Reinventing the wheel: the future of cycling in Tokyo

As the annual Spring Road Safety Campaign gets underway this weekend, we examine what the government is doing to improve conditions for cyclists in Tokyo

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

On Jan. 24, a full-page advert appeared in the Tokyo edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun for a petition on behalf of the capital’s cyclists. “Join the new governor in making Tokyo a bicycle city,” read the headline for the ad, which reeled off a series of suggested improvements: more extensive cycling lanes, better parking facilities and the creation of a public bike-sharing scheme akin to the ones used in London and Paris.

Shigeki Kobayashi, president of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group and one of the petition’s organizers, admits that they pinched the idea from London, where a similar campaign took place during the 2012 mayoral election. Tokyo’s own gubernatorial election campaign had kicked off the day before the advert was published, and the effect was instantaneous.

“I listened to a lot of the hustings later in the day,” Kobayashi says. “Suddenly, all the candidates had started talking about cycling.”

Although the petition itself ended up collecting an unspectacular tally of 6,481 signatures, it seemed to achieve its desired result. Five of the six leading candidates in the election pledged their support for the campaign’s goals (right-winger Toshio Tamogami was the only holdout). And on Feb. 19, newly appointed Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe — a big fan of European-style urban redevelopment — announced that Tokyo would be extending the amount of new bike paths that it planned to create by 2020 to 120 km.

For cyclists, the mean streets of the capital started to look a bit more welcoming. But who rides in the streets anyway?

While it boasts a pedaling population that puts most western metropolises to shame — around 14 percent of all journeys in Tokyo are made by bicycle, compared to 2 percent in London and 1 percent in New York — the city’s cycling culture has evolved in a peculiar fashion. Bicycle commuters may be on the rise, but the archetypal urban cyclist in Tokyo isn’t a Lycra-clad road warrior weaving through traffic; it’s a housewife lumbering along the sidewalk on a mamachari (literally, mom’s bike), laden with shopping and — more often than not — a couple of kids perched in seats above the front and back wheels.

There are nearly twice as many bicycles for every car in Tokyo, sure, but the majority of them barely venture onto the roads. They don’t have to — it’s still legal to ride on the sidewalks.

Back in the 1960s, Japan was confronted by a problem familiar to many industrialized nations: Rising car ownership was making the streets downright hazardous for cyclists. It was a common problem at the time.

The same phenomenon led the cycling rate in the Netherlands, now widely regarded as a paradise for bicycles, to drop from 85 percent to around 20 percent between the 1950s and early 1970s.

But while other countries chose to put their motorists first, Japan opted for a compromise. In 1970, the traffic laws were amended to allow cyclists to ride alongside pedestrians on the sidewalks. It was only meant to be a temporary measure, while proper infrastructure was created, but more than four decades later the rule is still essentially intact.

In its current form, the law permits children under 13 and elderly people to ride on the sidewalk as a matter of course. Adults can do so when sidewalks are explicitly designated for shared use, but also when road conditions — parked cars, construction work, narrow streets, heavy traffic and so on — make it “unavoidable” to use them. Or in other words, you’re not allowed to ride on the sidewalk, except when you are.

It’s hardly surprising that vehicular cycling — where bicycles travel in the street alongside motor vehicles — is only beginning to catch on.

“Most Japanese people think of bicycles as faster pedestrians,” cycling activist Kobayashi says. “In mainland Europe, they think of them as an alternative to cars.” (In a series of written answers, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department acknowledges this problem, but says that local police are increasingly offering guidance to cyclists “to reinforce the understanding that bicycles are street vehicles.”)

The current situation goes some way toward explaining why cyclists in Japan aren’t always the smartest of creatures. You don’t have to spend much time on the streets of Tokyo (full disclosure: I cycle to work on a regular basis) to see riders indulging in the kind of behavior that could charitably be described as suicidal. Running red lights, riding against traffic, cycling under the influence, navigating major roads while fiddling with a smartphone or toting an umbrella — it’s almost as if they shed any survival instinct as soon as they get in the saddle.

When Tokyo experienced a sudden boom in cycle commuting in the aftermath of the March 2011 Tohoku disaster, local media carried reports on the influx of “ill-mannered” cyclists flooding the streets. In fact, they were part of a wider trend, which Tokyo police linked to the rising popularity of speedy — and often brakeless — track bikes. Until recently, the proportion of traffic accidents involving bicycles was actually increasing nationwide, while there was a 50 percent rise in collisions between cyclists and pedestrians between 2001 and 2011 (the figure has since dropped slightly).

Tokyo doesn’t fare particularly well in the national rankings, either: A third of traffic accidents in the capital last year involved bicycles, compared to a nationwide average of just under 20 percent. (The spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department attributes this discrepancy to higher bicycle ownership in the city.)

According to the most recent report by the National Police Agency, cyclists were found to be at fault in around two-thirds of traffic accidents. And while few violations ultimately result in prosecution, there have been some remarkably harsh rulings against cyclists recently. Last January, the Tokyo District Court ordered a 46-year-old man to pay ¥47.5 million for killing an elderly pedestrian after running a traffic light on his bike; the damages were calculated according to the same criteria used for motor accidents. Meanwhile, the Kobe District Court ordered a mother to cough up ¥95.2 million last July after her elementary school-age son collided with a 67-year-old pedestrian while cycling, leaving the woman in a coma.

