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Fighting society’s evils: illegal bicycle parking

by Philip Brasor

As social problems go, illegally parked bicycles probably rank relatively low, somewhere between sex service advertisements in phone booths and public urination. But the problem has become so intractable in certain areas that local administrations have resorted to ever more desperate moves in response to citizens’ complaints.

Perhaps the most ill-advised was the attempt by Tokyo’s Arakawa Ward to impose a tax. New bicycles that were sold within the ward would have a 1,000 yen tariff added on top of the retail price. The money collected would then be used for “processing” illegally parked bicycles throughout the ward, which presumably meant hauling them away and destroying them.

Not surprisingly, the tax never got passed. Apparently, it didn’t occur to the functionaries who drafted the plan that the levy would automatically be considered punitive, effectively penalizing those who bought new bicycles even before they had a chance to break the law.

Moreover, the idea of raising money to clear away illegally parked bicycles implied that the basic problem itself — how to convince people to park their bicycles in designated areas — was already deemed unsolvable.

So is bicycle congestion a problem that has to do mainly with city planning or with general civility? Should it be tackled by local governments or private concerns, meaning railroads and retailers whom bicycle riders patronize? On top of these considerations is the one that says bicycles are supposed to be good, in that they cut down on pollution, save energy and provide physical exercise.

It was perhaps too much to expect that last Tuesday’s edition of NHK’s “problem-solving variety show” “Myoan Colosseum,” which looked specifically at the bicycle parking crisis, would offer any useful suggestions. The “colosseum” in the title refers to the show’s studio set-up. A large number of people sit in tiers around a center arena where two MCs supervise the proceedings. In this case, those occupying seats were local merchants and people directly involved in the maintenance of bicycle parking facilities near Tokyo’s Koiwa Station.

In addition to causing serious congestion that is both an eyesore and a safety hazard, illegally parked bicycles around Koiwa Station are also a drain on the municipal budget, costing Edogawa Ward about 260 million yen a year. Koiwa Station is serviced by 12 separate bicycle parking areas, which are generally empty most of the time.

The studio audience took the problem personally. Some of them patrol the station area, and when they tell miscreants that they cannot park their bicycles in front of the station, they are met with rude comebacks, such as “Why me and not everyone else?”

They were there to field suggestions, most of which came from other local governments who have seen success with their own bicycle problems. Tokyo’s Nerima Ward has a borrow-rental system, and in the city of Matsuyama, middle-aged women known as Cycle Guides have developed their people skills to the point where they can sometimes persuade riders to bring their bikes to parking areas.

However, neither of these solutions could be readily applied to Koiwa’s situation. Nerima’s rental system works because the area has a good balance of departing commuters and arriving students. Koiwa has no schools. In Matsuyama, bicycle parking problems are mainly caused by shoppers. In Koiwa, it’s commuters.

The producers of the show also invited five parking violators, who sat behind a scrim, their faces visible only in silhouette. At first, their presence seemed merely provocative. The announcer mentioned that the one female in the bunch “was quite beautiful,” as if that meant something, and that one of the men “had dyed hair.”

However, these people’s comments and generally unapologetic demeanor were the only enlightening aspects of the show, since they illuminated the mind-set that has to be engaged before the problem can be solved. To paraphrase one of the miscreants, parking illegally did not define him. It was mostly a matter of convenience at a given moment in time. If he only had a minute to catch a train, that consideration bore greater weight than any other.

This point hardly constitutes an acceptable excuse, but it really is at the heart of the problem, especially in an overcrowded city like Tokyo, and it is a point the program should have properly addressed. The factors that contribute to the problem weren’t sufficiently considered. For example, no one mentioned whether any of Koiwa’s 12 bicycle parking areas charge a fee. If they do, it could be a major reason why bicyclists don’t use them.

Despite the “problem-solving” aim of the show, the real thrust seemed to be to show how communities can still work together to tackle problems. In the end, the colosseum plaintiffs ignored all the proposals and resorted to good old-fashioned force. They showed up at the station one day in numbers impossible to ignore and simply made people park in the designated area.

The trouble is, you can’t do that every day. Maybe they should study the situation in my neighborhood. We had a similar bicycle problem up until a few months ago, when the entire plaza surrounding the train station was reconstructed and a new fee-based parking lot was opened nearby. The plaza and the streets leading up to it have been bicycle-free ever since, which seems to indicate that the main reason no one parks there is that no one has had the guts to be the first.