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Bike-riding bureaucracy may threaten the classic ‘obāchan dismount’

by Amy Chavez

For as long as I can remember, riding a bicycle in Japan has been a matter of navigating sidewalks clogged with throngs of shoppers, grandmothers with carts and the occasional intrepid dog-walker. But a new law may limit our imagination when it comes to cycling in whatever manner we deem fit!

The new regulation, set to take effect in the new year, decrees that bicycles must be ridden on the left side of the road, in the direction of the flow of traffic. Seems logical, doesn’t it? But no one has said how this will prevent accidents or make anything safer; we’re just presuming it will. How will the thrill-seekers make the morning commute a little more exciting? Are we, perhaps, becoming too soft?

I can understand this new law to a point. But after that point, I wonder if there aren’t huge advantages to riding against the flow of traffic so you can see what is coming and avoid an accident (the very reason it is recommended you walk against the traffic). There are few bicycle lanes in Japan and most people ride slow-moving mama-chari clunkers intended as people-movers. Thus they are ill- equipped for road riding, with few reflectors and no mirrors to give you warning of what is coming up behind you. Riding against the traffic serves as the largest rear-view mirror you could ever wish for. And the Japanese have always ridden this way. They’re quite used to it.

The Japanese have been bicycle multi-tasking since ancient times. They often ride with one hand on the handlebars while they use the other hand to hold an umbrella, smoke a cigarette or, if you’re a high-school boy, to rest on the thigh while slouching to look cool.

Furthermore, the Japanese people are quite deft at cycling with a child in a seat on the front handlebars and another in the seat over the back wheel. Some riders even bring their dog along on a lead so he can get some exercise. In Japan, cycling is truly a family affair.

Most people opt for riding on the sidewalk rather than the road, even though not all sidewalks permit use of the deadly treadly. It may come as a surprise to Westerners that people are allowed to ride bicycles on sidewalks at all, considering that it is a danger to pedestrians. The movement of bicycles from the road to the sidewalk happened during the 1960s and ’70s, when road traffic increased significantly in Japan, endangering cyclists. Policemen continue to turn a blind eye to offenders riding on undesignated sidewalks, perhaps because they know that a cyclist is safer on the sidewalk than on the road.

Statistics support this. In 2011, cycling accidents involving cars killed 556 people, while those involving pedestrians killed six. Just one death resulted from cyclist-on-cyclist accidents. If these figures are reliable, they suggest that violating the law regarding riding on undesignated sidewalks is the safest thing you can do!

So what brought on this new policy that you have to ride on the left side of the road? Apparently, there are more accidents involving cyclists these days. This is mainly due to an increase in bicycle use since the 2011 earthquake (reminding people how trusty bicycles are compared to public transportation during a natural disaster). In addition, fixed-gear, brakeless racing bikes, also known as piste bikes, have become more popular, possibly indicating that people are riding faster on their bicycles than previously.

While I agree with jurisprudence that will make society safer and more orderly, wouldn’t having bicycle lanes do far more to protect us than denying us the world’s largest rear-view mirror?

The police have promised to enforce the new law while also vowing to crack down on other forms of miscreant behavior by bicycle riders like yourself.

Yes, even you break bicycle laws! You probably just don’t realize it. Are you aware, for example, of which sidewalks are designated for cycling and which aren’t, and how to tell? Look for the round blue sign with a man and child and a bicycle on it, meaning it’s safe to share the footpath.

And when you are riding on a designated sidewalk, did you know that you’re supposed to stay on the street side of the sidewalk? And that it is illegal to ride while intoxicated or while talking on a mobile phone?

You are also not allowed to hold an open umbrella, ride next to another cyclist or carry more than one child (up to 6 years old) on the bicycle at a time. And, believe it or not, it’s an infraction to cross the road while the traffic light is still red, even when there is no one around to see you do it.

Surely you’ve done one — or all — of these things before. Yet we get by with these breaches because they are fused with our own logic according to time and circumstance.

This is not to say that the occasional high school student doesn’t flirt with disaster, speeding down the sidewalk to impress his girlfriend riding on the back (futari-nori unten — another infringement!). That’s why Japanese students wear uniforms — the equivalent of the “beginning driver” stickers on cars. My only suggestion is that they make school uniforms in neon colors for early warning.

But this is what rattles my chain: Why make new laws that may have little effect?

