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Are Jerusalem residents going to take to the city’s new cycling stations?

CM 12/08/2021

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The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv divide is an intriguing phenomenon here and, over the years, has taken on all sorts of guises. Bragging rights are frequently flaunted in some area of life or others. Hence, as a cyclist – and a former resident of the coastal metropolis – I have long yearned for the capital to get its municipal act together and provide Jerusalemites with the possibility of hopping on a rental two-wheeler and getting their errands done by pedaling their way between stop offs around town. After all, Tel Aviv has had its Tel-O-Fun service up and running – or cycling – for some years now. OK, so the topography in Jerusalem is more challenging, but the center of the city is not too hilly and, of course, there are pedal-assist electric models – aka VAE – to be had too.
That dream became a reality a couple of weeks ago, when the Jerufun cycling facility was launched by the Municipality of Jerusalem together with concessionaire FSM, albeit currently on “a run-in period,” as the English version of the web site notes, adding that it has duly “began.” 
Misspelling notwithstanding, the Jerufun Internet platform proudly proclaims there are hundreds of inviting looking bikes available for use, at parking stations dotted around town. Currently, the urban map shows 24 active stations with each accommodating up to 16 bicycles. All told, for now, there are 200 Chinese-manufactured models on offer – 80 regular and 120 e-bikes.
When I met up with Lior Bar Dor at the bike docking station at Safra Square a few days ago, the deputy CEO of Eden Ltd., which serves as the municipality’s economic arm, was suitably delighted with the venture kick off. “Eden is so excited to promote the infrastructure of this vital service, for residents and for tourists,” he beamed. 

In fact, it appears the rental facility had been cooking for a while, and was due to be in operation some time ago. “Like all sorts of things in the holy city which, unfortunately, get delayed, this was put off too,” Ben Dor says with a wry smile. “There were all sorts of reasons – budget and then, sadly, some poor experience in Tel Aviv.”
Politics – or the lack of its protagonists – also got in on the stymie act, along with legal requisites. “As this is a municipal initiative, which is collaborating with a private concessionaire in the public domain, for a period exceeding five years, the municipality is obliged to obtain government approval,” Ben Dor continues. Since the country’s administrative mechanism was left hanging in seemingly endless political limbo, as one general election followed hot on the heels of its predecessor, that frustrated attempts to get the rental bike scheme off the ground. “There were no governments in Israel, and this certainly wasn’t a high priority issue for them anyway, so approval for this by the relevant ministers – Finance and the Interior – was put on ice for a while,” Ben Dor explains.
THWARTED BUT not down and out, the new ministerial incumbents eventually slipped into their comfy office swivel chairs, and the municipality managed to get through that part of the bureaucratic minefield. At long last it was all systems go for Jerufun. “We got going with a municipal initiative, which is subsidized for residents,” says Ben Dor, getting round to financial brass tacks. “If, as a Jerusalem resident, I take out an annual subscription I pay NIS 270, and any trip of up to half an hour doesn’t cost me a shekel.” To my 10,000 km.-a-year road cyclist ears, that brief free transport vignette doesn’t sound too tempting. However, it seems the statistics on the ground don’t back me up on that score. “Worldwide, that is the average length of bike trips taken in town,” Ben Dor states. 
That sounds mightily inviting. NIS 270 for a year – for Yerushalmi card bearers taking out a mechanical model – is something most of us can afford and, of course, the benefits of that modest outlay are numerous and significant. For starters there are the health advantages, although that is mitigated when one opts for an electrically assisted bike. Also, the latter costs more per minute past the initial half hour, users must be aged 16 or over and helmets are mandatory.
 Instructions on how to rent one of the bikes (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Instructions on how to rent one of the bikes (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Still, even minimal physical effort is better than none, and any mode of transportation that cuts down on pollution is a boon for us all. Urban cyclists can also attest to the convenience rewards of getting out and about without getting stuck in traffic jams. Add to that the bane of all urban motorists, the headache, not to mention the financial fallout, of searching for parking facilities near one’s destination. 
