Of Bicycles and Urban Life

Or What Can We Learn From the Netherlands?

By Ran Raviv

The most recent bicycle accident in Tel Aviv succeeded in finally attracting public attention to the issue. Among the many articles that were written, the question of the infrastructure needed for safe, easy, convenient and comfortable bicycle riding was raised repeatedly. That is, riding without complicated licensing, mandatory helmets and other cumbersome protective wear: simply to get on this compact sustainable form of transport, and be able to ride from place to place in the city. The huge and justified outcry about just how much Israel is lagging behind in this, and the high price that we pay for it, reminded me about the process that the Netherlands underwent, about fifty years ago. Here in Israel, as there, the recent crisis in this regard can be an opportunity for changing the direction of Israeli planning policy.

The Dutch’s excellent infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians has existed only since the 70s. Their cities have apparently always been clean, but Amsterdam hasn't always been as fun and inviting as it is today. In reality, it was on the way to becoming crowded and full of traffic jams.

The economic growth from after the Second World War, filled the cities and their streets with private cars, leading to a huge rise in fatal traffic accidents. One telling statistic is that in 1971 more than 3,300 people were killed, among them more than 400 children.

This shocking reality caused a huge public protest that, together with the oil embargo of 1973, led to a shift in policy. After decades of continuously decreasing bicycle ridership, building safe, convenient and effective lanes and paths for bikes made the bicycle the preferred alternative for getting around in the cities of the Netherlands, integrated with successful mass transit.

Anyone who visits the Netherlands will be impressed by the extensive system of bike paths, their use in all types of weather, by people of all ages (without helmets or licenses), and on the same lanes as mopeds, which are more common than electric bikes, with very few accidents.

The investment in bicycle infrastructure includes not only paths and lanes, but also convenient parking areas at railway stations (such as

), education of pedestrians to relate to bikes as vehicles, and more.

If the high rate of accidents of recent years can spur us to promoting a solution, similar to the ones that were developed in Dutch cities, and transform our city streets to places that are worth spending time on, we need to voice a strong and clear message about our cities. We must call for a change in urban priorities, including getting rid of parking places for cars in city centers. We can't just talk about the necessary revolution, we must apply it in our lives, in order to demonstrate that this alternative is real, effective and attractive.

Recent transformations in Tel Aviv shows that things like appropriating driving lanes and parking areas for bikes, which was inconceivable only a decade or two ago, can become reality, and lead to deeper and wider changes than just in central Tel Aviv.

We need to frame our demands not as an issue of transportation or safety, but as a central component of how we want our cities to be, in essence, how we want to live our lives.

The Heschel Center

The Heschel Center for Sustainability works to promote a sustainable Israel: a just and cohesive society, a robust and democratic economy, and a healthy and productive environment for all its residents, now and in the future.