Sunday, April 24, 2011

As bike lanes grow, Tel Aviv residents demand voice

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.

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.

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.

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