Yet these remain isolated cases. Policing of cycling violations is haphazard at best, and — assuming that nobody’s hurt — offenders still tend to get off lightly. The number of arrests of cyclists increased sevenfold between 2006 and 2011, but of the 3,956 people apprehended nationwide in 2011, only 17 were prosecuted — a trifling 0.4 percent. Inconsistencies in the law don’t help, either. The confusing sidewalk rule is just one example; only last December did lawmakers finally close a loophole that made it possible for cyclists to ride against the flow of traffic in certain situations.

The current cycling infrastructure in Tokyo also sends mixed messages. Rather than encourage cyclists to use the road, city planners can go to extraordinary lengths to accommodate them on the sidewalk. In numerous places, separate paths are marked out for pedestrians and cyclists, with differently colored paving, painted symbols and overhead signs — though seldom any physical barriers — to indicate which is which. Tokyo currently has 126 km of cycle paths, but a mere 11.6 km of these are bona-fide bike lanes that run on the street.

“We’re only just getting started,” says Hiroshi Mochizuki, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Bureau of Construction.

When Masuzoe announced his expansion of Tokyo’s cycling infrastructure recently, domestic media reported it as referring to “lanes,” but this wasn’t strictly true. The language of bureaucracy has a different term: jitensha sōkō kūkan (literally, bicycle paths), which also encompasses segregated tracks and shared-use sidewalks.

In each area where new cycling infrastructure is being created, the choice of which type of path to use depends on factors such as the width of existing streets and sidewalks, and whether local businesses need access to roadside parking. Mochizuki says that bike lanes “will be the main priority” in future expansions of the network, but admits that they only account for part of the promised 120 km of new cycle paths. The Metropolitan Police Department spokesperson says that cyclists can also look forward to seeing more so-called “naviline” street markings, which indicate where bicycles should run on busy roads and at major intersections.

For an example of what to expect in the future, I head to the Musashino neighborhood in western Tokyo, home to one of the more ambitious projects to date. On Kaede-dori, the main avenue leading to JR Musashi-Sakai Station, there are segregated cycle tracks running at road level for more than 1.5 km on both sides of the street. Physical barriers keep cyclists separate from both pedestrians and traffic; when the track runs past a bus stop, there’s a zebra crossing for alighting passengers.

It’s well implemented up to a point, but there are some obvious niggles. For one thing, the track comes to an abrupt halt a few hundred meters shy of the station, where cyclists must either squeeze into a narrow stretch of sidewalk or move out onto the road. And then there’s the fact that, as if to breed further confusion, the tracks on both sides of the street are two-way.

Kobayashi says the petition to improve cycling infrastructure in Tokyo deliberately focused on bike lanes — which invariably run in the same direction as traffic — in order to avoid this; under Japanese law, all other types of cycle path are by default two-way.

“Dedicated bicycle tracks would be ideal, but when you ask for ‘bicycle tracks,’ you just end up getting something weird,” he says.

Still, is painting an extra 100 km of bike lanes around the city really going to solve everything?

“Japanese roads aren’t ready for Japanese cyclists, and Japanese cyclists aren’t ready for Japanese roads,” says Byron Kidd, a long-term resident and author of the Tokyo By Bike blog.

A former “hardcore, look-down-your-nose-at-everybody-else cyclist” whose attitudes mellowed after he got married and had children, Kidd is realistic about the kind of infrastructure the city needs.

“Cyclists in Japan are used to using the sidewalk,” he says. “They’re scared of the roads. If you built the same width lane on the road, then put a tiny barrier between the cyclists and the cars, you still wouldn’t get mothers riding their mamachari and elderly people out on the road. They’d still be on the sidewalk.”

For Kobayashi, the solution for Tokyo’s cyclists lies with another, decidedly unsexy form of transport.

“The most important thing for Tokyo right now is buses,” he says, arguing that vigilantly enforced bus lanes could be used by bicycles as well, as happens in London. “Buses have just been getting worse and worse in Japan. When buses stop running, you get more cars in the road, cars start parking in the bus lanes and the streets become more dangerous for cyclists too.”

As Japan’s annual Spring Road Safety Campaign gets underway this weekend, it’s a chance for police to ram home some important rules for cyclists: ride on the left, stop at traffic lights and don’t ride at night without a headlight. It’s the kind of stuff you’d think even a child would know, but maybe not.

Kidd recalls the single day of road safety education that his children received at elementary school. “I call it ‘Push Your Bike to School Day,’ ” he says. “They get their one day of bicycle education, and (the school is) so confident in their curriculum that the kids have to push their bicycles home again.”

When I join a ride with the Night Pedal Cruising group, who organize twilight rides around Tokyo each month, organizer Naohiro Kiyota makes a point of reviewing road-safety basics before we set off, using a Metropolitan Police Department pamphlet adorned with cute cartoon characters.

“You should get insurance too,” he says. “It’s pretty affordable.”

There are a couple of dozen cyclists taking part in the ride, some of them on custom-built tall bikes that tower over the passing traffic. With house music blaring from portable stereos, we move in a slow convoy through the streets of Harajuku, heading west toward Takaido. In one section of the route, we even get to ride along one of Tokyo’s rare bike lanes — though on this Saturday evening, it’s peppered with parked cars.

“It’s the motorists who have bad manners, really,” Kiyota says. “Compared to them, cyclists are totally fine.”