Blade runners

Tel Aviv's rollerbladers just want to be understood - by city, police, drivers and pedestrianss.

rollerblade (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
It's 10:20 p.m. on a Tuesday evening in balmy Tel Aviv and I'm strapping some sort of fandangled contraptions to my feet and trying to figure out which way the wrist guards attach. There's excitement in the air as the crowd of rollerbladers thickens on the walkway opposite the Habima Theater construction site. One guy, the leader of this super-sized gang, jumps up onto a bench and yells out instructions and directions. Then we're off. The 200-plus group fly gracefully down the road at a pace of about 25-30 kilometers an hour. The sweet gentleman (God bless him) whom I'd been asking to keep an eye on me before the start of the run grabs my hand and tells me that we've got to move. We move. And we move. And everything seems to be going great; the atmosphere is good, with rollerbladers gliding past me to a mixture of traffic cheers and horns blaring at us. "Faster!" he tells me, "We shouldn't fall behind the 'tail.'" "Faster? But how do I stop?" I yell back to him. "You don't know how to stop? I think we might have a problem here." He leads me to a slower pace, then acts as a brace, allowing me to stop entirely. "We're behind the tail now," he explains, "so I don't think it's safe for you to continue this evening. Practice how to stop a few times first and come back next week, okay?" I realize reluctantly that we're far behind the group. As I watch him sway away to join the others, I feel a pinch of jealousy of him being able to glide freely through the streets like that. My experience, however, is far from the norm. Most people I spoke to began taking part in the run almost as soon as they learned to rollerblade, whether they joined through friends or heard about it by chance. Young and old alike confidently join in the fun and become more expert with each run. As 15-year-old Tel Aviv participant, Na'ama Nijk - who joined the rollerblading group as a bonding activity with her father - tells Metro: "When I began, I was very scared about even riding on regular roads. But as you improve, you're less scared because your balance is better. Now, when I'm in rollerblades, I feel [as natural as] walking, so there's no reason for me to just fall." The group receives assorted reactions from drivers and city residents. Some become upset or aggressive with the group or at having to wait for so many people to pass. Most, like Tel Aviv taxi driver Ya'akov Siani, think the rollerblading groups are a nice idea, but are concerned for the participants' safety. The rollerbladers who spoke with Metro unanimously said they viewed rollerblading in a group as a safer alternative to rollerblading by themselves. They feel more visible together and they watch out for each other. The groups include first-aid personnel; a leader who checks the traffic; a "tail" who makes sure no one falls behind and five to eight safety monitors in florescent yellow vests who make sure the skaters don't get hurt, separated, too rowdy, hang on to cars or disrupt the flow of traffic. When skating on their own, rollerbladers are less visible and are more vulnerable to aggressive drivers. As Na'ama's father, Ethan - one of the group's safety monitors - puts it: "It's much safer to skate in the group, I think, than to skate by yourself on the main roads." But exercise, fun and the idea of safety in numbers are not the only reasons this crowd gathers so late every Tuesday night to glide through the streets of Tel Aviv. The group has a mission and a purpose. As Ethan explains: "We are trying to legitimize [rollerblading] as a method of transportation and as a green way of traveling inside the city, like bicycles. [If there are 200 rollerbladers], that means 200 fewer cars. It's also a social event and [the group] has to be recognized by other drivers and by the city as something that benefits everyone." Ethan refers me on to Alik Mintz, the "father" and "life spirit" of the group, for more details on the idea of "legimization." Mintz, a 51-year-old computer software designer by trade, was one of the original group of friends that founded the weekly rollerblade run in Tel Aviv almost 10 years ago. Since then, it has grown to encompass anywhere from 200 to 350 participants in the summer months, and increasing to as many as 500 participants for special events like Earth Day. Mintz fervently describes the group as "a big rollerblade gang that actually claims the streets," and further elaborates: "I claim my right to use the streets for my well-being, to practice sports, rollerblading, whatever. Actually my dream is to kick all the traffic [out of the city]. Leave it out of the city," he stresses. In reality, though, Mintz concedes that in order to reach his goal, he has to compromise. He proposes that the roads should be divided into three sections: one for private traffic, one for public transportation, and a third for bicyclists and rollerbladers, who would be subject to the same road rules as any other mode of transportation. "There should be rules!" he argues passionately. "People should play in skate parks, not on these paths or lanes. They should be used for everybody to move around. I can get from anywhere to anywhere in Tel Aviv within 20 minutes. Door to door." Mintz stresses that order and control must be maintained within the rollerblading community. "When we were free to do whatever we liked, we were more hot-tempered and there were calls to the police. So we lowered our profile and the police accordingly let us be." Mintz recounts that for a number of years, the rollerbladers were simply a bunch of individuals who met every week to rollerblade