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Tokyo residents pedaling to work in increasing numbers

By James Hadfield

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 (

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Tokyo is ideal for cycling - density, mild climate, flat topography. The problem, alas, is the human factor. Bike lanes and other iniatives are utterly lacking. Indeed, municipal authorities have been cracking down on cyclists, thru stricter parking enforcement etc.

After the Kyoto Protocol, Japan trumpeted istself as a CO2-reduction leader. The cycling apathy and crackdown make Japan look like a hypocrite.

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I'm very happy to see more people bicycling to work; it's healthy, invigorating, and bicycles emit zero pollution.

One problem for workers who want to try "tsuukingu" (what a terrible word) is that some companies -- mine included, and famously Niall Murtaugh's employer Mitsubishi in "The Blue-Eyed Salaryman" -- forbid their employees from cycling to work. Getting to work any way you like whouls be a basic human right.

Another is that the roads are designed for automobiles, with pedestrians' interests second, and those of cyclists not considered at all. Cycling on the sidewalks brings the risk of hitting an unwary pedestrian, and the roads, the shoulders of which should be ideal for a bicycle, are difficult because of the large numbers of cars parked on the shoulders. You can't keep shifting around those behemoths without having to ride right into the traffic lanes. If streetside parking were limited to one side only, cyclists would be safer on the other side.

There are a few ares with wide sidewalks and one lane devoted to bicycles. One such path is on the Sotobori-dori connecting Bunkyo-ku with Iidabashi. This is something that needs to be expanded.

James Hadfield is humble enough to admit that he sometimes runs red lights, but pedestrians and automobiles are hardly innocent. It's hard to keep the road rage in check when you're confronted by pedestrians who walk slowly in the very middle of the sidewalk, preventing anyone from passing them on either side, or the imbeciles who, walking in a group, turn to see how their companions are reacting rather than use their own initiative to step aside when a bicycle gets close.

And the there are the taxi drivers, who apparently took a different driving test from the rest of us; one in which a red light means not "stop" but rather "you have two more seconds to get through this intersection".

Last but not least: the police. Sorry, officers, but not everyone wh rides a bicycle is a thief worthy of being detained and questions any time he passes a police box. Even the cyclists with foreign faces aren't necessarily criminals!

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So what do cyclists in Tokyo have to do to get some lanes of their own?

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I'm afraid that even where there are cycling lanes you all too often find them occupied by pedestrians and parked bikes.

Pedestrians often don't seem to use their brains at all: they wander all over the place whilst gawping at their mobile phones, walk in the middle of the road even when there is a pavement, step into the road without looking etc. Much the same could be said for many cyclists too.

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I live in Nagoya and frequently cycle in and out of the City on the roads. Motorists are in general getting used to seeing cyclists on the road and are on the whole careful of cyclists, however beware - the unwary cyclist can be easily caught unawares and hit by a car coming out from a side street driven by a driver that looks for neither pedestrian or cyclist, being over taken by huge trucks can also be a an adrenalin rush at times. As cyclists increase there will also be ab increase in cyclist/car accidents which I hope sur the Govt. to make more bicycle friendly roads and cycle paths.

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Terrible system, get them off the paths. I'm all for people riding bikes, but theres nowhere to do it.

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Useful article on the subject here:

Have read elsewhere that firm plans are afoot for greatly increasing coverage of bike paths in Tokyo, at least, but are kept on the back burner while other major infrastructure projects in the urban core (like the massive utilities tunnel that is finally moving most line--at least along major throughfares--under ground) get priority, and so-called experts "study" the issue.

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Workplaces, fitness clubs etc. should put up free bike parking places, or come up with a very cheap monthly parking bike park. Workplace, of course, should compensate for it, they way they give money for train passes.

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The only way to ensure your safety while biking in the city is to assume that everyone else is an inattentive idiot. It's a good rule of thumb if you're driving a car as well... or walking... sitting in a park (well, you get the idea!)

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given the propensity for the locals to do the hit-and-run at every opportunity, why would anyone risk life and limb biking to work in tokyo ?

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The only way to ensure your safety while biking in the city is to assume that everyone else is an inattentive idiot.

Thundercat, I could not describe it better.

