Kyoto’s historical and cultural treasures have always attracted large numbers of tourists. But getting around the city by car or bus has never been easy, even when traffic is light.
Train and subway stations are somewhat limited and not always near the most visited historical sites. Narrow one-way streets abound, and even the main roads are often clogged with vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Long-term residents give directions by joking that your destination is a 10-minute walk or a 30-minute taxi or bus ride away.
That makes bicycles particularly popular. After Tokyo and Osaka, Kyoto, with a population of about 1.5 million to Osaka’s 2.7 million, has more people commuting to work or school by bicycle than any other city in the country.
Yet that creates its own problems. For many years, bicycle use in Kyoto was loosely regulated and parking, as with autos, was a huge headache. People lined up their bikes, illegally, in long rows that took up half the sidewalk, squeezing foot traffic into a narrow area and making a stroll downtown difficult for those whose natural speed is faster than a turtle.
But at the end of March, Kyoto announced plans to make the city more cyclist-friendly by 2020. More money will be spent on adding bicycle lanes, improving public knowledge of safety issues, building parking spaces and working with the private sector to expand bike tours.
While some Kyoto roads now have bicycle lanes, there are plans afoot to create new routes in three parts of the city, including virtually its entire center, by 2020. The lanes will be marked with pictographs, not kanji.
Efforts to make Kyoto more cyclist-friendly actually began in earnest in 2010, when more than 86,000 illegally parked bicycles were removed by the city. New measures increased the number of private parking lot owners, and there is now authorized parking space to accommodate over 54,000 bicycles, up from about 49,000 in 2010 and 39,000 a decade ago.
At the same time, crackdowns on illegal parking meant the city removed just over 54,600 bikes in fiscal 2013, especially from the banks of the Kamo River and city streets late at night, on weekends and holidays.
Progress has thus been visible even with the number of tourists on the streets rising rapidly. The latest available figures, from fiscal 2013, show more than 51.6 million tourists visited Kyoto. That includes over 1.1 million foreigners who spent at least one night in Kyoto — a 35 percent increase over the previous year.
While fleets of air-conditioned buses with guides speaking nonstop through a public address system the entire tour still shepherd large groups around, not a few foreign tourists, especially from the United States and Europe, prefer to travel individually or in small groups by bicycle.
Over the past decade or so, some long-term Kyoto expats have begun to offer bicycle tours of the major temples, shrines and historic sites, or provide English-language information on where, and how, to get around Kyoto on two wheels.
While generally agreeing the city is better today than a couple of decades ago when it comes to its bicycle policy, several people have offered specific advice on how to create an even more-cyclist friendly environment.
Chris Rowthorn, author of Lonely Planet’s Japan and Kyoto guides, runs his own tour company. He says that while Kyoto is one of the most bikeable cities in Asia, it doesn’t make it easy, particularly foreign cyclists who cannot read Japanese.
“The city’s main bicycle parking lots, including the new ones on Oike dori (Oike Avenue, directly across from Kyoto City Hall), lack English-language explanations on the payment machines,” he said.
And parking, he says, remains a problem.
“There is an acute shortage of places to park bicycles in the city. Kyoto is assiduous about removing bicycles parked on city streets, but much less concerned about building bicycle parking lots or spaces and making them easy to use for foreign visitors,” he said.
Sanborn Brown, who created the CycleKyoto.com website, a bilingual reference for tourists, commuters, first-time visitors and long-time residents, offered a half dozen suggestions on what might be done over the coming years.
“As much as possible, the city needs to separate cars, bikes and pedestrians. A citywide rental system, like Velib in Paris, would be nice. It would require multiple pickup and drop-off ports, ease of use (read: multilingual instructions) and payment for non-Japanese speakers,” Brown said.
Many of the above suggestions have been incorporated into the 2020 plan announced by the city last month. With the Tokyo Olympics that same year, Kyoto’s politicians and merchants are looking forward to greeting large numbers of visitors and making sure they get around smoothly.
But given the reliance of Kyoto’s tourism industry on large group tours, taking the kind of additional cyclist-friendly measures seen in some overseas cities could be tough.
“The number of cars and tour buses on the road should be reduced if the city really wants to make it safe for cyclists and pedestrians, though this is not likely to happen,” Brown said.
Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.
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