My hosts at Safra Square – I was met by a veritable delegation that, in addition to Ben Dor, included Freddie Kloo, CEO of FSM, and various municipal personnel – treated me to a brief whiz around the environs, both on a regular bike and on a VAE. Their claims of user friendly operation proved to be spot on as an Eden employee kindly used the Jerufun application on his cell phone to unlock a two-wheeler for my benefit. I quickly and easily extricated the bike from its parking place and went off for a brief spin. 
I also availed myself of the opportunity to try out one of the pedal-assist electric numbers and was surprised by the kick, right from the start. Unused to having any technological support for my corporeal wattage output, other than gear ratios and bike weight, I almost lost control as my rental VAE, with its eye-catching orange back wheel protector, flew out of the traps. But I quickly got to grips with the machine and, while, personally, I eschew electric models – I prefer to put in the physical effort and reap the fitness rewards – you don’t need a PhD in any field to dig how attractive that could be to the potential urban cyclist. Many of us may, indeed, be drawn to the notion of zipping between, say, the supermarket and the office gratis and delightfully unrestrained. 
 Some of the stations are fully supplied while others are lacking in bikes (credit: Courtesy FSM) Some of the stations are fully supplied while others are lacking in bikes (credit: Courtesy FSM)
As I cycled around town, on my own 22-speed carbon frame lightweight racer, I checked out some other Jerufun stations and noted they were not fully occupied. That may have been because of locals quickly cottoning onto the newly available efficient, fun and environmentally friendly service, or perhaps the operators have yet to fully load the various bike bases. 
Naturally, at this early stage of the game it is difficult to know how the rental scheme is going to pan out, and whether Jerusalemites and visitors – especially those from the flat western end of Route 1 – manage to get their heads around the topography mindset, but Ben Dor et al seemed to be encouraged by the state of play thus far. “It is going well so far,” says Ben Dor, “but it’s still very early days.”
The website is pretty simple to navigate around, and all the fees are clearly stated. Out-of-towners, or locals who do not have a Yerushalmi card will have to fork out NIS 360 for an annual subscription – not exactly a fortune either. There are also three-month subscriptions on offer, costing NIS 99 or NIS 132, for Yerushalmi cardholders and others respectively. And, if you are not quite ready to commit to long term usage, or find yourself in downtown Jerusalem infrequently, you can take out a bike on a one-time basis, as per your ad hoc needs.
The new rental service is a wonderful, if long overdue, development on the urban scene. But it should also be considered in terms of the wider picture of just how cycle-friendly Jerusalem is, and what the potential is with regard to the development of infrastructures – the magic word cited by Ben Dor.
If you have ever visited places like Amsterdam, Copenhagen or a host of other major cities around the western world, even if you are not a cyclist yourself you may have noted the cycle lanes, traffic lights and other fixtures that ensure pedalers can get from A to B safely, and without having to negotiate with, or bother, motorists or pedestrians. 
Oran Lotan welcomes the new rental service with open arms. Lotan is one of the movers and shakers behind the Bicycles for Jerusalem (BFJ) group which has long campaigned for making Jerusalem more amenable to cyclists. However, while offering us the means for getting around town quickly and healthily is a positive move, he feels there is still some way to go. “It is great but, of course, it has to be part of the bigger picture, of a citywide infrastructure, with separate cycle lanes and such. The municipality has to invest more in cycle paths, and I think everyone realizes now, including in Tel Aviv, that cycle lanes cannot be part of the sidewalk. Jerufun offers great potential to get people on a bike for the first time, and to encourage them to cycle around town.”
THE NEED for an integrated overview approach is echoed by Guy Lamdan, a keen cyclist who works at the Bikeway store in Givat Shaul. “Having pedal-assist bikes is a great idea for Jerusalem,” he notes, “and the municipality is clearly starting to move in the right direction. But inexperienced cyclists need to feel safe and confident. For that you need to have dedicated bike lanes. The municipality needs to think about people getting, say, from home to work and back without having to share the roads with cars.” There is, says Lamdan, more work to be done to get to that ideal state of affairs. “The municipality has a record of one-time projects rather than developing sustainable and viable infrastructure. We cyclists have to keep on pushing them until we get what we need.”
