When you factor in the walk to and from the station at either end, it takes me about 45 to 50 minutes to get from my apartment to my office. Depending on how many traffic lights I run, how many taxis cut me up and how hard I work my quads, I can get there by bicycle in 35, and I won’t have to spend any of that time with a salaryman wedged into my armpit.
In case you hadn’t noticed, Tokyo is in the grip of a cycling boom, as more of its residents shuck the confines of crowded trains and buses and pedal to work instead. In April, popular free magazine R25 reported on the phenomenon of "jitensha tsuukingu" — that’s bicycle commuting, to you and me. (The word "tsuukingu" is a neologism that combines the Japanese term for commuting, "tsuukin," with the katakana transliteration of “touring.” A person who engages in this activity is a "tsuukinisuto.")
According to a report released last year by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, two out of three Tokyoites use a bicycle, but it’s only recently that the numbers of people cycling to work have begun to increase noticeably. In a city where many have their commutation costs covered by their employers, the main incentive often isn’t saving money so much as saving time. And with all the media attention being focused on both the environment and the dreaded metabolic syndrome, bike commuting seems like an increasingly attractive option.
That might explain why, economic downturn be damned, business at bicycle shops is booming right now. A representative of Y’s Road, a specialist cycling store with outlets throughout the city, says that their figures are “very healthy” at the moment. “Car sales have plummeted recently,” he says, “and sports bikes aren’t exactly cheap—they’re often in the region of 100,000 yen to 200,000 yen —but we haven’t seen any corresponding decrease in sales.” The most popular choice is apparently hybrid bicycles, which combine elements of mountain and road bikes, making them ideal for commuting.
Of course, for riders raised on mama-chari, switching to faster and more powerful rides isn’t without its problems. Last month, two of Japan’s biggest cycling magazines devoted their cover features to how to use the drop handlebars found on road and track bikes, which is a bit like a car magazine telling you how to use a steering wheel. Meanwhile, the Japan Cycling Association (JCA) is planning to offer classes at Jingu Gaien Cycling Course from this autumn for people who are new to riding sports bikes. “Cyclists used to be the victims in road accidents, but these days they’re often the perpetrators, and that’s a cause for concern,” says a JCA spokesperson.
Indeed, one of the repeated complaints being directed at the new wave of cyclists—actually, make that cyclists in general—is that they’re downright reckless. The JCA acknowledges that this is a pressing issue: “It’s not like all cyclists have bad road manners, but naturally there’s been an increase in such people as the number of cyclists on the road has gone up. The only way to improve things is through education.”
There’s room for other improvements, too. The JCA points to a lack of designated cycling lanes, as well as the need for companies and the government to recognize bicycle commuting and bring it under the umbrella of worker’s accident insurance. That’s not all: though some firms have started to pay a transportation allowance to people who cycle to work, most don’t. Many also don’t have places for employees to park bicycles, and even fewer have changing rooms or shower facilities.
Addressing issues like these could help transform the current bike boom into a more enduring trend, rather than a flash-in-the-pan fad. And, yes, I should really stop running those red lights.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today