National bicycle policy needed

Shizuoka Prefecture took a positive step forward in mid-February when it enacted revised traffic rules and opened new one-way bicycle lanes in Shizuoka City. Taking place on a larger scale than other pilot projects around the country, it should be a harbinger of improved bicycle policies throughout Japan. Unfortunately, however, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is approaching bicycle policy in a piecemeal fashion.

That little-by-little approach seems especially strange since Japan is the third biggest cycling nation in the world. Japan’s 70 to 80 million bicycles might not compare with China’s staggering 500 million cycles or the Netherlands 99 percent bike ownership rate, but with over 10 million new bicycles sold each year, the current regulations, facilities and infrastructure are far from sufficient. The central government needs a coherent plan and concrete action to make bicycle riding a greater part of the transportation network.

Bicycles are the most sustainable and efficient form of urban transportation. With the right planning, they smoothly interface with the rest of the transportation network. Many cities have already studied traffic flow patterns, but more funding must be devoted to planning and construction. Though new infrastructure will be needed, it will last for years and more than pay for itself by helping to reduce automotive pollution and congestion.

Most important are bicycle lanes, which are few and far between at the moment. Finding space of any kind is not easy in Japan’s crowded urban areas, but converting some two-way roads into one-way roads for cars with two bike lanes on either side is one solution. Establishing through-lanes at intersections is also tricky, but can be accomplished with careful planning.

Bicycle lanes separated from pedestrians and automobiles by dividers are the best solution. These cycleways can be integrated into roadways and walkways to improve safety and traffic flow. Cycle-friendly lanes need to be established for different needs, too. Most bicycles are used for short trips. However, lanes for leisure cycling and long-distance commutes are also important. Creating designated lanes, as has been done in Shizuoka City, requires study, planning and design, but is reasonably cheap compared with other infrastructure projects.

Parking is an aspect of bicycle infrastructure that does involve expense. Some Japanese local governments have installed automatic underground parking facilities and most stations have bike parking lots, but many more are needed. Shopping streets also need additional parking spaces. If bicycle parking spaces are too far from popular destinations, people will instead park in closer but prohibited areas or drive instead, adding to traffic congestion. Overall, however, bicycle infrastructure is more a matter of thoughtful design than of costly construction.

Employers can help encourage bicycling by providing parking areas for employees. Whenever possible, companies should consider establishing changing rooms and shower facilities for employees who cycle to work (or who exercise at lunchtime). Already, a few entrepreneurs, such as Marunouchi Bike and Run, have started to offer such services. Cycle commuters can park in a secure place and clean up before work, then ride home afterward.

Bicycle manufacturers should strive to improve and diversify their products as well. Reducing the weight of bicycles and improving their brakes — and eliminating the annoying brake squeal that most shopping bicycles seem to make -would contribute greatly to making them safer and easier to maneuver. Offering more adult tricycles, which are very stable, would help to make cycling easier and safer for the elderly and parents with small children. More innovations in folding bikes, seats for children and safety accessories are also needed. The bicycle industry has plenty of room to expand.

People also need to change. Though bicycles are a common part of life in Japan, the attitude toward them is too casual, and manners are often poor and even dangerous. Mothers can be seen leaving their children on the bicycle while they run inside a shop. Cycling while holding cell phones and umbrellas, listening to music through earphones and riding against traffic — all of which are illegal — are very common and most problematic, as is riding too fast for conditions and generally disregarding others. Children under the age of 13 are required by law to wear cycling helmets, but compliance is spotty. The police should increase their efforts to educate the public on this matter, and parents should ensure their children wear helmets.

Though Japan sells over 10 million new bicycles a year, an estimated 7 million are discarded annually. Some municipal governments have started working together to stop this wastefulness by linking up with nongovernmental organizations, such as the Municipal Coordinating Committee for Overseas Bicycle Assistance. These groups collect, repair and transport bikes to countries that greatly need them. In this sense, Japan is contributing to bicycle riding around the world. The national government, along with more municipal governments, should work to expand this program.

Making Japan into a “nation of cyclists” will require an immense amount of planning and moderate expense. However, the benefits of increasing bicycle use are multiple. Bicycles reduce energy consumption, congestion and pollution — making urban areas cleaner, more livable and pleasant — while improving health and reducing stress. A more coherent and effective national bicycle policy is needed now.