While Natan Moatti is hardly a novice at pedaling, and has been cycling around Jerusalem since his schooldays, he was keen to check out the Jerufun models. He says it was a positive experience all round. “I jumped at the opportunity in the first days of the service, and it was great,” says the 28-year-old student. “There is a bike station near where I live, on Jabotinsky Street.” 
He decided to see how practical it was for running errands. “I took out an electric bike – my own bike is mechanical – and I rode to the shuk. I decided to pamper myself with an electric model, just this once, and to see how it felt.” He says the municipality is onto a winner. “The bike was heavy but it was solid, and felt safe.”
Moatti enjoyed his VAE experience, even though he wouldn’t mind zipping around a little faster. “The pedal-assist is great for getting up the inclines in Jerusalem. But, as a regular cyclist, 25 kph felt a little slow for me. And if you want to exceed that you have to pedal insanely fast. That’s not really doable.” I have to say, to my mind the VAE top speed sounds perfectly adequate. 
Jerufun proved its real-time worth a few days after the shuk trip, when it got Moatti out of a pickle. “I had a doctor’s appointment on Shatz Street, and I had to get a train to Tel Aviv afterwards,” he recalls. “Unfortunately, the doctor took me in late and, by the time I came out, I only had 18 minutes to make it to the train. I reckoned the Light Rail wouldn’t get me there on time, so I just crossed King George Street, took out a rental bike and I was at the train station in 5 minutes. And it cost me about NIS 5.”
Moatti says he is optimistic about cycling matters in the capital making strides. “I think people see the docking stations and they will increasingly make use of the rental service.” He feels the powers that be are now thinking along the desired lines. “I think that the municipality is listening to us, and there is good dialogue between them and Jerusalemites now, about cycling. Cycle lanes have to be on road level, and I hope that will happen in the future and that we get the right cycling infrastructures.”
BEN DOR says there is more to come. “We are planning on having 50 stations, spread out from the entrance to the city to the Old City, including the business district and tourism area.” The service is due to develop as per the needs on the street. “We have given ourselves six months to see how things go, and how much demand there is for the bikes. We will also see where to place the stations.”
He says he has already had positive feedback, and requests from outside the current rental service hinterland. “People in Pisgat Zeev have asked us to install stations there, which would probably service that region, including Neve Ya’akov. The government quarter needs more stations. I’ll bet [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett gets on a bike sometime too,” he chuckles. “If he gives us money, just like they have Boris Bikes in London, we’ll have Bennett Bikes here.” The Givat Ram branch of the Hebrew University, which already has one station, has asked for more to be dotted around the campus. “Students may start cycling between Givat Ram and the Mount Scopus campus. There is tremendous potential,” Ben Dor adds. “You take out a bike and you don’t need the Light Rail, a car or parking facilities.”
Kloo says the Jerusalem venture is benefiting from his experience over the past decade, with Tel-O-Fun. “Initially we thought we’d have electrically powered stations here, like in Tel Aviv, which would have entailed excavating and cement pouring. But, in Jerusalem, the locking mechanism is directly onto the bike itself, and it is a docking station. They can also be moved to new locations, if the need arises.” That, Kloo says, is a significant advantage. “We support the docking method. Look at what’s going on in Tel Aviv, with the scooters that are left lying around all over town. With docking you know where you start, and where you finish your rental service.” The bikes also have built-in locks. “You can stop, say, at a store to buy something, and leave the bike outside securely locked.”
The accent is, naturally, very much on keeping the enterprise as environmentally- and user-friendly as possible. “The stations are solar powered, and the rental process is simple,” Kloo continues. “The bike has a SIM card and we can know who takes the bike out. We can also control the maximum speed of the e-bikes if, for some reason, a speed limit is introduced for certain areas of the city. The technology allows us to do that, to have control. We brought in the most advanced bikes on the market.”
Ben Dor also notes the seamless technical support and monitoring facility incorporated in the network. “You can take bikes out 24/7. If there is a fault in the bike you can contact us and we will deal with it.”
The Jerufun app is easy to download and use, even for someone as technologically challenged as I. So, the next time you consider wending your way through the city’s busy streets, and where you might park your car, it might be worth your while checking out the Jerufun option.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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