Could Anti-Bicycle Lane Sentiment Bring Peace to the Middle East?

For as long as I can remember, there has been conflict in the Middle East. In particular, I recall hearing about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, an ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians that began in the early 20th century. Among the issues of contention are: mutual recognition, borders, security, water rights, control of Jerusalem, Israeli settlements, Palestinian freedom of movement and legalities concerning refugees.

“Many attempts have been made to broker a two-state solution, involving the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside an independent Jewish state or next to the State of Israel (after Israel’s establishment in 1948). As recently as 2007, a majority of both Israelis and Palestinians, according to a number of polls, prefer the two-state solution over any other solution as a means of resolving the conflict. Moreover, a considerable majority of the Jewish public sees the Palestinians’ demand for an independent state as just, and thinks Israel can agree to the establishment of such a state. A majority of Palestinians and Israelis view the West Bank and Gaza Strip as an acceptable location of the hypothetical Palestinian state in a two-state solution. However, there are significant areas of disagreement over the shape of any final agreement and also regarding the level of credibility each side sees in the other in upholding basic commitments.

Within Israeli and Palestinian society, the conflict generates a wide variety of views and opinions. This highlights the deep divisions which exist not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but also within each society.”

Despite years of talks, no resolution to this conflict has been found. However, there seem to be certain areas where the Israelis and Palestinians agree. One of those areas of agreement is the design and placement of bike lanes.

This became apparent in early 2011 when a company called Moriah began paving bike lanes in the French Hill and Ramat Eshkol neighborhoods of Jerusalem, on behalf of the Jerusalem municipality. The intent of the project was to create an alternative transportation lane from the metro station, planned to open in North Jerusalem, to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus.

The city ignored Transportation Ministry directives, however, and created a narrow strip for cyclists between the sidewalk and the street. The result is a path littered with obstacles, including trash bins, protruding car doors and parked cars. As a result, cyclists are still riding in the street, claiming that the bicycle path is too dangerous.”

In the Spring of 2011, a meeting took place between representatives of the municipality and residents of the area. At the meeting the French Hill and Ramat Eshkol communities spoke out against the project. Virtually no one supported it.

The reasons for the opposition were numerous:

1. Safety. The bike lanes weave in and out of streets and sidewalks in a confusing and dangerous manner, narrowing roads and endangering cyclists and pedestrians.

2. Undemocratic process. The entire planning and implementation of the project was done without any census among the residents.

3. Faulty reasoning at the basis of the project. There is a low probability that the plan will achieve its goal. “People bicycling back and forth to the University and metro will either need to fill the train’s cars with their bikes or leave them at the station. The latter option means that they are expected to buy a bicycle, a very expensive item in this country, exclusively for riding back and forth between the station and the University. At the same time, it is very naïve to think that the residence of the neighborhoods will suddenly decide to rush out and buy bicycles simply to make use of the new paths that until now have received a very bad reputation within the community.”

In March, the residents of a neighborhood called “Small City” wrote a letter of complaint about the project. Their list of complaints about this project was extensive. Among them was:

  • Very few individuals ride bikes in this neighborhood, whereas most families own at least 1 car.
  • The bike lane reduces available parking which is a serious need for a university neighborhood.
  • The reduction in available parking to a point where there is inadequate parking will lessen the property value of the homes in the neighborhood.
  • The bike lane will subsume both parking spaces and the bus stop inlets.
  • The Small City neighborhood—a neighborhood of professionals with usually more than 1 car per family—was built with less than 1 parking space per unit. Already residents of the neighborhood struggle to find adequate parking. With the reduction of parking on Lehi Street, the situation will be intolerable, especially when having to compete with hotel and university visitors for parking spaces.
  • The sidewalks in this area are already quite broad. Why not narrow the sidewalks and create a bike lane there, if a bike lane is even necessary at all.

These complaints against the bike lanes sound very much like what we hear in cities and towns across the U.S. What’s different about the complaints in Jerusalem is that they generated protests among a majority of residents.

The protests were not limited to one group of residents, but appeared to be an area of agreement among all residents, regardless of ethnic background or political persuasion.

There were Israeli cyclists protesting the bike lanes.

Jerusalem Bike Lane Protest

And, there were Palestinian residents protesting the bike lanes.

Overall, residents thought that bike lanes were a good idea. And, they were in favor of encouraging more bicycle use. What they objected to was how the bike lane planning was done, and the resulting project, which was filled with problems.

Regardless of how we feel about the anti-bicycle backlash, and the fighting against bike lanes, we have to admit that every cloud has a silver lining. Strong sentiment to keep roads for cars, combined with minute examination of bike lane projects which prioritize driver convenience, could serve the greater good. Perhaps it could unite the Israelis and Palestinians by showing them what they share in common and how they can work together to achieve a common goal.

Whether small steps such as bike lane protests will have any long term effect in the Middle East remains to be seen, but we can always hope.

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