Bikes back in fashion as eco-friendly alternative

by Mai Iida

Kyodo News

While automakers are suffering from slumping sales amid the global economic downturn and accelerating efforts to develop green cars to spur new demand, the traditional green vehicle — the bicycle — is becoming more popular.

“Usually, bicycles sell well in the high season of summer and business is slow when it gets colder, but this year we have remained very busy,” said Daisuke Nishikoori, manager of the Y’s Road bicycle chain’s outlet in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district.

Consumers’ growing awareness of health issues and the surge in gasoline prices to record levels in 2008 have increased bicycles’ appeal, while a wider variety of lineups and fashionable outfits for cycling have attracted more people, he said.

At Nishikoori’s store, imported sports bicycles, some of which cost more than ¥100,000, are selling well, as more retired men take to cycling as a hobby, he said. More customers are also becoming interested in commuting by bicycle, he added.

A Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute poll of 100 designated retailers nationwide showed sales of sports bikes had double-digit or sometimes triple-digit percentage growth rates every month through last November compared with year-earlier levels.

The robust sales come at a time when car sales from January to November fell 5.3 percent from the same period a year earlier, which is likely to make 2008 the worst year in terms of sales in over 30 years, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.

Bicycle magazines like Funride and Bicycle Navi have also seen double-digit growth in their recent circulation figures, and racing events are also drawing bigger crowds.

The publisher of Funride, which organizes the Mount Fuji Hill Climb race, plans to decide on the participants in its race by lot from 2009, as it had to close the race’s entry list after just one day in 2008 due to a flood of applicants, said Ryo Takano, an organizer of the event.

“A good tail wind is blowing through the bicycle industry,” said Kaoru Okubo, an official of the Bicycle Association (Japan).

But some cyclists complain that cycle ways have yet to become well developed and traffic rules concerning bicycle riding are still not very well understood.

In Japan, where cyclists are allowed to ride on sidewalks, the number of pedestrian-bicycle accidents is on the rise, increasing nearly fivefold over the past decade, according to government data.

Under the Road Traffic Law, cyclists are required to ride on roads unless there is a sign permitting them to ride on sidewalks, or if the cyclist is a child or an elderly person.

The government plans to extend cycle paths, given the increasing number of pedestrian-bicycle accidents, as well as the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 300,000 tons through the establishment of bike route networks to achieve the goals of the Kyoto Protocol.

In a project that began in 2008, the land ministry plans to lengthen cycle ways by designating 98 places around Japan, including Nagoya, as model sites for demarcating exclusive bike lanes on streets next to sidewalks.

But even in Nagoya, the bike lane network is still only one-tenth that of Paris, the land ministry said.

As part of environmental awareness efforts, Nagoya and auto parts maker Denso Corp., which is based near the city, encourage their employees to commute by bike.

In 2001, Nagoya doubled the amount of commuter allowance for its employees who bicycled to work, and halved the allowance for those who use cars. Since then, its bicycle commuters have more than doubled, a city official said.

Denso, a key Toyota Motor Corp. group firm, gives what it calls “eco points” that can be exchanged for goods and services to employees who commute by bicycle or take part in other designated activities, including taking courses to learn about preserving the environment and buying fair-trade products.

“Of course, it does not mean we do not want to sell cars,” a Denso spokesman said, adding it is not good for the environment if car commuters do not carpool.

By promoting bike commuting and other environmentally friendly activities, Denso aims to encourage its employees to take a step, albeit a small one, to preserve the environment, the spokesman said.

One bicycle commuter in Tokyo, Keizo Namiki, 35, said cycling instead of riding on a packed train is good for his physical and mental health.