Cleaning up Jerusalem’s cycling act
28 May 2020 - The jerusalem post
While there has been much talk in Jerusalem's municipality of plans to construct more dedicated bicycle paths, progress has been slow.
As a Jerusalemite cyclist, and a former resident of Tel Aviv at that, I have long felt frustrated with the lack of development of infrastructure here that could enable me to wheel around the city unburdened by the need to deal with motorized traffic. Why does my adopted hometown not offer me the cycle-friendly facilities more readily available down at the western end of Highway 1?
While there has been much talk in the municipality of plans to construct more dedicated bicycle paths, progress has been slow. Yes, there are some nice routes around, but there is still little in the way of sequentially connected bike lanes that would enable Jerusalemites to pedal their way from home to work, to the stores, to studies or even to the gym, without crossing swords with gas-guzzling vehicles.
The latter is a highly pertinent matter, particular now in the wake of COVID-19, which tends to latch onto the lungs. Cities around the world, including Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin and Mexico City, have taken the opportunity to review, inter alia, their cycling infrastructures in a quest to make commuting and getting around town in general ever more environmentally friendly. That takes in developing ever greener forms of public transport, walking and cycling.
That is a major element of the message that Bicycles for Jerusalem has been trying to convey to the authorities with their hands on the municipal purse strings for some time. A couple of weeks ago, with the relaxing of restrictions on movement, the nonprofit held its first organized Critical Mass cycle ride around town for some town, and intends to get back to holding the event on a monthly basis. The next one is scheduled for June 4 at 7 p.m., leaving from the old Hamashbir building on King George Avenue.
The group ride is designed to support the organization's efforts to work with the municipality to roll out a bunch of initiatives, to enable people to make riding around town a more pleasurable and less concerning activity, which, naturally, offers a slew of benefits for all concerned. It has been proven, empirically, that cycling in urban environments generally gets you from A to B faster than by car or public transport and, of course, there are all sorts of health-related advantages, such as increased cardiovascular fitness, improved posture and coordination and decreased stress levels, to mention but a few. The last named, considering what we have all been through these past couple of months or so, should definitely feature near the top of the municipality's considerations. A recent report noted that close to half a million people in Europe die annually due to pollution-related issues, and thousands of lives may have been saved there during the coronavirus lockdown period due to traffic reductions.
And there is a neat plan to work on available. Last December, the document "A Master Plan for Bicycle Paths, Jerusalem" was drafted. Several officials from the Jerusalem Municipality were involved in the preparatory work, as well as representatives of the Transportation Ministry and a member of Bicycles for Jerusalem. The paper notes that as of 2019 there were 95 km. of bicycle paths and lanes around the city, but points out that the majority are designed for leisure purposes and are located "in open areas." The introduction to the document goes on to note that only a minority are integrated into urban streets, and that "the paths are dispersed and do not create a continuous network."
The master plan also calls for the expansion of cycling routes in Jerusalem to 255 km., including bike freeways, interconnected cycle paths and bicycle lanes that are completely separate from the road, and from pedestrians and runners, who often tend to stray onto cycling lanes, such as on Ruppin and Herzog streets.
Last week I sent in a bunch of relevant queries to the municipality spokesperson, including one about providing local cyclists with an unbroken chain of safe cycling routes. The spokesperson said, "The existing plans for bicycle paths relate to these objectives", adding that "all the currently planned paths are designed for commuting."
That sounds promising, although it seems to be taking the municipality a long time to get from the planning stage to actual implementation. Several years ago I received the master plan for the light rail, which included construction of bike routes alongside much of the tram line. Not much, if anything, of that has actually come to fruition, and that was more than a decade ago. To add insult to injury there was even a time when cyclists were fined for wheeling alongside the light rail tracks on Jaffa Road. That, thankfully, has stopped but the situation still leaves much to be desired.
Take, for example, the ludicrous, and vexing, tale of the cycling tunnel down near the Israel Aquarium. Just over a couple of years ago there was much trumpet-blowing and mutual backslapping over the opening of the tunnel, which was designed for the exclusive use of cyclists. It is, indeed, a wonder to behold with smooth tarmac, a neatly painted dotted line, lighting and ventilation. It stretches almost 2 km. from near the aquarium to Kerem Junction. We were all very excited by the news, but our optimism proved to be short lived. It was officially opened by then-mayor Nir Barkat, at the launch of the Gran Fondo New York Jerusalem bike race, after which it remained under lock and key for a whole year, and then reopened for last year's second Gran Fondo event.
