Making way for bikes

With more bicyclists than ever on the roads, now may be the perfect time to expand cycling infrastructure in the Holy City.

bikers 298.88 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
bikers 298.88
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
If you asked most Tel Aviv cyclists if they would consider wheeling their way from home to work (and possibly even do a little shopping) if they lived in Jerusalem, you would probably get a blank stare of incredulity in response. "But what about all those hills?" is the general reaction. While cyclists in the less topographically challenging parts of the country may have things somewhat easier, the number of human powered two-wheelers on the capital's streets has clearly increased in recent years. There are at least 23 bicycle stores dotted around town, a testament to the growing interest in cycling. Just 10 years ago, there were less than half that number. "It's wonderful to see so many Jerusalemites on bikes," says Oz Nahum, coordinator for the Bicycles for Jerusalem pressure group, adding that the city may be less difficult to navigate on two wheels than is commonly believed. "There are plenty of routes that don't involve too many inclines." One such route has become a bone of contention. The now disused train tracks that run parallel to Emek Refaim (from Derech Beit Lehem in the direction of Malha), would appear to be an ideal conduit for cyclists. For now, there are plans to construct a light rail route along the old tracks, ultimately stretching from Malha - where the new train station is situated - to the area of the old Jerusalem station. "There have been all sorts of rumors about what will actually happen there," says Nahum. According to Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) Jerusalem director Naomi Tsur, the authorities are not always taking the lead in developing bicycle-friendly infrastructure for the city. "We would like to establish a kind of community input in developing the cycle path [along the old train tracks]. We would then have to ask the Jerusalem Development Authority to cooperate with this, but they haven't in the past taken a very positive view on community input and public participation." There was certainly some "public participation" a few months ago at a cycling conference held in Jerusalem. Tsur was greatly encouraged by the conference proceedings. "One of the interesting things said at the conference was the facility with which you can convert an old railway line into a bike path, although there can be obstacles." There are also some interesting logistical aspects involved. "One of the things a train line does is divide the area into two. On the other hand, if the railway line becomes a bike path you have interaction between the two sides. You have a meeting of the community on both sides of the path, and the possibility of community initiatives that can enrich the neighborhoods and create what is called a corridor park." Recently, a community event organized by the nearby Keshet School involved a march from the school to the disused train tracks, as a way of conveying to the municipal powers-that-be that the locals really do want a cycle path there. Shai Beitner, a teacher at Keshet and one of the organizers of the march, is in favor of Jerusalem residents taking the initiative, and is keen to ensure the area is used for environmentally friendly purposes. "A bicycle path and walking path have been approved for the route of the train tracks but there is also a large open area which has been earmarked for a road - Route 34 - leading from the train bridge between Talpiot and Beit Safafa to the Oranim junction." According to Beitner, along Route 34 (which was initially approved 20 years ago), all the relevant community interest groups are united in their opposition to the new road. "There was a meeting at the Jerusalem Municipality a couple of months ago which was attended by all the community administrative planners. All of them, without previously coordinating their positions, said the road was superfluous and that there should only be a bike and walking path there." Currently, there is an extreme dearth of cycle paths in Jerusalem, the only one on offer being the route that starts near the Valley of the Gazelles and continues through Sacher Park. And even that was temporarily out of use recently when the park pathways were resurfaced. The cycling route markings have yet to be restored. Nahum is convinced the rising popularity of cycling in Jerusalem is no passing fad. "Bicycles are good for this city, hills notwithstanding," he says. Nahum also sheds some light on the cycling renaissance which, he says, is fueled by often contradictory developments. "For a start Jerusalem is beginning to recover from the intifada, and more and more young people are moving here. And there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in Jerusalem who can't afford a car, and some of them use bicycles instead." Those reasons are augmented by the tough time motorists in Jerusalem have endured for several years now, as work on the light rail continues to play havoc with many of the city's major thoroughfares, and all manner of repair work takes place in the city center. "I think people are getting fed up with the traffic jams," Nahum continues, "The municipality is finally getting the message that they cannot carry on planning transport programs based on the car. Don't forget, downtown Jerusalem will soon be closed to private vehicles. That should also encourage people to start cycling. "There are now over 20 bike shops in Jerusalem in a population of 700,000. I was in Chicago last summer. In the city there are three million residents and over 10 million in the greater urban area. And they have only 40 bike shops listed there. So I don't think we are doing too badly." The old adage about every cloud having a silver lining could well apply to Jerusalem's current cycling predicament. With all the disruptions and seemingly endless work on the light rail, the project actually is a golden opportunity to set a workable cycling infrastructure in place, alongside or near the new urban train routes. Shmuel Tsabari, director of the Jerusalem Light Rail project, appears to be in favor of promoting cycling in the city. "There are bike paths planned adjacent to, or near, some of the light rail lines," he says, adding that the light rail project is, in fact, just one aspect of a multi-transport system. "We are really talking about an accessibility plan that allows people to get from one point to another by any means possible. The great advantage of the project is that it allows us to redesign the public space - how much room you allow for pedestrians, public transport, cars and bicycles. This may be our last opportunity to do something in this area." Tsabari's plans also include secure bike parking facilities. "We want to allow people to cycle to the light rail stations, leave their bikes there, and continue on by train. And we hope there will be adequate bike paths for people who want to cycle all the way to their destination." Unfortunately, Tsabari adds, it won't always be possible to build bike paths along the light rail routes, although he hopes more paths will be added over time. "The Herzl Boulevard light rail route, for example, won't have a bike path because it simply isn't logistically possible. But I hope bike paths will be placed next to new light rail lines as they are built." There are also significant health and financial advantages to be gained from promoting cycling as a viable mode of urban transport. "Oz [Nahum] presented some figures at the cycling conference that indicate that, while it would cost around NIS 500 million to construct bike paths all over Israel, the savings in health-related costs would be somewhere in the region of NIS 2 billion," says Tsur. "People are not getting enough physical exercise. Twenty or 30 minutes of cycling, for instance, which could be cycling to and from work, could cut down the incidence of heart disease, strokes, certain kinds of cancer by about 50 percent." Add to that a possible increase in tourism revenue. "Having cycle paths in downtown Jerusalem can help to bring in tourists who not only want to see the sites of this historic city, but also to spend their time and money in an ecologically correct way." At the end of the day, however, Keshet teacher Beitner believes it is down to the laws of the jungle. "There will be cycle paths alongside the light rail and elsewhere if we apply enough pressure. That's what it is all about."