together. They were rowdy and unrestrained in their behavior, showed little responsibility for each other and were not really aware of the impression they were making on their fellow residents. Once their numbers swelled to over 150, the number of complaints to the police began increasing, as well. In 2004, the rollerbladers applied to the police for an official sanction of their weekly activity. They were assisted by the head of the Green Party faction in the Tel Aviv Municipality Peer Visner, then a deputy for the mayor's office. The Traffic Police granted them permission to hold their weekly run, but on the condition that the activity received the approval of Yarkon District Cmdr. Aaron Ezra. At a formal meeting, Mintz relates, Ezra informed him that such rollerblade gatherings were illegal, would need hundreds of police to supervise them, would need to be advertised in the appropriate papers at least two weeks prior to each of the events, and that it would only be feasible to run them once a year. He told Mintz that despite the fact that weekly rollerblade runs have become successful tourist attractions elsewhere in the world, he did not believe it would work in the Middle East. The rollerbladers continued to meet every week. Two weeks after the meeting with Ezra, Mintz recalls, the police showed up in force in cars and on motorbikes at the rollerbladers' weekly gathering point. The police waited as the group members prepared to start their run and were halfway down the first road. Then they came after the rollerbladers and stopped as many of them as they could. In the end, the police fined six individuals for various charges, ranging from driving a legally unrecognized vehicle; not giving right of way to another vehicle; participating in a group sporting activity on the roads without police permission; and loitering. The rollerbladers decided to fight the charges in court rather than pay the fines. Over the next two years, they managed to have all six cases closed in their favor. Despite their legal triumphs, the rollerbladers decided to tone down their activities in light of the police's action and to form themselves into a better-organized and more responsible group. They introduced safety measures and rules that took other road users into consideration, and began to take more responsibility for each other's safety and behavior, as well. Hanging on to cars is now forbidden; they try to keep the noise down and they also maintain an open lane of traffic so other vehicles can pass them easily. "So we became a lot more civilized, and the police let us continue the runs, but this is unofficial," Mintz states. Until recently, in consideration of the group's efforts to maintain harmony with its surroundings, the police let the rollerbladers alone, allowing them to continue their weekly runs, but not giving official permission, let alone a police escort. However, less than two weeks ago, over 20 police officers showed up at the start of one run to disperse the rollerbladers, all of whom left separately and quietly. A meeting was subsequently set up between the rollerbladers, the police, and one of the mayor's deputies. Before this incident, a Tel Aviv Police spokesman told Metro that the police's opinion of the rollerblading runs was "not important," and added that the police had had no trouble with the group for the last two or three years. Nevertheless, the spokesman did express concern that rollerblading might be dangerous both for the participants and for other road users, without explaining why. While the view that rollerblading can be dangerous is common among the Tel Aviv residents and drivers interviewed by Metro, this is not an opinion shared by police and public in other parts of the world where rollerblading groups gather. In Paris, for example, weekly Friday night 30-km. rollerblade runs, monitored by the non-profit, apolitical organization Pari Roller, can attract up to 35,000 skaters on any given night. At each event, the rollerbladers are provided with a police escort of 30 officers: six on motorbikes, another four on scooters and 20 more who join in the procession on rollerblades themselves. The police are official partners of Pari Roller and are there not so much to monitor the skaters as maintain the peace between them and other drivers and pedestrians. In fact, the rollerblading runs in Paris have become a proud cultural event, known throughout the world and mimicked in many other cities such as Berlin, Munich, London, Buenos Aires, Tokyo and New York. The ultimate goal of the rollerblading runs in Tel Aviv is to popularize rollerblading as a practical and legitimate form of transport - to have it classed legally as such and provided for in the same way as cars or bicycles are provided for. To this end, Mintz and other rollerbladers have once again approached the municipality, and Mayor Ron Huldai in particular, to make a change to Tel Aviv's traffic laws and make the city's pavements more rollerblade-friendly. The Tel Aviv Municipality provided Metro with a statement stating none of the attempts it has made to help the rollerbladers has met with police approval, and that the city's efforts on behalf of the group were thereby blocked. Despite these setbacks, the rollerbladers of Tel Aviv continue to meet for their weekly runs in ever-increasing numbers. They use their presence to demonstrate the practicality and ease of rollerblading, while being friendly and considerate of other road users. They insist that rollerblading is here to stay and will one day be an integral part of an ecological transportation infrastructure in Tel Aviv. Until this happens, though, they are content just to be free to glide together through the city's night-time streets.