Tokyo, Japan: Omnipresent Cycling in the Big City

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Cyclists thrive in Tokyo, bicycle commuters not so much …

Tokyo, one of the biggest cities in the world, the overpopulated home to over 13 million people and capital of the largest car producing nation on the planet, doesn’t sound the least bit bicycle friendly does it? Well no, but before you develop any false preconceptions let me explain to you why Tokyo is among the most bicycle friendly cities in the world.

I know it sounds insane. Tokyo is known for its clean efficient public transport with rush hour trains departing every two minutes, its a place where the conductors apologise profusely if a train is just one minute behind schedule. You’d expect everyone to be driving cheap locally produced Toyotas, Hondas, or Nissans and given Tokyo’s high tech reputation you could be forgiven for thinking those cars were all driving themselves!

But the truth is Tokyo is teeming with bicycles, so common are bicycles, and so widely are they used, that when you refer to “cyclists” in Tokyo you’re actually referring to “everyone” and we’re not talking about Lycra clad road warriors here, we’re talking about businessmen, mothers, the elderly and children millions of whom rely upon the bicycle for everyday activities including travelling to school, the station, going shopping or to the doctor, ferrying children to kindergarten and running a multitude of other errands around their neighbourhood.

Given that literally millions of people in Tokyo cycle daily you’d expect Tokyo to be brimming with top notch bicycle lanes and cycling infrastructure. Sadly though, in this cycling utopia, no such infrastructure exists and the vast majority of people cycle on the sidewalks amongst the pedestrians. In addition to this cycling laws are poorly understood and inconsistently enforced leading to a uniquely Japanese and very polite form of anarchy on the streets. How then amongst the lawlessness of this overpopulated concrete metropolis with little infrastructure or planning for bicycles can cycling possibly survive?

Cities

While Tokyo itself is a massive city, it is made up of small self contained neighbourhoods each of which have their own small town feel within which you’ll find almost every convenience for everyday life. Supermarkets, schools, doctors, dry cleaners, kindergartens, almost anything you can imagine is but a short ride away. This makes the bicycle a perfect form of transport for quick trips around the neighbourhood.

Cars

Car ownership is expensive and can be inconvenient. Before purchasing a car in Japan you must first prove that you have a place to park it and in space starved Tokyo parking can be both difficult to arrange and prohibitively expensive. Even if you can secure a parking space for your car don’t expect it to be close to your apartment, it may be 5 minutes or more walk away. While the majority of people in Tokyo do not own a vehicle, even those that do find the bicycle more convenient for short trips within their community. Also given efficient public transport, and hideously expensive inner city parking prices, few car owners drive to work. In short car ownership does not make a lot of sense for many who live in Tokyo.

Bicycles

The majority of Japanese cyclists ride mamachari bicycles, city bikes which are the family station wagons of Japan. They’re cheap and come equipped with dynamo lights, horseshoe locks and sturdy rear wheel kickstands right out of the box. While baskets on the front and racks on the back are standard the options for carrying cargo and children with the addition of accessories are limitless. Carrying two (or more) children by bicycle is not an uncommon sight around Tokyo. Although heavy the mamachari is durable and perfectly suited to the Japanese city environment, and to the tasks that millions use them for every day.

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Perhaps the biggest factor that makes cycling work in Tokyo is attitude of the people themselves. For the most part incredibly patient and polite they’re tolerant of the people around them. Many streets around the capital lack even sidewalks meaning that pedestrians, cyclists and cars often share the same space. As the majority of motorists also ride bicycles themselves they generally tend to treat other road users with the respect they deserve.

So Tokyo is a city in which everyone cycles, it must be bicycle commuter heaven! Well, after building the great cycling city up, here I have to let you down. The average length of a journey by cyclists in Tokyo is under 2km which reflects bicycles being used for shopping trips and running around the local neighbourhood rather than commuting distances to work. While the modal share for cycling in Tokyo is now 16% (Thats right, 16% of all trips within the city are made by bicycle!) the number of bicycle commuters remain extremely low for a variety of reasons.

Public Transport

Its clean, its safe, its efficient and its everywhere. Tokyo’s 121 train lines connect 882 stations and carry 40 million passengers daily, making public transport the logical commuting choice for the masses. Here the bicycle complements public transport rather than replaces it, as people often cycle from home to their local train station. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami disrupted public transport in the capital in 2011 there was a sudden spike in bicycle commuter numbers in Tokyo, as is often the case after disasters around the globe, but since then numbers have begun to dwindle.

 Company Bike Commuting Bans

Japanese companies must insure their workers for the duration of their commute to and from work, and the vast majority of insurance policies for workers do not cover cycling. As a result most companies in Tokyo (including some you’d not expect such as Google) outrightly ban their employees from cycling to work. Many workers, myself included, ignore the bans and take measures to hide their alternative transport choices from their employers. Often the employer will discover an employee is cycling to work but as long as the employee is not too obvious about it, and remains accident free, they’ll turn a blind eye rather than forcing the issue. Until this issue is resolved bicycle commuter numbers will never increase in Tokyo.

Lack of facilities

New buildings in Tokyo, matching certain requirements, are now required by law to provide bicycle parking, but current inner city bicycle parking facilities are unable to cope with the existing number of bicycles. Illegally parked bicycles are everywhere around the city and are often impounded by authorities. Even with the cost of policing and removing illegally parked bicycles rapidly rising authorities are slow to provide adequate parking facilities. The government response to an estimated 800 bicycles illegally parked around Tokyo Station each day was to propose the development of a parking facility with space for just 750 bicycles. Insufficient for current numbers, let alone future increases.

Companies which will gladly install “smoking rooms” for employees are unwilling to provide change rooms or shower facilities. While not strictly required, a space to freshen up after cycling to work in Tokyo’s scorching hot and suffocating humid summers would be most welcome.

Tokyo was ranked 10th in the Copenhagenize Index of Bicycle Friendly Cities in 2013, and Copenhagenize Consulting founder Mikael Coville-Andersen ranks Japan as the third greatest cycling nation behind the Netherlands and Denmark rightly noting that measures must be taken to improve cycling infrastructure lest Tokyo slip to a lower place in the ranking. Japan is a huge nation of cyclists, and cycling in Tokyo isn’t booming, its an essential part of daily life. But despite the widespread use and reliance on the bicycle bike commuter numbers remain low primarily due to inflexible company policies and the unmatched efficiency and convenience of public transport.

About Byron Kidd

Byron has been cycling the streets of Tokyo and around Japan since 1996 and is the editor of the insanely popular Tokyo By Bike blog.
Working locally with volunteer organizations and NPO’s to promote cycling and cycling infrastructure improvements in Japan, Byron also considers it his mission to teach the world about Japan’s unique cycling culture, where literally everyone rides a bike, in the hope that countries around the world can learn from and emulate Japan’s success. Tokyo, it’s better by bike! Connect: Blog | Twitter | Google+

Comments

  1. WilliamPats says:

    Very informative article.Really looking forward to read more. Great.