Israel at 65: Tel Aviv bike scene exploding

Bicycle rental vending machine and bikes in Tel Aviv. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)
Bicycle rental vending machine and bikes in Tel Aviv. (Sheila Wilensky/AJP)

A short ride on a luxury wooden bicycle can take much longer than expected in south Tel Aviv. The roads are fine, Maxime van Gelder says, “but people keep asking you to stop and take their picture with the bike.”

Van Gelder, the 22-year-old marketing director for the 2-year-old boutique Dutch bicycle maker Bough Bikes, was in Tel Aviv in January to help establish the city as the company’s fourth international market, after New York, London and Berlin. Bough, based in the city of Alkmaar, manufactures the distinctive bikes entirely from sustainably grown French oak and sells them for about $1,600 a pop.

Van Gelder ended up leaving three bikes with Caspar Veldkamp, the Dutch ambassador to Israel, whose staff was to try them out before they were formally unveiled at the embassy’s annual Holland Day event on Jan. 28.

Bough isn’t the only European bike maker to notice the growing demand for high-quality, luxury bicycles in Tel Aviv, whose residents are relying increasingly on bike-friendly developments that have reshaped the flat, congested metropolis into a world-class bicycle city.

Dozens of miles of bike lanes now wind along the iconic Rothschild and Arlozorov boulevards in central Tel Aviv; along the city’s broad beach promenade; and most recently along Sheinkin Street, the epicenter of the city’s vibrant café culture. In 2011, Tel Aviv joined some 100 other cities in launching a municipal bike-sharing rental service.

“We in Israel have always turned for inspiration to Europe’s bicycle culture, and to Holland and Denmark in particular, so it’s very exciting and perfectly logical that they are now looking back,” said Oded Gilad, a spokesman for the nonprofit Israel for Bikes. “There is a real bicycle renaissance in Israel, and especially in Tel Aviv.’“

Among the pioneers in Israel’s European-inspired bicycle market is Ari Rozenweig of Copenhagen, who seven years ago opened Israel’s first boutique bicycle factory.

“In comparison to Europeans, Israelis really love bling bling,” said Rozenzweig, 41, a former professional dancer who immigrated to Israel shortly before opening his shop.

While Danish and Dutch cyclists prefer the reliability and low profile of a good kibbutz bicycle over a snazzy mountain bike, Rozenzweig says, “Israelis will buy anything special or flashy. It’s good for business and I like their openness to novelty, but sometimes they buy crap they don’t need.”

In 2010, Israel’s adoption of European standards for electric bicycles attracted other foreign bike makers: Kalkhoff, a high-quality German brand, is now available through the Israeli bicycle supply company Moto Ofan. The Dutch Gazelle brand and the German A2B electric bicycle also are now available in Israel.

A 2012 survey by the Heker Rating Marketing Surveys reported that in two years, the number of cyclists in Tel Aviv has increased by 50 percent, from 12,000 who cycled to work every day in 2010 to 18,000 last year. Meanwhile, the number of drivers has dropped in the same time period by 5 percent.

Even as Israeli bike enthusiasm flourishes, the local infrastructure still leaves much to be desired, the recent advances notwithstanding. In the past five years, an average of 15 cyclists were killed on the road annually and another 100 or so sustained moderate to serious injuries in a nation of 7 million people and 1 million bicycles, according to data compiled by the Or Yarok road safety association.

The figures are high compared to the 22 cyclists killed in 2012 in Denmark, a nation of 5.5 million people and 4.4 million bicycles, according to a study by the University of Technology in Sydney.

“Drivers are generally unaware of cyclers and bicycle paths, which are not always well defined, and this makes cycling comparatively dangerous in Israel,” Rozenzweig said.

Rosenzweig says it will take another 20 to 30 years until Israel matches the bicycle friendliness of countries like Holland and Denmark.

“Like everything here, it’s going to take a lot of lobbying,” he said. “But we’ll get there.”