Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cycling in the Holy City

Not that it's a particularly safe way to get around, I choose to cycle from my home in central Jerusalem all the way to the Hebrew University in Har Hatzofim on an almost daily basis. The fact that Jerusalem is built around a number of steep hills evidently deters many people from taking this economically and ecologically viable method of transport, but as far as I'm concerned, the steep inclines are not really that much of a bother, and are actually very fun when going down.

In one area, bikes win hands down — speed. It might sound counter-intuitive, but because central Jerusalem is such a congested city, I find that it's faster for me to get around on two wheels than it is by bus. Sometimes my bike is actually a faster mode of transport than a car, too. In any case, I've worked out that riding in to university, as opposed to taking the bus, saves me approximately 1,400 shekels a year — a sum roughly equivalent to a month's rent. And cycling is healthy and keeps me in good shape, to boot.

While it would seem that a number of my co-students have had the same idea, as during the warmer months at the beginning of the academic year I regularly saw upwards of thirty bikes parked outside campus, the one thing that genuinely concerns me, however, is the pressing lack of space in Jerusalem. The roads are terribly congested as many only have one narrow lane going each way. Consequently, I find that if I travel on the side of the road next to the pavement, as a cyclist should, car drivers feel that they have carte blanche to overtake me at relatively high speeds, despite the fact that they are only centimeters away from me. I know that it's bad practice and might even border on the foolish, but I've started wearing headphones in an attempt to block out that the tremendous "whoosh" noise produced by overtaking vehicles doesn't shock me and make me fall over. Some of the drivers are so inconsiderate that once or twice I've found myself issuing profanities not particularly befitting of this holy city.*

I can't really complain to the city council - it's not as if there's anything that they can do, short of turning a number of roads into cycle-only routes. So I'm left in limbo. I desperately want a safer route to cycle along, but am painfully aware that there's no space that can be given to cyclists without taking away from road users or pedestrians. (And pedestrians also have to put up with pavements much narrower than they should be.)

So imagine my surprise when I saw this on Rehov Yafo, the main artery spanning Jerusalem's city centre.

In case you can't make it out, that's a bicycle image impressed on the freshly-laid paving. This part of the road has been blocked off for ages now while construction of the much-maligned Jerusalem light rail service has been going on. Apparently, once the railway becomes available, there won't be road traffic going in both directions, but downtown Jerusalem will become a network of one-way streets, with a few cycle lanes on the bigger roads. It remains to be seen if this will prove to be a viable solution, or whether this will even be implemented at all, but it looks like Jerusalem's cyclists may have a cause for optimism.

*In mitigation, though, I do sometimes include the word "holy" as a precursor to my expletive-laden yelpings. Okay, fine, I admit I have to work on this. Mea culpa.

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