Japan’s authorities never set out to make their communities bicycle friendly. Rather, history, climate and population density have contributed to making much of Japan a cyclist’s dream.
The other Saturday was a typical night out for me. First, my friend Kevin cycled over to my place for a hour of preliminary snacks and a few rounds of computer gaming. Then we hopped on our bicycles, barreled down the wide sidewalks of Kannana Dori and hung a left on the Omekaido thoroughfare. There we stopped at Shinga, a reggae-inspired izakaya in Tokyo’s Nakano Ward about two kilometers from my home, for dinner.
Afterward, we got back on our bikes and headed south down Nakano Dori to Crossroads, a corroded 10-seat bar dedicated to the vintage sounds of Motown and Atlantic. The next destination was about a kilometer away, back in my home ward of Suginami. This was Grass Roots, a cozy DJ club. We pedaled ourselves there sometime after midnight.
The night ended in Las Meninas, a bar located on one of western Tokyo’s busiest arcades. We arrived after weaving our bikes through a steady flow of pedestrian traffic, an impressive feat given our few hours of “exercise.”
This night on the town would be hard to imagine anywhere outside of Japan. I’m not talking about our extensive imbibing but of our chosen mode of transport — the humble bicycle. Whether shopping, visiting nearby friends or partying on a Saturday night, the bicycle is often the best way of getting about, not just where I live but in thousands of communities throughout Japan.
Japanese cities never set out to be bicycle friendly. They just evolved that way. Many of the narrow streets that exist today were laid out in ancient times, well before the age of the automobile. Some are even a legacy of a distant era when townsfolk purposely created narrow and twisting streets so as to confuse intruders.
Nowadays, those streets may be a motorist’s hell but are heaven to the cyclist. There are no red lights to slow you down or multilane thoroughfares to cross.
I have yet to see any other Asian city were bicycling is so easy and comfortable as in Japan. In Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, the car is clearly king and civil engineers seem bent on continuously widening roads and building overpasses to accommodate a burgeoning flow of motorized traffic.
Meanwhile, many communities in the West are struggling to make themselves more bicycle friendly, largely out of environmental concerns.
Yet such efforts are not needed in most Japanese cities. Bicycle friendly infrastructure has long existed here, thanks to the aforementioned historical factors, a generally temperate climate and high population density.
So no wonder that Japan is one of the most bicycle-saturated societies in the world. In Tokyo, Osaka and other big cities, there are roughly two bicycles for every three residents. Nationwide, the ratio is about one bike for every two people.
Japan’s bicycle friendliness has also won admirers from abroad. Michael Repogle, a transportation expert at Environmental Defense, a leading U.S.-based nonprofit organization, has researched the cycling habits of Japanese and proposed that Americans follow their example. He recently told a Senate panel about the enormous environmental and cost benefits of the Japanese habit of biking to train and subway stations while commuting.
Yet it often seems that Japanese authorities, particularly municipal governments, fail to recognize such benefits. Increasingly, they are viewing bicycles more as a nuisance than as the most environmentally friendly and healthiest mode of transport known to man.
In 1994, an amendment to the Bicycle Law made it easier for local authorities to dispose of illegally parked bicycles and fine their owners.
Many municipal governments have taken the measures to heart. Nakano Ward, for one, announced this summer a crackdown on bicycles parked in banned areas. Collection trucks have stepped up their patrols to the point that the sidewalks and spaces in and around JR Nakano Station are uncluttered by parked and abandoned bikes. The fee for retrieving an impounded bike has been hiked from 3 yen,000-5,000, and the only sanctioned parking zones in the area surrounding the station are at punitive fee-charging lots.
While I appreciate the need to get rid of abandoned bikes and to unclutter sidewalks, efforts like those of Nakano’s are doomed to failure. That’s because for thousands of residents, the bicycle will always be the cheapest and most convenient mode of transport.
The solution is to offer free parking and to require that large buildings and facilities to provide parking spaces for their customers.
The central government, on the other hand, has been very active in promoting the benefits of pedal power, including linking it to the lowering greenhouse emissions.
Yet unfortunately that awareness has not always filtered down to the local governments.