When I asked the municipality why such a wonderful, and expensive, feat of engineering was still shut I was told that the powers that be were trying to raise a budget to fund various security and safety facilities. Nothing much seems to have changed in the interim. "So far we have invested NIS 6 million in the construction of the path," came the spokesperson's response this time around. "We have completed the planning of all the requisite safety systems, in accordance with the requirements of the approval bodies, such as the fire department, environment, police etc. We are now engaged in finding the remaining resources needed to install the systems in the tunnel." So, NIS 6m. of the public's money has been pumped into the tunnel and it remains unused over two years on. It doesn't sound like the state-of-the-art tunnel is exactly top of the municipality's list of priorities.
OREN LOTAN remains optimistic regardless. Lotan has been highly active in Bicycles for Jerusalem since its founding around 15 years ago. "The infrastructures for cycling are where they are," says Lotan, "but the [cycling] community has grown." That is, indeed an encouraging sign and, perhaps, the growing presence of cyclists around the largely non-cycling friendly streets of the city will make the municipality take more note. More importantly, as has been proven in various European countries, the principle factor that makes cycling safer is drivers getting used to sharing the road with bicycles. It is very much a case of the more the merrier and safer.
With that in mind, one can only applaud the municipality's recent move to turn a number of downtown streets, at certain times of the day, to no-go areas for vehicles. Although fueled by the desire to help eateries drum up some sorely-needed post-coronavirus business, when the green light to reopen cafes and restaurants is eventually given, rather than offering cyclists more room for safe maneuver, creating pop-up pedestrian areas on Hillel, Shlomzion Hamalka, Emek Refaim, Aza, Derech Beit Lehem and half a dozen other thoroughfares around town, only in the evenings, and during the summer months, is encouraging too.
"Jerusalem is a pioneer city in Israel in turning streets into pedestrian streets," says the municipality spokesperson. "[We] converted Ben-Yehuda Street into a pedestrian street in the 1980s, and through until today, whereby over the years around another 20 streets, mainly in the center of the city, were upgraded and made pedestrian-oriented while encouraging use of bicycles and public transport."
Lotan says that while there is still a long way to go before cycling becomes a safe and officially supported norm here, things are slowly beginning to look up. "Jerusalem has become more bike friendly over the years," he notes, adding that he and his pals at Bicycles for Jerusalem were suitably encouraged by a recent meeting they attended with Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitch about promoting infrastructures in the city. "It was a good meeting, and he was very receptive to our ideas."
Naturally, only time – how much time? – will tell whether positive talk will convert into actual facts on the ground, but Lotan says there are all sorts of user- and budget-friendly means for supporting the use of bicycles in urban areas. "There are tactical changes that can be introduced, for very little financial and logistical investment. You can mark out temporary bike lanes with traffic cones, and just see how it goes for a short period. If everyone manages with it you can extend it. If not, you can simply take the cones away and try something else, somewhere else."
Coronavirus constraints prompted various municipalities around the world, such as Brussels and, particularly, Berlin, to unfurl ad hoc solutions. In Berlin, they introduced pop-up bicycle lanes, taking away one of the car lanes during a time when, anyway, there was far less motorized traffic and widening bicycle routes thereby made it easier for cyclists to maintain social distancing.
And there are other propositions afoot. The master plan also references making streets in quieter neighborhoods more bicycle oriented, reducing speed limits for cars there in the process. The authorities say that is on the agenda. "The municipality is working to reduce traffic on all city streets. The municipality will take steps to plan and implement [this] on specific streets where slowing traffic is necessary," the city said.
"There is still a wide gap between what the [Bicycles for Jerusalem] organization is proposing and what the municipality is willing to do," says Aki Melamed a keen cyclist who joined the nonprofit a couple of years ago. "You can see how things have changed radically in Tel Aviv over the last 20 years but, the problem is, that in Jerusalem things move really slowly."
Melamed might have also added that, while the Tel Aviv Municipality has incorporated a separate unit that addresses the city's environmental needs, including cycling, for the past 28 years, there is no corresponding facility at city hall in Jerusalem. Daitch, for example, is responsible for the aesthetic side of life in Jerusalem. Possibly he considers bicycles a boon in that regard. I wouldn't argue against that but, clearly, there is nothing specifically cycling-oriented in his purview.
But, as English essayist and poet Alexander Pope mused around three centuries gone, hope duly springs eternal. It is a sunny ethos to which Lotan readily subscribes. "I feel people at the municipality are now more receptive to our ideas, and I see the number of cyclists in Jerusalem growing all the time," he says. It is also simply a matter of needs must. "The coronavirus time has shown, without any doubt, that you can't allow more cars into Jerusalem, and public transport is now limited in its capacity. We have to be creative."