Dear Alice,

I recently returned to Japan after almost 20 years back in my native Canada. Among the many new things I’ve noticed are crosswalks with special lanes for bicycles. As an avid cyclist, I welcome anything that makes it easier to get around on two wheels, but I have to say this seems like one of those great ideas that doesn’t work. The marking makes it perfectly clear that bikes are supposed to use one side and pedestrians the other, yet I constantly see pedestrians where only bicycles are supposed to be and bicycles where only pedestrians are supposed to be. This surprises me, because Japanese are generally so good about following rules. So, what the heck’s wrong?

Clark M., Yokohama

Dear Clark,

First of all, welcome back. It’s always nice to have a fresh pair of eyes looking out for curiosities, and as soon as I saw your mail I knew this was one worth checking out. So I posted myself at an intersection and quickly confirmed your observation that everyone’s way out of line on this one.

Next, I paid a visit to the Tokyo headquarters of the National Police Agency, which has jurisdiction over road markings. Go Suga, an officer with the traffic-planning division, studied my stakeout snapshots and regretfully acknowledged that it was yoroshikunai (unfortunate) to see so many citizens, well, crossing the line.

“To improve compliance,” Suga said, “we need to help both pedestrians and cyclists understand that they personally will be safer if everyone uses the proper lane.”

Before I get into how the police are trying to raise awareness, let me pedal back a bit and give you some background. Bicycle lanes in crosswalks are called jitensha odantai (bicycle-crossing lanes). They were, in fact, in existence during your previous stay in Japan, but apparently not in great enough numbers for you to have encountered one. The marking was first authorized in 1978, part of a periodic revision to the Road Traffic Law, and by the early ’90s there were approximately 100,000 pedestrian crossings with these separate lane markings for bicycles. That number has now almost doubled: At the end of 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Japan had 193,876 crosswalks with bike lanes.

Since you’re an avid cyclist, you may have figured out that the purpose of a jitensha odantai is to provide continuous passage across streets that intersect the bike lanes that run on pedestrian sidewalks. And therein lies the surprise factoid of this month’s column: What if you’re biking on a sidewalk, and you come to a regular zebra-stripe crosswalk that doesn’t have a bike lane? Well, it seems you are expected to stop, get off your bike and walk it across the street!

“It’s true,” confirmed Kazuo Yatagai of the Bicycling Promotion Association of Japan, in Tokyo. “Unless there is a marked lane for bicycles, you’re obligated to dismount and push your bike across the street.

“But very few people even know this rule, let alone obey it,” he admitted. “I suspect most police officers aren’t even aware of it.”

The police recently stepped up safety education in response to a steep rise in the number of accidents involving bicycles. There were 29,514 such accidents last year in Japan, nearly five times more than a decade earlier.

“Part of the reason is that more people are out on bicycles,” said the NPA’s Suga. “But it also seems that an increasing number of riders are ignoring traffic rules.”

Last year the police provided bicycle-safety instruction to more than 3 million people, including a new target group: senior citizens.

“One factor in the accident rate seems to be that we have more riders in their 70s and 80s, as well as a greater number of older pedestrians,” Suga explained.

But not everyone thinks education is the answer.

“It’s not the users who are at fault. It’s the planners,” complained Shigeki Kobayashi, head of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, an advocacy group that is based in Tokyo. “The whole idea of forcing cyclists and pedestrians together, and accommodating bicycles by taking space away from pedestrians instead of cars, is totally wrong-headed.” He pulled out photos of bike lanes in England and Denmark that allow cyclists to safely share the road with automobiles. “This is the approach we should be taking in Japan, especially when you consider that bicycles are legally vehicles under Japanese law.”

Kobayashi recently served on an advisory panel set up jointly by the police and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism that recommended increased separation of automobiles, bicycles and pedestrians.

“Even something as simple as using paint to delineate a separate lane for bicycles along the side of the road can be effective, as long as the police keep the bike lanes clear by quickly removing illegally parked and stopped automobiles,” Kobayashi explained. The government has now designated 98 communities around the nation as test areas, and experiments are under way to showcase and evaluate various means of creating safe space for cyclists so they don’t have to ride on sidewalks.

But in the meantime, readers should be aware that the rules have changed since the last time I wrote about biking on sidewalks (Jan. 27, 2007). At that time, bicycles were expected to stay off sidewalks except where special signs permit. But in June of this year, the law was changed: Now children under the age of 13 and anyone 70 or older may ride on any sidewalk, anywhere. Riders of all ages may continue to use sidewalks where signs permit but, in another change, any rider may move onto the sidewalk if road conditions feel unsafe (due to construction, for example). When on sidewalks, cyclists are expected to slow down and yield to foot traffic, which is interpreted by the police to mean that there should be no bell-ringing at pedestrians.

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