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Bikes keep the wheels of progress rolling

by Mark Schreiber

With the onslaught of super typhoon No. 15 on Sept. 21-22, for the second time in a little over six months Tokyo’s public transport network was snarled by a natural disaster. Several hundreds of thousands of hapless commuters found themselves stranded for hours as kitaku nanmin (“refugees” unable to return home). With train runs delayed during the peak rush hour, crowds of commuters flowed out of rail stations, jamming buses and attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to flag down a vacant taxi.

“This time we were just lucky that flooding in the greater Tokyo area was not more extensive,” disaster journalist Minoru Watanabe tells Flash (Oct. 11), adding that both the government and private corporations have yet to learn the lessons of March 11, largely leaving the marooned masses to fend for themselves.

In action perhaps best described as doronawa-shiki (braiding the rope after the thief has already been caught; i.e., too little, too late), Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara on Sep. 22 pledged to pass an ordinance ensuring that those unable to return to their homes in the event of a major disaster be given shelter at their workplace or at schools.

When the Japan Research Center surveyed 1,000 residents of Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures about how they got home following the March earthquake, the answer given most frequently, by 31.4 percent, was “on foot.” Ranked fourth, at around 10 percent (and particularly prominent among males in their teens and women in their 40s) was by bicycle.

Indeed, as the reports of the quake’s severity trickled in, many white-collar workers apparently dashed out of their offices and descended on bicycle retailers, where they literally bought out the entire inventory.

Brett Bull, an American resident who regularly commutes by bicycle to his office in Tokyo’s Toshima Ward, and a contributor to The Japan Times, witnessed the chaos up close.

“On March 11, I left my office in Otsuka by bike at about 6:30 p.m. … It was madness,” Bull recalls. “All through central Tokyo, pedestrians were spilling off the sidewalks and onto the streets, intersections were jammed in all directions, and traffic snarls extended for blocks. Some people seemed to be in a daze, wondering whether to wait around or trudge home on foot. My commute home took well over an hour. Usually it’s only about 35 minutes.”

Bicycle sales also reportedly spiked in rural areas closer to the quake’s epicenter, due to such factors as interruptions in the supply of gasoline that grounded motor vehicles for a week or longer.

The short-term demand for the two-wheelers resulted in an unprecedented 165.5 percent month-on leap in sales during March, according to data from the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute.

Asahi Co., Ltd., operator of a nationwide chain of bike shops that currently has 257 outlets, said its sales in March nearly doubled over the same month a year before.

“It’s hard to differentiate regular demand from the sales resulting directly from the disaster, but clearly the latter helped to boost our sales,” Asahi’s spokesperson was quoted in Weekly Playboy (July 18-25).

Traumatized by the frequent aftershocks following the quake, some office workers continued to eschew rail transport and began commuting by bicycle to their jobs.

“(In the days) following the quake, I did indeed notice an increase in cyclists on the roads,” says Bull. “I think a lot of these new riders were fearful that another aftershock would stop the trains again and they’d be stuck. But in recent months, their number appears to have tapered off.”

In a 28-page special on bicycles, business magazine Shukan Diamond (Sep. 24) downplayed last March’s transportation breakdowns, choosing to focus instead on the two-wheelers as a healthy, eco-friendly and fashionable mode of transport.

While Japan’s domestic demand for passenger cars and motorcycles continues to slump, the magazine noted that sales of so-called electric-assist bicycles have been booming.

These bicycles (which don’t require a driver’s license) incorporate an electric motor that gives the rider a gentle boost during startup and while climbing hills. The rider must continuously rotate the pedals, however, for the motor to be engaged. Maximum speed is around 24 km/h.

The record number of 381,721 electric-assist models sold last year by such manufacturers as Panasonic, Sanyo and Yamaha is projected to grow to 420,000 units in 2011, a figure that will surpass total domestic shipments of new motorcycles.

In addition to a revision in the law to permit boosted power output from the motor, improvements in rechargeable battery technology have extended the maximum range on a single charge of an electric-assist bicycle. The most advanced Panasonic model soon to go on sale boasts a maximum range of 160km — comparable with electric cars.

On Oct. 1 and 2, the Bicycle Popularization Association of Japan will be holding “What Bicycles Can Do For People,” a two-day exhibition at Tokyo’s Science Museum located adjacent to Kitanomaru Park in Chiyoda Ward. (www.jsf.or.jp/eng/map) The show will feature 40 different models on display, including bicycles equipped with trailers for transporting relief goods in the event of disasters. Admission is ¥300, students ¥200, children ¥150.