I have fitted one week ago my bicycle with a camera holder and took my little VadoHD for a ride of overall 5 hours of shooting material. In these 5 hours I have now 30 minutes none stop of traffic violations, from cars, busses and trucks cutting into my lane barely avoiding to run me over (I drive always on the street) to the guys and girls who care shit when cutting in front of me often with one hand on their mobile (or umbrella).

But the best scene must be the police hiding in the dark and jumping out to stop bicyclist when they drive without light (although I have to say, they only greeted me even though I am a foreigner).

I am thinking to put it on YouTube, faces clearly visible.

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Good luck with the keystone cops that run out into traffic to stop you and make you ride on the sidewalk. I'm whipping along at 30~40kms/h and they want me off the road. Sure... NOT!

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At night however I scare a lot of taxi drivers because my lights front and back look flash bright white and red which really looks like a cop car. Whole point being I don't get hit. Oddly at night I NEVER get stopped by the keystone cops when I'm on the road. Funny thing that is...

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Wouldn't hurt if people actually bothered to maintain their bike like say... putting air in the tires, or contemplate that the bicycle seat does indeed go up... No, you don't have to ride around with your knees up around your chin.

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Tokyo is actually not that big a city and much quicker to get around by bike. The problem this time of year is the humidity and you need a 20 minute cold shower at the other end....

As a cyclist and a driver in this city the thing that hacks me off the most is that most cyclists pay no attention to the rules of the road. If you are on the road (and you should be IMHO) then the rules apply to you too - stop at the lights, don't cross the yellow lines etc.

And by far the most stupid thing to do on a bike is have your earphones in and the music cranked up - sooner or later Darwin is going to be giving you an award!

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Build it and they will come =Politicians should use this as an opportunity to go greener and get ready for the Olympics.

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Kyoken, I'd love to see that video. Post it!

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Wow another one of these articles on JT that doesn't address the fact that the company is liable if you have an accident on your way and from work. If you run over an old lady on your bike to work that lady can sue the company you work for and you (the employee) can claim workers compenstation. No this is not personal time it is classes as company time.

If a company finds out you are using your bike to get to work they will ask you to stop.

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As cyclists increase there will also be ab increase in cyclist/car accidents

Apparently, according to studies, the more cyclists on the road, the less the relative percentage of accidents. I`d guess that drivers tend to look for bikes more when there are more of them about, if that makes sense.

And yes, the lack of common sense in this country belies its high life expectancy. The number of times Ive had other cyclists, usually of the mamachari kind, just pull in front of me without so much as a glance over their shoulder just beggars belief... How all these old people actually reach old age is a true enigma. And dont even get me started on taxi drivers and especially scooter "riders"

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Actually when you think about it riding a bike to work can get you fired. If you have an accident and the person you hit sues (you are on company time) you're more than likely lose your job

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the company is liable if you have an accident on your way and from work

You should be able to waive your "rights" against the company in these cases if you so choose.

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Mamachari belief in "no can see, no can hit" theory. One of them hit my van while I came to a complete stop because she probably believed that I would not make it to the stop before her. She was looking ahead and did not see any car, so she thought it would remain that way. To my surprise when she hit me while I was already stopped for the required stop. She fell down with her bycicle and told me "ki o Tsukete"! I told her, that she was the one that should be careful because she hit me. Well, it was kind of rude on my part to argue with someone who might not even have reasoning ability. But, I was lucky nothing happened to her because irrelevant of whether whose fault it was, I would be legally helf responsible for anything that might had happenned to her. So, drive very slow during busy shopping time and in small streets. If you are in a hurry, do not use small roads as short cuts because you could regret it later.

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You should be able to waive your "rights" against the company in these cases if you so choose.

It's the law, you can't waive the law.

I had the same problem riding a motorbike to work, the company banned all transport and only allowed transport by bus, train or walking to and from work.

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Samuraiiki: Actually the larger vehicle in all case is 100% in the wrong she hit you but you are 100% liable by law.

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@DeepAir65;" the thing that hacks me off the most is that most cyclists pay no attention to the rules of the road. " in japanland the only rule of the road to know and remember is {everyone looks out for #1}.

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I'd like to see cyclists riding on the correct side of the street for a start. More use of helmets including children, infant passengers and police cyclists. More lights, reflectors and bright/contrasting clothing. Anyone know of a web link which state Japanese riding rules/etiquette ?

