Losing its training wheels, Tel Aviv’s bike share scheme turns five
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Losing its training wheels, Tel Aviv’s bike share scheme turns five

Despite a few bumps on the road, the Tel-O-Fun green bicycle rental program ranks 8th in international survey

Ofer Sela, the CEO of FSM, a conglomeration of companies that operates Tel-O-Fun, with a bike mechanic in the Tel-O-Fun headquarters in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Ofer Sela, the CEO of FSM, a conglomeration of companies that operates Tel-O-Fun, with a bike mechanic in the Tel-O-Fun headquarters in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Tel Aviv’s bike sharing program, Tel-O-Fun, the ubiquitous green bikes that have become an integral part of the city’s fabric, celebrates its fifth anniversary this week. While the bike-sharing program is still ironing out technical difficulties, international travel organizations rank Tel-O-Fun as one of the top ten urban bike sharing programs in the world.

Tel Aviv boasts a network of 2,000 heavy-duty aluminum bikes with 180 docking stations, which as a group average about 9,000 rides per day, according to Ofer Sela, the CEO of FSM, the conglomerate of three companies that operates the Tel-O-Fun program. The average time per ride for a yearly subscriber is 17 minutes, which is similar to other bike sharing programs around the world, he said.

FSM, which also oversees the luggage trolleys at Ben Gurion Airport, plans to add 10 stations in Givatayim and 10 stations in Ramat Gan, both Tel Aviv suburbs, before 2016. The most popular station is Rabin Square, due to its location in the heart of the city. Stations along Rothschild Boulevard and the beachfront promenade are also top spots in terms of daily traffic.

According to the Bike Sharing World Map, there are 533 bike-sharing programs around the world, and 193 more are in planning or under construction. Tel Aviv’s offering is highly regarded, ranking 8th in a survey of international bike sharing programs from USAToday. According to the survey, which examined aspects like affordability, accessibility, technical issues, density of bikes per person, and frequency of use, the number one bike-sharing program is in Hangzhou, China. In this program, which is actually the second biggest in China, inhabitants use the 70,000 bikes for a quarter of a million rides per day.

Tel Aviv has 2,000 heavy duty aluminum bikes with 180 docking stations, which average about 9,000 rides per day.

Tel Aviv, at number 8, has a yearly membership that is a bit pricier than cities like Barcelona, Spain, and Lyons, France, but the survey cites an agreeable climate and a bike-friendly city as major benefits to the program.

“No one expected it to be as successful as it is today,” said Sela. “Today, Tel-O-Fun is so much in the DNA of the city, people say they don’t know how they’d manage without it,” he added. “There was so much bike stealing in Tel Aviv. Now apartments that are near Tel-O-Fun stations have rents that have gone up by 5-10%. This is an answer for young people in Tel Aviv who don’t have a car or room in their apartment for a bike.”

The program is also perfect for tourists, both internal and international. During the high season, there are 2,200 daily subscribers. Passover is the busiest week, with an average of 12,000 rides per day.

FSM started working on the Tel-O-Fun initiative just after Passover in 2010, and rolled out the first bikes at the same time in 2011.

Part of the fleet of the 2,000 Tel-O-Fun bicycles after undergoing maintenance at the south Tel Aviv workshop.  (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Part of the fleet of the 2,000 Tel-O-Fun bicycles after undergoing maintenance at the south Tel Aviv workshop. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

There have been a few bumps along the way. “In the beginning, the [rental] process was not perfect,” said Yotam Avizohar, the director of the Israel Bicycle Association, an independent bike advocacy organization. “There was a lot of justified criticism about the many bugs in the program, especially with the station scanners. There has been an improvement, but there are still some issues.”

But as a bike advocate, Avizohar is in favor of any effort to get more people out of cars and onto bike seats. He pointed out that a major benefit of the bike sharing program is it means that people don’t need to lug their bikes up multiple flights of stairs – forever eliminating the neighborly bickering over bike tire marks on the stairwell.

“When you have a bike that’s waiting for you downstairs, it encourages a lot of people to ride,” he said.

Avizohar added that expanding the system to the surrounding metro area, including Holon, Bat Yam, and future locations in Givatayim and Ramat Gan, will encourage even more people to ride into the city and further reduce congestion on the roads.

In Tel Aviv, the municipality reported that 16% of all residents in 2014 commuted to work by bicycle, compared to just 6.5% in 2010, when there was no bike-sharing program. Bike use decreases traffic and promotes exercise, making it the most affordable and healthiest method of transportation, explained Sela. Not all of these bike commuters use Tel-O-Fun, but the bike-sharing program encourages people to get in the habit. The meteoric growth of electric bicycles has also contributed to the rise of bike commuting.

Ten mechanics try to give each bike a tune-up at least once a month. Flat tires account for 50 percent of the work, leading the company to experiment with airless tires. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Ten mechanics try to give each bike a tune-up at least once a month. Flat tires account for 50 percent of the work, leading the company to experiment with airless tires. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Like many bike sharing programs around the world, Tel-O-Fun has been struggling to turn the business into a profitable enterprise. After the bikes were put on the streets four years ago, it took Tel-O-Fun two years to register a slim profit in 2013. In 2014, earnings were affected by Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s military campaign in the Gaza Strip, which drove away tourists. Tourists usually buy daily rentals, which are NIS 17 ($4.25) on weekdays and NIS 23 on weekends and holidays, and are far more profitable the company than yearly memberships of NIS 280 ($70, or NIS 240 for residents of Tel Aviv).

However, a spokesman said even despite Operation Protective Edge, ridership actually increased in 2014. While tourism was down during the war itself, the numbers quickly rebounded.

A diagram shows all of the different parts of the bike rental system that need to communicate with each other during each rental transaction. (photo: courtesy FSM)
A diagram shows all of the different parts of the bike rental system that need to communicate with each other during each rental transaction. (photo: courtesy FSM)

But if Tel Aviv’s program is only slightly profitable, it is still on a much more stable footing than bike programs in many other cities. Bike sharing programs are notoriously expensive and difficult to maintain. BIXI, which provides bikes for bike-sharing programs around the world, went bankrupt in January 2014, imperiling already struggling networks in Montreal, New York, and London. In London, the system is so strapped that each bicycle is actually losing $2,000 per year.

Maintenance is one of the biggest expenses for the programs. “We didn’t think maintenance would be so hard,” admitted Sela. “There are so many parts – stations, posts, the bikes themselves; it’s a very complicated system.”

One of the prototypes of the airless tires that Tel-O-Fun is checking. The tires are more expensive but labor saved would be significant. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
One of the prototypes of the airless tires that Tel-O-Fun is checking. The tires are more expensive but labor saved would be significant. (photo credit: Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Regular Tel-O-Fun users know the frustration of trying to take a bike out only to discover it is missing an essential piece, like a pedal, a seat, or even the entire braking mechanism. Each bike goes in for service at least once a month, but sometimes that isn’t enough to keep up with the heavy use the bikes endure.

Sela said flat tires account for 50% of their maintenance work, so the company is in the process of trying two kinds of airless tires. One has an inner tube made from the same material as Crocs shoes, and the other has a system of holes straight through the tire, making it look like Swiss cheese with small, regular openings.

But Sela is now hoping to export the company’s success, illustrated by USAToday’s number 8 ranking, to other cities around the world. The database system and bike design are completely Israeli-built. “It’s been a learning process,” said Sela. “But now, just look at how many bikes are on the streets.”

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