Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama could have made a stronger impact at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in New York last week had he trumpeted another environmentally laudable proposal in addition to his declared goal of Japan cutting its greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent from 1990 levels by 2020: riding bicycles.

A national push for bicycle riding, if it succeeded in steering people away from their cars, would send a powerful message that Japan is taking environmental awareness to the next level.

Cycling burns no oil, produces no toxins and is therefore not harmful for the environment. If more people commuted to work by bicycle, it would make rush-hour trains less unbearable. It would even help cut the nation’s medical expenditures by making people healthier, less obese and less prone to a whole range of lifestyle-related illnesses.

Despite these great benefits of cycling — not to mention the pleasure of pedaling along at your own pace, too — bike-friendly politicians are rare in Japan. Rare, that is, except during election campaigns, when pretty much every candidate rides a flag-fluttering bicycle to advertise his or her “ordinariness.”

But on a grassroots level, Japan is definitely at the dawn of a new era in cycling, with increasing numbers of city dwellers now starting to use bikes for 5- to 10-km commutes or for recreation in the suburbs on weekends.

While hard statistics are difficult to come by, besuited cyclists jostling with cars and trucks and indicating their intended maneuvers with smart hand signals are an increasingly common sight on even the busiest of Tokyo’s roads. On weekends, meanwhile, such routes as the 25-km Tamagawa River Cycling Road, which connects Tokyo’s residential Setagaya Ward and Kawasaki, in Kanagawa Prefecture southwest of Tokyo, are often crowded with cyclists on fashionable and colorful bikes enjoying a leisurely and scenic ride.

Bookstores, too, are full of hands-on guides to how to cycle to work, complete with advertisements for the latest bikes and related equipment both imported and home grown. As well, numerous magazines catering to avid riders of high-end road-racer bikes also line the shelves.

Then last week, in its Sept. 26 issue, the Weekly Diamond, a major weekly business magazine, ran a 43-page special feature titled “Jitensha ga Atsui! (Bikes are Hot!)” that detailed the recent cycling boom and was aimed at its core readership of middle-age businessmen.

What’s fueling the boom is a rise in the popularity of high-speed, lightweight sports bikes — which include road bikes and so-called cross bikes (hybrids that mix the characteristics of road-racers and mountain bikes) — as well as battery-assisted bicycles.

Last year in fact, 315,000 battery-assisted bikes sold in Japan, overtaking for the first time the sales of 50cc motorbikes. In addition, according to industry figures, 19.1 new sports bikes were sold at each of the country’s bicycle stores on average in 2008 — up from 13.2 in 2007 and almost double the 10.1 per store in 2006.

Not that cycling is an entirely new concept here. Japan has long been a cycling nation, with an estimated 86 million machines long distributed among its roughly 128 million population. But the most common types of bicycles used in Japan are so-called mama-chari (Mommy’s bike), which experts reckon comprise 70 to 90 percent of all the bikes in the country. Typically weighing more than 20 kg, these ponderous vehicles seldom seen anywhere else in the world are suitable only for short-distance trips. Many mama-chari are made in China and are equipped with a grocery basket in front and a child’s seat on the back — and they come cheap, often costing less than ¥10,000. However, the current, rising popularity of commuter and recreational cycling in Japan has exposed some serious shortfalls in the nation’s cycling infrastructure and traffic regulations.

For one, of all industrialized powers, Japan is probably the only country where cyclists routinely share sidewalks with pedestrians — whether legally or illegally. This is due to a 1978 change in the Road Traffic Act, which has allowed cyclists to ride on some — but not all — sidewalks.

This measure, introduced while Japan was rapidly modernizing and motorizing, was a response to a surge in the number of accidents involving cars and bicycles, according to Ryoji Shibuya, a director of the semi-governmental Bicycling Popularization Association of Japan (BPAJ).

“The legal change ended up putting a wrong idea in people’s minds that cyclists can ride on any sidewalks,” he said. “Legally speaking, in fact, they can only ride where there are signs specifically allowing cyclists.”

Shibuya also explained that the 1978 law revision was made as an emergency life-saving measure to protect cyclists — who at the time were increasingly becoming the victims of road traffic accidents — and that the understanding was that it would be phased out with the introduction of bike lanes. But he noted that even now, more than 30 years on, bike lanes have yet to arrive in the vast majority of areas.

Meanwhile, at that time, too, Shibuya noted that many sections of curb were turned into ramps to make roads wheelchair-accessible — a progressive move in itself, but one that has made it even easier for cyclists to switch from roads to sidewalks where only pedestrians are meant to be allowed. Consequently, cyclists now pose a major threat to pedestrians in most of Japan’s towns and cities. Over the past decade, the number of accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians has shot up 4.5 times, to 2,942 in 2008. Even more troubling is the fact that 65 percent of the 717 people killed by cyclists were at age 65 or older — pointing to the fact that sidewalks are not protecting some of the most vulnerable pedestrians in society.

Satoshi Hikita, a television producer who calls himself a “tsukinisuto” (a word he has coined for people who use bikes in their tsukin commute to work), and who has written extensively about cycling regulations, says the biggest problem today is that most Japanese still do not consider bicycles a serious means of transportation — and therefore don’t see that a problem exists in cyclists’ relationships with others.

“It is probably only in Japan that cyclists ride anywhere and everywhere — on sidewalks, in car lanes, on the left side or the right side,” he says. “It’s crazy and it’s unthinkable in (cyclist-friendly) nations like Denmark or Germany.” So what is the government doing about this?

Hideki Takebayashi, who is deputy director of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry’s road-safety management office, concedes that, of a total of 1.18 million kilometers of roads that bikes can ride on across the country, a paltry 2,900 km are considered to have a “bikes-only” lane — leaving the remaining 1.1 million km to be shared with pedestrians or cars.

In January 2008, to make more roads cyclist-friendly, the ministry, along with the National Police Agency, designated 98 “model” districts across Japan where a section of the road has a dedicated bike lane. (See accompanying story for case studies of two of the 98 areas.)

The proposed Phase II of this MLIT-NPA initiative would see existing bike lanes extended, and new ones introduced on other roads to create bike-friendly cities, Takebayashi said.

But BPAJ’s Shibuya is adamant that, with accidents running at such a high number annually, the government should be doing more than just aiming to create more bike lanes, which cannot be built overnight.

“Model districts are a sign that (the government) is paying attention to the problem,” he said. “But what about areas not included in the model districts?”

Instead, Shibuya argued, Japan should introduce speed limits in city centers, as they have in Germany. There, certain areas in cities are designated as “Zone 30” — meaning the maximum permitted speed of any vehicle, including cars, is restricted to 30 kph.

“Dedicated bike lanes take time and cost money to create,” he said. “Speed limits do not.”

TV producer Hikita suggests an even simpler fix. Right now, he points out that traffic laws require cyclists to ride on the left-hand side of regular roads or, when riding on sidewalks, on the side closest to the regular road. Since few people take any notice of this regulation, let alone comply with it, he argues that it would be easier if everyone just agreed to ride on the left side of all roads or sidewalks.

“That alone could save a lot of lives,” he said.