Tel Aviv is turning green. Not so much due to an increase in parks and trees, but because hundreds of bright green bikes have become part of the scenery.
You see them almost everywhere you look in Israel's cultural and economic hub on the Mediterranean. It started in April when the municipality launched a public bicycle sharing project, a la Velib' in Paris, or like London's informally-named Boris bikes, introduced by Mayor Boris Johnson.
Since then, Tel Aviv's Tel-o-Fun project has grown to 1,500 cycles, available at more than 130 docking stations. By comparison, London's programme has about 6,000 black-and-blue bikes and 400 stations, while Paris has about 20,000 futuristic grey bikes at 1,800 stations - one station about every 300 metres in both cities.
Tel Aviv's inner city has one station every 250 metres, says Zohar Sosenko, a Tel Aviv city hall spokesman. Another 20 are to open in the coming months. About 10,000 Israelis have already subscribed. “We're very happy with the usage,” he said. Four thousand rentals a day - in a city of 400,000 residents and an area of about 40 square kilometres - is a big achievement, he said.
Subscribers can use the bikes anywhere, any time, for an annual fee of 240 shekels (65 dollars). This is comparable to the yearly fee in London, but costlier than the Paris scheme. The first 30 minutes are free of charge to subscribers. An additional half-hour costs five shekels.
In order to keep the bikes in circulation, the longer you rent, the less it pays off. The idea is to use them to get from one point in the city to another quickly - to get to work, or as a complement to the bus or train - without having to worry about maintenance or theft, or about parking and traffic jams.
Tel-o-Fun is a pun on the Hebrew words “tel” (hill) and “ofun” (wheel). In fact, Tel Aviv means Spring Hill, even though for the most part, the coastal city is flat. That - and its sunny climate - makes Tel Aviv ideal for bikers. The coldest it gets in winter is about 10 degrees Celsius. Only July and August are too hot, with an average temperature of 31 degrees, making many opt for air-conditioned buses or cars.
About 20 years ago, you had to be almost suicidal to venture into Tel Aviv's chaotic traffic on a bicycle. But the industry has boomed in recent years, with bicycle shops proliferating. First, sporty mountain bikes were popular. Now folding electric bicycles are a hit.
Ron Huldai, Tel Aviv's mayor of the past 13 years, often boasts his city has “paved” more than 100 kilometres of bicycle lanes, many of them as part of the city's 100th anniversary celebrations in 2009.
However, the city still has some way to go before it can call itself the Amsterdam of the Middle East, or a bikers' paradise. For one thing, streets lack clear signs to separate bike lanes from pedestrian pavements.
Israelis are also oblivious to cycling traffic rules - unlike the Dutch, who learn them in school and for whom signalling with the right or left hand before turning is almost a reflex. Keeping right, and overtaking from the left, is another notion that has not yet penetrated the Israeli consciousness. A common sight is that of cyclists trying to make up their minds on which side to pass each other.
But subscribers are pleased. “It's fantastic,” said Ezra Huri, a computer expert who uses the green bikes as the first stage of journeys to the airport when he goes away. “It's an awesome means of transportation,” he added.
Mayor Huldai told the Ma'ariv daily in June that Tel Aviv had ambitions to rival Europe's cycling capitals. “We are still not Amsterdam, but we will be,” he said. - Sapa-dpa