The perils of being a pedestrian in Tel Aviv

Being a pedestrian in Tel Aviv has become frightening.

A cityscape of Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A cityscape of Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
With municipal elections approaching, I, a proud Tel Aviv resident, have an announcement to make: my No. 1 issue is making our sidewalks safer.
Being a pedestrian in Tel Aviv has become perilous.
Here is what my 15-minute morning walk to drop my toddler off at daycare looks like. I encounter intersections without curb ramps, making it difficult to get on and off the sidewalk with a stroller. One corner, behind the very busy Dizengoff Square, has no crosswalks at all. The sidewalks are often blocked by dumpsters and cars parked illegally on the sidewalks, turning them into obstacle courses often necessitating the dangerous move of walking on the busy Tel Aviv streets – and that’s when electric bicycles, which can and have caused serious injuries, aren’t zipping by on the sidewalks.
Now, the newest obstruction has come along: bike- and scooter-sharing apps that let cyclists park anywhere they want. I have been finding myself moving bikes out of my way nearly every time I walk with the stroller since the orange bicycles from the Mobike app hit the streets of Tel Aviv. These bikes are clunky and heavy; when you have a rambunctious kid voicing displeasure at being strapped into a seated position, every extra second spent maneuvering is an added stressor.
In theory, Mobike tells its users to only park in authorized places, and they have staff who “work day and night to move bicycles that were parked inconsiderately,” the app’s social media account wrote in response to my Facebook lament. In addition, they said repeat offenders are penalized.
Responding to my complaint, the municipality said that Mobike is not authorized by the city. They have confiscated dozens of bicycles and have warned the company that it will be slapped with an indictment for harming public spaces if it doesn’t crack down on offenders.
Yet, not long after receiving this reply, I encountered a sidewalk blocked by two bikes right next to each other in such a manner that I couldn’t even walk by on my own, let alone if I had the pram in tow.
Yet I am certain that I have it better than many others in the city. What do people on crutches or in a wheelchair do? They seem to be left with no choice but to step or roll into moving traffic if they can’t move the bikes themselves. And the further south you go in Tel Aviv, the worse these kinds of conditions tend to get.
These complaints are not new and are fairly common in the White City. A Tel Aviv pedestrians’ rights group on Facebook has over 8,200 members.
When I posted on Facebook asking to hear people’s horror stories, I received immediate responses.
• “I’m dead scared walking down the street with my kids,” one woman said.
• Multiple pregnant women reported being knocked over by bicycles.
• “Dangerous sidewalks are the No. 1 reason I left central Tel Aviv,” said another.
• Another was a bit more optimistic.
“They updated the law not that long ago.
It is now illegal to ride an electric bike on the sidewalk... it’s the enforcement of this that is harder, although I have witnessed many riders being stopped and fined by police.” (I have yet to see such a thing in my neighborhood.) • A raucous debate began between pedestrians who want bikes off the sidewalks, and cyclists who say the street is too dangerous for them. Both sides said more and better bike lanes are needed.
ONE OF the advantages of living in the middle of a city is that almost everything you need is close by. I walk to the supermarket, to my kid’s daycare, to the park, to synagogue, to my friends’ houses, to the gym, to the mall, to restaurants, to the movies, to the beach and to the bus stop to get to work. Central Tel Aviv is so overly congested with cars that people living and working there should be encouraged to use public transportation, bicycles and their own two feet to get around.
However, the mayoral candidate who is taking this issue most seriously is a comedian.
Asaf Harel – the talk-show host, screenwriter, Ha’aretz columnist and now Tel Aviv mayoral hopeful – is the only candidate who has a platform available to read on his campaign website to protect pedestrians.
“The sidewalks have turned into dangerous territory,” Harel warns. “Our city doesn’t have a transportation policy!The time has come to have clear priorities – pedestrians first. This isn’t a city of cars; it’s a city of people. Sidewalks need to be a safe place for pedestrians – children and adults.”
Harel suggests a policy to reduce the number of cars in the city by encouraging non-residents park outside the city with free shuttles to the center, and charging a toll if they insist on driving in. He also wants an overhaul and expansion of bike lanes.
Other candidates elucidated their plans for pedestrians when asked.
City council member Meital Lehavi of Meretz said that, on principle, “Sidewalks belong to pedestrians. We must ensure their safety,” but at the same time, it’s important to “continue to encourage the use of bicycles as an urban green mode of transportation that is preferable to private cars.” While 20% of people in Tel Aviv use bicycles, more than ever before, Lehavi said it is difficult to add bike lanes to an already built-up city.
“If I am elected mayor, it is my position that bike lanes need to be built at the expense of lanes for private cars in any place where there is more than one lane for cars.
Where there are not two lanes, cyclists must ride on the street next to the cars...
and the speed limit should be lowered to 30 km. an hour.”
Deputy Mayor Assaf Zamir, who is also running for the top spot, said, “Tel Aviv-Jaffa has transportation problems that leave it far behind in comparison to leading cities in the world. Pedestrians are not safe on the sidewalks, cyclists cannot ride safely on the road and residents who cannot give up their private cars, for lack of an alternative, suffer from lack of parking.”
Zamir proposes a physical separation between bike lanes, roads and sidewalks, and to make different parts of the city easier to reach without a car. As for electric bicycles, Zamir says they are a green and a good fit for Tel Aviv, and their use should be encouraged – but not at the expense of pedestrians, whose “safety and comfort come in first place.”
Mayor Ron Huldai, who is running for reelection, said that clearing the sidewalks of obstacles has been a priority for him in his 20 years as mayor, and that pedestrians come first on sidewalks.
Among the things his spokesman says that the city does to keep sidewalks clear and safe are “planning roads, including reducing the number of unnecessary poles... daily enforcement of car-parking laws, [stopping] placement of merchandise by stores and trash cans... moving motorcycle parking to the street, suing to remove [lottery ticket] stands and enforcement against cyclists.
“These actions have brought a significant improvement, but it must be remembered that this is a difficult, daily endeavor in a large city like Tel Aviv-Jaffa, whose sidewalks, mainly in the center of town, were built many years ago and are insufficient.
Therefore, Huldai will continue to act with determination on this matter.”
Huldai’s spokesman also repeated the city line on Mobike and similar apps.
Everyone seems to say pedestrians are their priority, but the sidewalks of Tel Aviv are still a hazard. Will these remain campaign promises on paper, or will something change after October’s election? That remains to be seen.