More Tokyoites are commuting to work on bicycles. According to a two-part article in Weekly Playboy (July 18, July 25), their number has risen sharply since March 11. At that time, gasoline price increases (and shortages) discouraged people from driving their cars; for rail commuters the interruptions in electric power drove them to two-wheelers.
"After the shaking stopped in our office building on March 11, the first thing I thought was, 'How am I going to get home tonight?'" says a 28 year old salaryman working in the Shimbashi district. "I knew the trains wouldn't be running. So I dashed out of the office to a nearby discount store. People thinking the same as me were already lined up. For about 15,000 yen, I was able to buy a 'mama-chari' (the standard women's bicycle with a basket over the front wheel, typically used by housewives). Weaving in and out of the gridlock on the streets, I was able to make it home that night. Actually I was surprised how little time it took me. While the trains stopped every time an aftershock occurred, the bike never let me down.
"So on days when the weather's good, I regularly go to work by bicycle."
At Asahi, a chain of bike shops with some 240 outlets nationwide, sales in March were up by 50% over the same month a year before; demand remained strong in April (20% over 2010); and May (10% over 2010).
"It's hard to differentiate regular demand from the sales that resulted from the disaster, but clearly the disaster has boosted sales," a spokesperson for the company was quoted as saying.
Unfortunately, Tokyo lacks bike lanes, which makes riding the streets risky. The riders themselves don't seem to be aware of traffic regulations for bicycles, and the police are vague on which rules they enforce.
"In situations where traffic signals differ for motor vehicles and pedestrians and bicycles, cyclists must adhere to the same rules as pedestrians," said a source in the National Police Agency. "For bicycles moving together with auto traffic, the rules are the same as for cars."
"These past several decades, Japan's traffic administration authorities have given priority to cars and completely ignored bicycles," complains Satoshi Hikita, director of an NPO that promotes cycling as well as a producer at the TBS network. "These distortions are becoming even more pronounced with the rapid increase of bicycles on the roads."
For safety's sake, Hikita argues for traffic rules and enforcement that put bicycles on more equal footing with motor vehicles.
"It's not widely known, but the penalties meted out to cyclists who violate the regulations are stricter than for cars," points out freelance writer Yusuke Uemura. "In extreme cases, cyclists can be charged under the criminal code.
"For example, cycling while holding an umbrella can result in imprisonment of up to three months or a fine of up to 50,000 yen."
In addition, cyclists judged responsible for personal injury or death are being slapped with increasingly severe penalties. Uemura points to such examples as the 2007 case of a man on a bicycle who disregarded a red light and collided with a 55-year-old female pedestrian in the crosswalk, resulting in her death. He was ordered to pay her survivors 54.38 million yen. Two years earlier, a high school girl using her cell phone struck and injured a 57-year-old woman. The settlement came to 50 million yen.
While affordable one-year liability insurance is available for cyclists, the coverage is generally limited and would have only paid out a fraction in the case of the above accidents.
So what can be done to avoid further crackdowns by police?
"Cyclists are not required to obtain licenses, making bicycles a convenient and eco-friendly mode of transport for everyone," Uemura tells Weekly Playboy. "If we want to be able to retain these merits of cycling, doesn't it make sense for users to reconsider the need for better manners?"© Japan Today