I’ve always been understandably hesitant about riding a bicycle in Jerusalem, given the erratic drivers and steep hills. But I’d been eyeing those kelly green rental bikes in Tel Aviv for the last few months, waiting for the right opportunity to hop a Tel-O-Fun bike and cycle around the Big Orange for a few hours.
My opportunity arrived last week, when I decided to ditch my car at the Tel Aviv port — the one at the northern end of the city — and rent a bike at a nearby Tel-O-Fun station (#301), which I found by using the handy WAZE-operated map that is part of the four-language website.
But first, some background: Called Tel-O-Fun (a somewhat clumsy translation for Tel-Ofen — Tel for Tel Aviv, Ofen for ofanaim — the Hebrew word for bicycles), the rental bikes are a municipality project, run by an outside resource management firm and aimed at encouraging Tel Avivians and others to avoid shlepping their cars into the congested, heavily trafficked streets of the city.
It’s true that riding a bike around Tel Aviv is a great option for the reasonably fit. Accessible bike paths have been added throughout the city — some 120 kilometers in total, according to the spokesperson’s office — particularly along the beach, where part of the path is on the street, but with a clearly delineated lane and its own set of traffic lights. The bikes themselves are solid and sturdy, with a rack and elasticized band in back for storing bags, (but no seat for kids), and in theory can be adjusted for height, although we had to switch to a different one in order to do so.
The rental process, however, can be somewhat aggravating for the first-time user. After punching in the necessary information to the terminal — how many users, length of rental time (you can rent for a day, a week or a year, for a wide range of rates depending on length of rental time) — you choose from the bikes available at the docking station. What I didn’t know was that two yellow dots painted on the bike’s locking mechanism indicate bikes that are in use and can be unlocked; that took numerous phone calls to Tel-O-Fun to figure out, although the service center is unusually solicitous. And when we couldn’t adjust the seat of one of the bikes we had rented, they suggested we either walk to a nearby Dizengoff docking station (#302) or wait 20 minutes where we were, in order for the terminal to reset itself and allow us to get a different bike.
As it turned out, one of the yellow dotted bikes was available before the 20 minutes was up — figured that out by trying it again — and we successfully released the cable that locks the bike to the docking pole, stowed our bags and set off.
Our plan was to bike down the length of the beachfront, heading to the Jaffa port, as well as making a stop or two along the way. I had the idea to try and re-rent every half hour, as the first half hour of usage is free, but that would have meant too much starting and stopping, even though there were plenty of other Tel-O-Fun terminals along the way.
We headed down the boardwalk, sticking to the bike path, except when it ended at the start of Jaffa and then veered off the seaside route to make a quick stop in Mitcham Noga, or the Noga Complex, a rapidly gentrifying and quaint neighborhood within Jaffa, behind the Gesher Theater. We didn’t lock up the bikes — although there is a built-in lock mechanism, and Tel-O-Fun recommends that you do lock the bike — as they were right outside the store where we stopped on a fairly quiet street. We continued our ride, meandering back through the winding Jaffa streets toward the water and the refurbished port area, where several cafes, art spaces and restaurants are sharing the dock area with the boats. We could have returned our bikes to the Hamigdalor docking station (#409) at the entrance to the port area, but decided to keep them next to our table at LoveEat, a favorite organic cafe of mine from the Gan Hahashmal neighborhood, now with a Jaffa port outlet, where you can slouch in yellow Adirondack-styled metal chairs overlooking the sea.
After a quick lunch, we needed to head deep into south Tel Aviv to the ceiling fan store on Shlavim Street, where we could dock our bikes at Jerusalem Avenue (#420), and cab or bike back up to our car later on. But since we would be heading back to Jerusalem after the ceiling fan store, it made more sense to dock our bikes in lower Tel Aviv, and then cab it back to the car, as time was getting tight.
We biked north for a bit, docking at terminal #355 on Herbert Samuel Street, and quickly hailed a cab. Ten minutes later we were in the car, heading down south once again.
All told, a successful trial run, and an easy 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 for Tel Aviv activities. The bikes were comfortable to ride, given our relative lack of recent bicycle riding, got us quickly and efficiently from place to place and were much cheaper than taking cabs or parking the car multiple times.
That’s the idea, said Eytan Schwartz, senior advisor to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. The municipality has a long-term strategy to improve transportation in the city, including the bicycle policy, which includes Tel-O-Fun, 120 kilometers of bike paths and bike education. There’s also a revolutionary parking shift taking place offering free parking on all Tel Aviv streets to city residents, while raising per-hour parking to NIS 6 for non-Tel Aviv residents.
Still, it’s nearly impossible to find parking on the street, which is why Tel Aviv residents have been taking to their bikes, whether rented or owned, electric or foldable, in order to get around town.
But without helmets. According to Danny Spielman, the CEO of FSM, the project consultancy firm handling Tel-O-Fun for Tel Aviv, and with the aim of introducing green transportation and urban vehicle-sharing systems to every city in Israel, the helmet law was canceled by the Knesset three years ago.
“Except for Australia, very few cities have laws requiring adults to wear helmets on bicycles,” said Spielman. “We got rid of it because it became clear in other cities with programs like Tel-O-Fun, that helmets are a disincentive to bike riders, and, in fact, people have more accidents when they wear helmets, because they’re more careless.”
If you want a helmet for your Tel-O-Fun ride, bring your own, or you can order one through the Tel-O-Fun site. In the meantime, be like the Tel Avivians, and get around town on a bike. Everyone’s doing it.