Power struggle

Dicey electric bike regulations and lax enforcement tax Tel Aviv.

Electric bike in Tel-Aviv (photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
Electric bike in Tel-Aviv
(photo credit: ARIEL COHEN)
The hazards of electric bikes are an inescapable reality in Tel Aviv. If you’ve seen one of the motorized vehicles around town, you’ve also probably been cut off by a lazy cyclist chatting on the phone during your morning commute, or a teenager speeding past you.
The simple vehicles caused 1,000 to 1,600 pedestrian injuries in the White City in 2014, and authorities believe many more undocumented collisions occurred. But despite the dangers, it seems electric bikes are here to stay. In a densely populated city with a high cost of living, electric bikes just seem to make sense for many residents.
There are currently 120,000 electric bicycles in Israel, and some 80 percent of these are in Tel Aviv area. Not only are the bikes convenient, but they are cheap; a bike retails for NIS 3,000 to NIS 5,000 and cyclists don’t have to pay insurance or register with the Transportation Ministry, nor do they have to pay for fuel.
According to a Tel Aviv Municipality survey, 2.7% of Tel Aviv commuters use electric bikes, substantially less than the 11.9% who ride ordinary bicycles and the 7% who ride motorcycles or scooters. A growing number of these electric bike riders are aged 14 to 16, who are not old enough to operate a scooter or car.
Bruno Iskovich of Bike Club, a bike supplier in central Tel Aviv, explained that the electric bicycle can’t be compared to a road bike, even though it looks much like a regular bicycle with the exception of the attached motor. For many city residents, the electric bicycle is their sole mode of transportation, he noted; they ride it to school, to work and all over town, without a license or insurance.
Knesset regulations that came out last fall permit anyone over 16 to ride an electric bicycle, and those between 14 and 16 can ride it only on designated paths while wearing a helmet. In October, the municipality banned electric bikes as a means of transportation for primary school-age children; the notice explained that the bikes are increasingly becoming a popular bar mitzva gift, and that the children who ride them don’t have enough knowledge to do so safely.
But these laws are easily broken. “Do [the authorities] stop kids and ask them for ID? You don’t have to carry ID until you’re 16,” observes Mordechai Feder, national chairman of Metuna – the voluntary organization that promotes road safety. “Do they confiscate the bikes? It’s all talk; there is no real policy for unregistered bicycles in this country.”
Transportation is one of the most pressing issues in Israel, due to both Shabbat transportation regulations and the density of city centers, according to Deputy Mayor Meital Lehavi, who holds the transportation portfolio. She believes cyclists aged 14 to 16 should be taught the laws of riding in the street, similar to the requirement for driving lessons; in any case, allowing them to ride the electric bikes in the first place is not optimal, she asserted.
“I don’t support the law allowing 14- to 16-year-olds [to use electric bikes]. First, because it is not healthy, the kids should be riding [standard] bicycles or walking. Second, because it is very dangerous; these kids do not have identity cards. Finally, they are only allowed to ride the bicycles on designated paths, which we only have [enough of] in Tel Aviv – and this is a national law.”
Some efforts to improve the situation are under way. In February, information included with the official arnona (municipal tax) mailing that went out to residents covered electric bike regulations. Municipality spokeswoman Netta Dochan explains that the city is attempting to provide parents with as much information as possible to keep their children safe.
Yet since the motorized bikes first came to the Jewish state in 2010, they have been unregistered, unpoliced and largely unsafe. The bikes, which can reach speeds of up to 35 kph, are designed to stay on designated paths, but many Tel Avivians take the vehicles on the roads or, even worse, on sidewalks; this is where pedestrian danger lies.
Knesset regulations set a power limit of 250 watts and a travel speed not exceeding 25 kph on the bikes, enabling riders to keep up with some city cars or motorcycles – yet these vehicles are not policed like their faster cousins. And that’s where the concern arises. (Not to mention the fact that some riders reach illegal speeds as high as 40 kph.)
“There are motorized and non-motorized vehicles,” noted Feder. “But all these bikes should be considered motorcycles, because if they have motors they are essentially no different than the permitted powered motorcycle. If not, you pose a danger both to yourself and others on the road.”
TRANSPORTATION MINISTRY members who helped draft the Knesset regulations attempted to mimic the electric bicycle regulations imposed in Europe. Ministry chief scientist Dr. Shay Sofer, who was part of the team that wrote the regulations, is very hopeful the new laws will create safer city centers. In order to enforce the new rules, Sofer noted that police and municipality officials check bicycles extensively to ensure all equipment is up to par.
He further explained that the ministry wants to go a step further and invest NIS 3 million in a campaign about electric bicycle safety, primarily in schools; print and radio advertisements will also be run. “As part of the extensive public relations program we are finalizing, the ministry [is considering] various options – television, newspapers, Internet, public relations volunteers and partners, and more. The goal is to reach every target audience – youth, parents and all users of electric bicycles,” confirmed Noa Rosenhek of the National Road Safety Authority.
Dangerous as the bikes are, it’s not the riders who have the most cause for concern. Rather, the most common incident is when a cyclist hits a pedestrian, which is why it is forbidden to ride on the sidewalk. In February, an 85-year-old city resident died after a rider ran into him and he suffered severe brain hemorrhage.
While the Transportation Ministry assures the public that police are determined to enforce the new laws and are prepared to confiscate bikes that do not conform to safety standards, it’s not always easy to nab an electric bicyclist. The bikes have no license plate, no form of identification; cyclists can ride on sidewalks or streets, something cop cars can’t do when attempting to track down a rule-breaker.
Another enforcement issue is that there are not as many policemen on foot in the city centers, as most traffic regulation is done by camera. It’s difficult to track down cyclists who break the law in this way, and even if there is a policeman in the neighborhood, he may have bigger fish to fry than a stray electric bicycle.
While electric bikes are currently defined as a bicycle with a motor, there is no definition of what a bicycle itself is – which leaves lots of room for interpretation. Moreover, without any kind of identifying system for these vehicles, electric bicycles are not defined as a motor vehicle under insurance law; without a license with which to identify the rider, one is left with no recourse in the case of an accident. Since there is no identification on the bicycle, it is not officially counted as a road accident, whether on the road or sidewalk.
Toward that end, Metuna is preparing a position paper on unregistered motor vehicles – electric and non-electric bikes, scooters, rollerblades, any mode of transportation that don’t require a registration or license.
The organization is not optimistic that the new regulations will see much follow-through. “Unfortunately, there has been no effort by the Transportation Ministry, despite many calls to do so, to adapt a comprehensive approach to non-registered vehicles,” lamented Metuna’s Feder. “They adopted a very small portion of European legislation that has to do with the makeup of [standard, registered] motor vehicles, and they approved the faulty attempts to satisfy importers of electric bikes.”
Feder’s solution? Require electric cyclists to obtain licenses and adequate training for the vehicles, just like for motorcycles.
“There are no requirements on the user to know how to use the vehicle properly. None,” Feder affirmed. “You don’t even have to know the street signs or the rules of the road.”