Last month, comedian Mitsunori Fukuda was stopped and cited for riding a fixed-gear racing bike on a public street in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. These bicycles, also known as “piste bikes,” have become popular in the past few years, not so much as a conveyance but more as a fashion statement. They usually don’t come with hand brakes, and even when they do, purchasers often remove them because they think they look more kakkō-ii (cool) that way. However, the only way to brake a proper piste bike is to peddle backward, which makes it difficult to stop quickly. For that reason, piste bikes without both front and rear brakes are illegal in Tokyo, and Fukuda’s bike only had front brakes.
The citation evoked the standard apology from the comedian and his talent agency, which should have been enough to interest the show biz reporters on the morning “wide shows,” but in this case the interest had less to do with the star than with the equipment, or, more precisely, the law related to the equipment. Police have never aggressively enforced traffic rules for bicycles, in particular the one that says riders must stick to roads and avoid sidewalks. Japan’s roads are cramped and crowded, so police tend to look the other way regarding sidewalk riding. In the past year, however, two developments have made enforcement of traffic rules for bicycles unavoidable: the popularity of piste bikes, and the increase in bike commuters following the March 11 earthquake.
These two phenomena were picked up early by news programs. The wide shows and late-afternoon news shows often send reporters out in the field to confront citizens who are breaking the law. The most common subjects for these kinds of reports are shoplifting, illegal dumping and dangerous bike riding, and for the past several months TV news shows have aired long features on two-wheel terror in Tokyo. In many ways this ongoing coverage, most of which focuses on piste bikes, has been instrumental in bringing about the current police crackdown on reckless cyclists.
Last week, the Fuji TV morning show “Shiritagari” went a step further and dedicated a segment to the police crackdown itself. “Shiritagari” isn’t a wide show but rather an information program that offers detailed explanations of topics suggested by viewers. The main point of the segment was that riding on sidewalks will no longer be tolerated, news that may come as a shock to many Tokyoites, who tend to think you are supposed to ride on the sidewalk. After all, that’s where you always find the police peddling their pokey white bikes.
The Road Traffic Law says that bicycles must be ridden on streets, but in the late ’70s the law was revised to mirror reality, allowing bicycles on sidewalks as long as signs indicated it was OK. Since then, it’s basically been every pedestrian for himself. Collisions involving bicycles have increased in recent years, accounting for 38 percent of all traffic accidents in Japan. From January to August there were 1,039 accidents involving bikes and pedestrians in Tokyo alone, or about 40 percent of the bike accidents in Japan. Even this new crackdown may not have that much effect, since the police have said they will still allow people over 70 and under 13, as well as women with young children on board (only one, mind you), to ride on sidewalks.
But suddenly, other actions that bicycle riders take for granted have become subject to fines and arrest. While the police have always gone after drunks and people riding after dark without lights, they’ll now keep their eyes peeled for riders holding umbrellas, talking on their mobile phones, carrying a passenger, wearing earphones, ignoring stop signs, riding alongside another bicycle, operating a “broken” vehicle and even ringing the bell “when not necessary.” These actions may not only result in a fine of up to ¥50,000 but also a possible prison sentence, since administratively they are classified as “criminal offenses.” To put matters into perspective, driving a car over the speed limit is only considered a minor traffic violation.
And this is where Shigeki Kobayashi, the main guest on “Shiritagari,” finds cause for concern. As the president of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group (whose board of directors includes a Fuji TV executive), Kobayashi sees the crackdown as correct but one-sided. Though it is obvious that many Tokyo bike users are indeed reckless, the media’s somewhat breathless coverage has demonized the tool along with the person who uses it, thus ignoring other factors that contribute to the problem, namely that bicycles have to share space with cars whose right to full dominion over the streets is taken for granted.
Tokyo has only 40 km of dedicated bike lanes, three-quarters of which are incorporated into sidewalks, which just brings us back to where we started. For comparison’s sake, Kobayashi pointed to Paris, which has 440 km of bike lanes and paths that it plans to increase to 700 km by 2014, all within the city limits. Paris can do this because city planners don’t care about drivers’ feelings. In many parts of the city the lane closest to the curb is reserved for buses and bikes, and if the other lanes are congested, car commuters just have to live with it. The idea is that they’ll eventually get frustrated and switch to public transportation — or bicycles.
Though the Tokyo police are right to crack down on dangerous bike riders, more accidents could be avoided if cars weren’t so privileged. And it isn’t just bikes that have to yield. Right now there’s a plan to tear down the pedestrian overpass near Tokyo’s Harajuku station because it’s old, dangerous and ugly. When TV reporters covered the story they interviewed taxi drivers, who complained that allowing pedestrians to cross that intersection would be an inconvenience for automobiles. Never mind that overpasses are an inconvenience for the elderly, or that the streets belong to everyone.