone. It doesn’t involve removing parking spots, or lanes for cars. You only need to reduce the width a little.”
He suggests there are safety benefits to be gleaned from that too.
“With narrower lanes vehicles will travel more slowly.”
Does Cohen think the municipality is aware of the aforementioned user-friendly logistics and benefits?
“I think the municipality has very good intentions but it isn’t sufficiently attentive to global trends, or to the public. One aspect of the coronavirus is that there is no public transport, so the need for bicycles is very great.”
Cohen also points out that, to date, the municipality has invested great effort and time in producing three master plans relating to the construction and development of a cycling network across the city.
So what has the authority with its hands on the city’s purse strings, and which has, on numerous occasions, proclaimed its keenness to advance cycling in Jerusalem, to say on the topic? It is difficult to know. I was unable to obtain a direct response to my questions relating to taking advantage of the upturn in interest in cycling due to the pandemic restrictions fallout, or the possible implementation of tactical lanes.
The municipality’s master plan published at the end of last year talked of trebling the aggregate length of cycling routes in Jerusalem to 123 km. by 2023. There was also mention of constructing 13 km. of cycling-dedicated paths, by the end of 2019, across Kiryat Hayovel, Ramat Sharett, Rehavia and the German Colony. No specific response was forthcoming from the municipal spokesperson about that either.
I did, however, receive a belated WhatsApp message from the Spokesperson Department saying, “the Municipality of Jerusalem is currently advancing a strategic master plan for the planning and execution of cycle paths across the length and breadth of the city, taking in 188 km.”
That’s an impressive increment from the previous end-of-2019 target. The message also talked about “considering traffic arrangement changes” for the purpose of laying out cycling routes in some of the city’s neighborhoods.
There was also talk of extending existing paths, to generate the requisite continuity, and connecting cycling routes with public transport facilities, such as the Light Rail. Only time will tell when, or if, those grand plans will come to actual fruition and, along with the cycling tunnel near the Biblical Zoo, which has remained closed since its official opening over two years ago, other than on two separate days for the Gran Fondo international bicycle race, whether the municipality eventually makes good on its promises.