Rather than aim for extreme bicycle harmony, perhaps we should teach critical thinking skills that promote bicycle safety (helmets, anyone?). Then we would be more prepared to deal with those inclement occasions when people do break the rules (because people like us will always break the rules). After all, it would be sad to see the extinction of the “obāchan dismount” — the ability to jump off your bike (and land squarely on two feet) when things get the slightest bit dicey.

If we always rely on rules to tell us what to do and what not to do, then I wonder what will be next. “No kayaking on the highway,” perhaps?

Amy Chavez is author of “Japan, Funny Side Up” and “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment.” Send all your comments and ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • midnightbrewer

    Honestly, it sounds like you don’t ride your bicycle that often. I commute 12 kilometers a day one-way through Osaka on an 18-speed, and so get to see a huge slice of suicidal idiocy. I think that the biggest problem is that cops simply don’t enforce the law, encouraging people to not play nicely.

    The most common infringement I see is two to a bike going down the wrong side of the road with no light at night. This happens at twilight on the way home, and arguably the time of day when most traffic accidents happen. Were they to be punished to the full extent of the law, I believe the fine would be in the neighborhood of ¥80,000. If only!

    As to why riding against traffic is nonsense: night riding (especially with no light). You’re invisible, and worse, you can’t see a thing when staring down a car’s headlights.

    Japan needs law enforcement to do its job, but that’s not how things work here. Also, the only places they typically warn people of new bicycle laws is at the driver’s license renewal, which means people without licenses aren’t going to hear about it, which covers all your obachan and teenagers.

  • Mark Garrett

    What a terribly uneducated piece. Even the least bit of research would have answered the question about where bicycles belong. Strange considering how much time Ms. Chavez must have spent looking up all of the trivial laws.Simply put, bicycles are vehicles and should be treated as such. Of course laws vary from country to country, but in the U.S., because of their designation, motorists are required to actually change lanes to pass. Does anyone actually do this? Rarely. However, when one considers how narrow most of Japan’s roads are, it’s not too difficult to see where two bikes traveling the same direction on opposite sides of the road could cause a serious problem. It’s also pretty easy to figure out that if one side is used for pedestrians, the other should be used for bicycles due to the obvious difference in speeds.

  • similarly

    Even in America, the rule is “Ride with traffic, walk against traffic.” The reason for the rule is simple. When riding a bicycle against traffic, you close the distance very quickly and therefore have less time to make a judgement call if something is wrong.

    In riding WITH traffic, there’s much more time to decide whether to stop, slow down or go around.

    The biggest problem I have is when I’m going WITH traffic and another bicycle is going against traffic, and I have to worry not only about not hitting the bicycle in front of me, but about NOT being hit by the car behind me. If the person in front of me is riding with traffic and therefore going in the same direction I’m going, again I have much more time to decide what to do. I CAN, for example, slow down and follow them until it’s safe to pass.

    When I have someone riding on the wrong side of the street, I don’t have that option. I MUST go around them. That’s very dangerous for ME because those people very seldom pass to the outside. I have to get out of THEIR way, which means I am the one who has to get into traffic.

  • Mike Wyckoff

    I have been driving in Japan for over a decade now, and have seen some absolutely horrendous cyclists. There is no course or training necessary to get on a bicycle and drive stupidly through town. At least this law helps cut down on a few wreckless bike riders out there.

    I also have a personal experience of actually hitting a bicycle riding obasan. Obviously, I’m stating 1 side of the story, but i was sitting in a parked car, although because the engine was running I was considered “running” and a cyclist came head-on, against traffic hit my car and injured herself. Long story short, I was 80% to blame.

    So anyways, anything to “even the playing field” as another poster says, will help!

    • Matthew Moore

      Im sure that’s what happened…

      • Mike Wyckoff

        If you’re being sarcastic, you must not have driven in Japan. If you’re serious, then you didn’t read where I said, this is one side of the story.

      • 6810

        Really? More information. Where was this running car? Side of the road, intersection, shared pedestrian line going through a shotengai etc…

      • Mike Wyckoff

        Kyoto, downtown, on Karasuma facing north, right across from
        Starbucks at Rokkaku street. I was basically parked against the curb along with
        about 3 cars lined up behind me. There is no bikelane. I saw her coming and as
        she jetted out to go around she saw a truck coming straight at her and tried to
        avoid it by hitting my “running”car. This road allows for cars to
        “stand” but not “park” at the time of day i was there.