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New rules for cyclists go round in circles

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Putting the brakes on the country’s bicycle chaos requires more than just imposing bans on headphones, cell phones and umbrellas.

Three killed and more than 11,000 injured in the past five years; it sounds like the toll from a series of earthquakes or terrorist attacks. This carnage, however, is the result of something far more mundane — cycling on the sidewalk in Japan’s cities and towns.

It seems that there’s something about getting on a bicycle that brings out the inner anarchist in many people. While few of us would dream of yapping into a cell phone on a crowded train or running through a group of pedestrians swinging an umbrella as we go, put us on a bike and such behavior seems perfectly acceptable.

These acts will quickly earn you a stiff rebuke or even a fine in most big cities around the world. In Japan, however, even the police can be seen unhurriedly yet unlawfully riding their white Bridgestone bicycles along the footpaths. This June, however, the cops are due to be handed a revised Road Traffic Law — containing the first changes to the nation’s cycling rules since 1978.

As they stand, Japan’s cycling laws and regulations are an odd assortment of muddle-headed thinking and oversights. Some examples: Tandem bicycles are banned (except in Nagano Prefecture), yet cycling with two children balanced on your bike is not; all bicycles must be registered, but tourists are not permitted to register theirs; and cycling on most sidewalks is banned, but almost all cycle paths and crossings lead directly to a sidewalk.

A total of 86 million people in Japan own a bicycle, most of which are steel workhorses known affectionately as mama-chari. Cheap and reliable, they serve as mobile shopping trolleys, and because most journeys made on them are short, mama-chari riders tend to use sidewalks — and hit pedestrians.

In 2006, 2,767 pedestrians across Japan reported being hit by cyclists, up from 2,576 in 2005 and an almost fivefold increase on the 1996 figure.

The reasons for the increase can be attributed to many things. One unavoidable fact is that there are more frail elderly people on sidewalks now than ever before. Also, many would point to a worsening of manners among teenagers, as well as new distractions for cyclists young and old, such as cell phones and iPods.

Unfortunately, despite the risks and high casualty numbers, most people still believe cyclists belong on the sidewalk. In June last year, Japan’s lawmakers sighed a collective shoganai (“it can’t be helped”) and passed a law allowing cyclists to ride on some sidewalks. Rather than tackling the problem of cyclists hitting pedestrians, the powers that be decided to allow cyclists to use sidewalks in the hope it would lead to a sudden improvement in cycling manners. Of course, it simply maintained the status quo.

So this year, a package of new recommendations is being compiled by the National Police Agency to try to put the brakes on bad cycling. A panel set up by the agency is to report on the new rules by March and will likely call for a clear ban on using cell phones and wearing headphones while riding, as well as an end to the practice of carrying more than one child on a bike. In addition, the panel is mulling a clampdown on unsafe practices such as riding while carrying an unfurled umbrella or with a passenger above child age on the back.

Despite being touted as the first major change to bicycle laws in 30 years, however, the proposals being considered amount to little. Cyclists using a cell phone or umbrella while riding can already be prosecuted for “failing in their obligation to operate their bicycle in a safe manner.” Even so, the number of cyclists charged in 2006 with using a phone while riding, carrying an umbrella or passenger, or riding without lights at night totaled 95 — fewer than the number arrested for murder in the same period. In addition, the proposed laws state that a cyclist can only be prosecuted for wearing headphones if he or she has the volume set to an unsafe level. You’d have to sound like a mobile nightclub to attract the attention of the police.

Some prefectures have launched programs to build cycle lanes. But in Japan’s cities there’s little space left to separate cars, bicycles and pedestrians, so most are aiming to build no more than 2 km of bike lanes — hardly a cycling revolution.

What needs to be done, then? The answer is to replace anarchy with democracy. That is, drivers and cyclists must learn to share the roads, just as they do in cities such as London, Los Angeles, Stockholm and Sydney. In built-up urban areas, cyclists often travel at the same speed as other traffic, and the more bicycles there are on the roads, the more “cycle aware” drivers become.

The shift from riding on the sidewalks to riding on the roads might mean a few new measures need to be introduced, such as making a rear light mandatory, encouraging the wearing of high-visibility clothing and letting the very young and very old stay on the sidewalk. But for the rest of us, it’s time to stop treating Japan’s pedestrian ways as an obstacle course and reclaim the roads.