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I`m tired of walking around this city with cyclists playing chicken or slamming on their squeaky brakes.

I was once almost hit by another teacher whilst on school grounds, in front of a few students. When I confronted her she replied that she hadnt been aware of my presence. Sadly its an attitude than seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Its long been a dream of mine to clothesline a cyclist here in Tokyo. If you ever hear news of a gaijin going to prison for such an offense, itll probably be me.

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Tokyo sucks as a cyclist friendly town. I've been a cyclist for 30 years... so do know my Road Sense, sadly there are a number of drivers here (as in other countries) who shouldn't be on the road, what however, sets Tokyo/Japan apart from elsewhere is that should you get hit by one of these "people"/"idiots" - you're seen as partly to blame (20% by.. law). Furthermore the Insurance company of the driver will only offer to pay you a pittance for your bicycle - so for the pleasure of being hit by that Driver, you're out of pocket regardless whose fault it is or even how wealthy that driver is.

As for riding on the pavements.....

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yokohamabacon: :-) I have to agree with your comment about seat height. I read somewhere (so it must be true...) that Japanese are told by their teachers/parents that they must be able to put their feet flat on the ground while seated on their bicycles. So of course, they automatically comply. Result: terrible riding actions and worn out knees. I wish somebody in authority would also explain to them the rules of the road, the most important of which is ride on the left. This simple safety precaution seems to be lost on most riders in Japan.

I mix'n'match my commuting between bicycle (25 mins), train (40 mins) and walking (55 mins).

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mmwk2008 - it doesn't matter if you've been cycling overseas for a year or hundreds of years - the rules of the road are different here, and that doesn't necessarily make them worse. I find it very challenging at times to drive in Tokyo (cabs stopping everywhere, cars drifting into lanes, etc) but guess what - it works, and I see very, very few accidents. I have a very real issue with foreign cyclists who don't seem to appreciate the fact that they are nearly getting killed every 8 seconds as they bike on roads they really shouldn't be...

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I cycle because I live in a coastal city, with next to no public transport. It's actually a lot safer than back home, where I also cycled; because so many more drivers here also have cycling experience, and therefore tend to leave a bit of space for me, and because speeds are so much slower generally.

It's not all plain sailing, though. There is no cycling infrastructure, and no plans for any. Only the poor cycle, apparently.

No matter. I cycle safe, and have had no real problems. It's still a great way to travel.

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ultradodgy: the rules of the road here are clear, but completely ignored, even by the police. Namely, ride on the left, and ride only on the road except for specially designated sidewalks/pavements.

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Namely, ride on the left, and ride only on the road except for specially designated sidewalks/pavements.

If that's the law, then there are many more "secially designated" sidewalks than you might think. Many of the sidewalks I ride on have triangle-shaped "bicycle stop" icons on the ground, implying that cyclists would be on those sidewalks. Here's a sample of these markings:とまれ.jpg

As long as automobiles are parking their massive bulk on the side of the road, cyclists can't possibly ride there and are forced onto the sidewalks. Make this streetside parking illegal and I'll happily ride on the roads all the time.

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During the years I lived in Japan, I cycled 10s of thousands of km, mostly for pleasure and in areas where there was little traffic. However, I also commuted to work and about town during the years when I didn't have a car. The uni where I worked didn't seem to have an issue with cycling to work and the money I was paid for commuting to a part-time job allowed me to buy a new bicycle every 3 years or so.

The biggest danger was always other bicycles. I never knew where they'd come from. The worst collision I had was a head on with a bicycle on a dark, rainy night. He had no light, and was peddling against the flow of traffic with an umbrella blocking his view of what was coming towards him.

My attitude was that all the other vehicles and pedestrians had one mission -- to kill me -- and cycled with an appropriately defensive attitude. I also looked for streets were less congested and offered cars/pedestrians fewer opportunities to kill me.

One of the good things about cycling in Japan is that it's possible to keep up with the flow of traffic on streets where the speed limit is 30 kph. The drivers are generally aware of cyclists and very few set out to make life difficult for cyclists on purpose. There weren't any sidewalks where I usually cycled, so I rarely used them.

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