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The bicycle has been heralded throughout history as a tool of emancipation, and this time around it might be helping us escape a virus. Global bicycle sales soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Japan was no exception to the boom.

The government began promoting a “new lifestyle” in May 2020, and cycling became a way to avoid Tokyo’s infamously packed trains. A survey in June 2020 of 500 business people found 23% had started cycling to work since the pandemic spread to avoid crowds. Open Street Inc., which operates bicycle sharing service Hello Cycling, reported that the number of users increased 1½ times during commuting hours compared with before the pandemic. Meanwhile, with delivery orders spiking, the streets have become home to a relentless fleet of two-wheeled delivery workers.

This shift to cycling, propelled by the rise in e-bikes and bike sharing services, has important implications for sustainability. A Deloitte report forecast a rise from 1% to 2% in the proportion of people who bike to work from 2019 to 2022. While seemingly unimpressive, it notes that “tens of billions of additional bicycle rides per year means fewer car trips and lower emissions, with spillover benefits for traffic congestion and urban air quality.” Several other studies have also demonstrated the health benefits of cycling to work, with even clunky e-bikes reportedly helping to improve cardiovascular health and aerobic capacity. A future with more cycling would improve our quality of life.

Tokyo is already well situated to capitalize on this trend. It already ranks high for bicycle use, with Deloitte reporting that “journeys taken wholly or partly by bicycle” in 2019 accounted for 16% (placing a joint global fourth) of trips in the metropolis. As a vast urban area, it is unrealistic to envision bicycles as a sole transport solution, but it may become a key tool for getting people to other modes of transport. Open Street, which has around 1,000 Hello Cycling stations in Tokyo, is positioning itself within the last-mile mobility market, collaborating with rail company apps to integrate en route bike share searches.

Space for all: Designated walking and cycling tracks are an easy, safe and green alternative to traveling by car. | PHOEBE AMOROSO
Space for all: Designated walking and cycling tracks are an easy, safe and green alternative to traveling by car. | PHOEBE AMOROSO

VanMoof, a Dutch smart bike company founded in 2009, identified Japan as a key market early on, selling through distributors before establishing a store in Harajuku in 2018. “Tokyo is the perfect city for biking,” says David Robert, brand content manager for Japan. “But the bicycle culture and bicycle styles are very specific.” Aware of smaller apartments and narrower streets, the company launched a smaller version of its classic model in 2019 and was able to cut its retail price by 45% last year, down to ¥250,000.

Initially, the company catered to the generally older, male “smart commuter,” but with the cheaper model and pandemic-driven bicycle boom, Robert says it is attracting more young and female customers. “People are changing the way they use transportation, and they are tired of mamachari,” Robert says, referring to large, sturdy town bikes designed for carrying children and groceries. “They want something fresher, with new technology.”

In June 2018, the government announced the Bicycle Use Promotion Plan as part of a push to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Provisions include promoting cycling tourism, and local governments have thrown themselves into achieving this goal. Ibaraki Prefecture’s 176-kilometer Tsukuba-Kasumigaura Ring Ring Road, a lakeside cycle path which offers several bike rental facilities, was designated one of three first ever national routes in 2019, alongside the 193-kilometer Biwaichi that circles Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture and the 70-kilometer Shimanami Kaido that stretches dramatically across a string of islands and bridges between Japan’s main island of Honshu and Shikoku.

“Because of the coronavirus, there’s a focus on outdoor activities so it’s a good time to promote cycling,” says Tomo Nishiguchi, assistant manager of Ibaraki Prefectural Government’s sports promotion division. While the Ring Ring Road saw a dip in visitors during the first state of emergency in April and May, he says there were weekends during the summer where rental stations were overwhelmed by demand. The prefecture, hoping to capitalize on its proximity to Tokyo, plans to open more cycle routes, as well as increase the use of e-bikes to cater more to casual daytrippers.

Yet there is less evidence of practical measures by municipalities to encourage commuting. “Cycling tourism is a repeat of yuru-chara,” says cycling advocate Kosuke Miyata, referring to the widespread use of promotional mascots. “There was so much money poured into making those characters for nothing. The focus on cycling tourism means less money goes into urban cycling.”

Valuing the streets: Cycling advocate Kosuke Miyata is a strong proponent of expanding urban cycling infrastructure. | PHOEBE AMOROSO
Valuing the streets: Cycling advocate Kosuke Miyata is a strong proponent of expanding urban cycling infrastructure. | PHOEBE AMOROSO

Miyata is a strong proponent of taking road space away from cars, but it’s a rarely considered position, even by cyclists themselves. The Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, an NPO that works closely with legislators to establish comprehensive policies across local governments, has traditionally placed a strong emphasis on vehicular cycling, where geared-up road bike riders share the road with cars. But this excludes the majority of bicycle users, says Miyata, who is now working with the group to formulate a more inclusive vision of safe cycling for all.

Remarkably, Tokyo is still relatively safe for cyclists, as drivers tend to be cautious in the backstreets, says Chad Feyen, a founding member of the Cycling Embassy of Japan advocacy group. However, there is scope for improvement on main roads. “All the new developments in Shibuya have bicycle parking. It’s just hard to get there,” he says. “I want to see major intercity cycle lanes, separate from cars, that would allow people to travel safely and quickly.”

A glance overseas suggests the proposals are far from radical. In 2019, Beijing opened its first cycling highway, a 6½-kilometer protected bike lane designed to connect multiple cities. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, closed the major thoroughfare of Rue de Rivoli to cars in May 2020, and subsequently confirmed it will remain solely for cyclists and pedestrians.

In Japan, no such plans have been rolled out. Miyata says a lot of media coverage has been frustratingly negative. A growing number of bicycle-riding food deliverers, often harried for time, and the resultant rise in traffic violations and accidents, means cyclists are often portrayed as a homogenous group of rule-breaking pests — a narrative that ignores the potential health and environmental benefits this trend entails. Yet, with a steeply aging population, questions of mobility are only becoming more pertinent; as Feyen points out, safe spaces for elderly cyclists would allow them to have more autonomy.

As Tokyo starts 2021 with another state of emergency, citizen well-being is not something to be overlooked. “It’s just a personal observation,” Miyata says, “but the streets seemed rather happy last May when people were asked to stay near home. I believe people realized more than ever the value of streets where kids — and even adults — can play. So feeling happy while getting around might matter to people more than before. That is an experience the humble bicycle can bring.”

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