As TA bike lanes grow, residents demand voice in planning

After years of pressure from advocacy groups, the Tel Aviv Municipality has finally adopted an aggressively pro-bicycle agenda. Bike lanes are being paved, a bike-share system is being launched, and the city’s PR machine is working hard to sell the new strategy. Yet, the insensitivity and obtuseness which with the new policy is being implemented have already provoked a limited backlash, which, if left unchecked, threatens to endanger the entire project.

By Jesse Fox

Tel Aviv is experiencing a surge of interest in urban cycling. As the number of people choosing to get around the city by bicycle has grown in recent years, so has the municipality’s budget for building new bike lanes. According to a new 5-year plan, close to 40 km of new bike lanes will be paved over the next few years, many of them along central streets.

Meanwhile, the city’s bike lanes themselves have gradually evolved from pitiful logos spray painted onto sidewalks to color-coded sidewalk paths, to the elegant street-level, separated lanes built along main streets in the eastern part of the city in recent years.

All of this has engendered a new breed of activists, mostly car owners, who complain that city hall’s newfound enthusiasm for bicycles will lead to the unilateral elimination of dozens of already-scarce parking spots. While still in its infancy, the backlash has already taken on a number of different forms: internet activism, angry exchanges at city council meetings, even a lawsuit.

Tel Aviv is not alone in facing such a backlash. Similar scenarios have played out recently in several other cities around the world.

In New York, where the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg is pursuing an ambitious program of urban sustainability, an energetic new transportation commissioner has installed some 400 kilometers of new bike lanes over the last four years, eliminating hundreds of parking spots in the process. While considered by many to be a success – the project has led to a sharp increase in bicycle use while reducing traffic accidents – it has also drawn some very vocal criticism, mainly from a privileged minority of car owners.

In response, the city’s mayor and transportation commissioner have pledged to redouble their efforts to build a consensus around bike lanes, through better communication with the public, greater attentiveness to civic leaders and a more inclusive planning process. So far, the strategy appears to be working.

In Tel Aviv, however, the city’s leadership has reacted to the umbrage of local car owners with its typical dismissive, my-way-or-the-highway attitude. “The streets of Tel Aviv do not belong to the residents,” a senior official in charge of transportation at the municipality recently told a local newspaper. “No one owns the streets or the parking spots, and the municipality does not have to conduct negotiations with the residents.”

Mayor Ron Huldai reacted with similar disdain when residents of Bloch Street showed up at a recent city council meeting to contest the decision to cancel several dozen parking spaces in order to make way for a new bike lane. As the mayor calmly ignored the residents’ protests, the council chairwoman made it clear that they would not be allowed to air their concerns, and threatened to have them forcibly removed from the meeting.

Rendering of Tel Aviv's Bloch Street in April 2012 after bike lanes are added (Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv Municipality)
Graphic rendering of Tel Aviv's Bloch Street in April 2012, once planned bike lanes are added. (Photo courtesy of Tel Aviv Municipality)

This kind of response is unlikely to defuse opposition. On the contrary, it is pretty much guaranteed to further antagonize the project’s opponents, especially as the municipality’s flagship bike sharing project begins to flood the city with hundreds of additional cyclists this spring – potentially creating more friction between pedestrians, cars and bikes on city streets and sidewalks.

Looked at differently, however, perhaps the bike lanes versus parking discourse reflects a false dichotomy. Listen closely to the arguments of opponents and it becomes clear that what really irks them, even more than the loss of a few parking spots, is that no one bothered to include them in the decision-making process. On the other side, the pro-bicycle crowd has conveniently ignored the lack of transparency to which it would normally object.

If this is the case, then perhaps the best way to defuse the anti-bike backlash before it spreads is for the municipality to engage in an open, honest dialogue with the public. This might begin by presenting the city’s 5-year plan for bike lanes – formulated without public participation and never approved by the city council – to the public, while clearly communicating the reasoning behind it and its benefits, and creating space for public input.

Municipal officials might also make an effort to engage with disgruntled citizens who stand to lose their parking spots. In the case of Bloch Street, a meeting has been scheduled between residents and senior officials at the municipality. Next time around, perhaps it would be wise to meet with affected residents at an earlier stage of the planning process.

Moreover, while bicycles are certainly part of the solution, bike lanes alone will not solve the city’s chronic transportation problems. City officials would probably have an easier time persuading skeptical car-owners of the benefits of bike lanes if the latter actually believed that the municipality was engaged in a real effort to create immediate, near-term public transportation solutions.

In addition to bike lanes, these might include improvements to the bus system, along with more and better-enforced dedicated bus lanes, several lines of BRT (bus rapid transit) and the creation of a metropolitan transportation authority. According to various reports, some of these moves have already been set in motion, yet they are being promoted without any real effort to inform or involve the public.

Tel Aviv residents have repeatedly expressed their demand to be included in the planning of their streets and neighborhoods. Thus, presenting such a package to the public at this point would probably be the single most popular move the city’s leadership could make, even if it meant taking away parking spots and/or traffic lanes.

The transition from a car-dependent city to one which prioritizes public transportation, bicycles and pedestrians is not a cosmetic change but an inherently transformative process. As such, if the municipality is serious about making it happen, it must do away with its preference for closed-door decision-making and adopt a new spirit of openness and collaboration.

Jesse Fox is the founder of Open TLV, a new organization that advocates for transparency and innovation in urban planning.