In July 2015, a set of stricter rules came into place regarding bicycle use in Japan. One of the aspects of this is to disallow the use of bicycles on pedestrian sidewalks, apart from “exceptional circumstances.”
Now, that may seem a good rule. We have all seen people riding carelessly and too quickly on bicycles. It's annoying and selfish. However, there is a big problem with this rule: it’s an example of a RSI - a "rule without sufficient infrastructure." Meaning a law or rule that has been instigated without there being sufficient infrastructure to make it practical or safe. Therefore, it's useless or even dangerous because in Japan there are simply not enough viable bicycle lanes to make it safe to ride on the road.
In Japan, I would classify three types of road commonly found in cities:
- Roads with a very narrow bicycle path, insufficient for the purpose.
- Roads with no bicycle path at all.
- Roads with a reasonable sized bicycle path.
An observation of most Japanese cities, would, I think break down as such: Type 1 is roughly 50% of all roads. Type 2 is roughly 40%. Type 3 only 10%.
This means that in most cases it is simply not safe for a bicyclist to ride on the road, as the rule maintains they, “in principle”, should do.
In addition to these three types, there are very often obstacles in the way of even the narrow bicycle lanes that do exist. Japan has a very poor habit of allowing taxis, delivery vans, etc to completely block the bicycle lane (and most of the walking road too) when waiting for their passenger, or making a delivery. The roads are often so narrow that buses have to move into the bicycle lane. Motorcyclists often use the bicycle lane too. And lastly, there are often telephone and electricity poles smack in the middle of the bicycles lane. All that adds up to it being quite a rare thing to find a bicycle lane that is wide enough and unobstructed.
In such a physical situation, with such a road system, it is impractical to use the bicycle lane, as the rule requires. Not only is it impractical, it's actively dangerous. Such a RSI means millions of people, including careless youths and unsteady old people, are forced to use dangerous roads, mere centimeters from speeding cars and buses. This is bound to lead to more road accidents and indeed, fatalities. To push through such a law when the practicalities of the road system clearly make it unsafe seems to border on to the criminally negligent.
Picture the scene: Your 18-your-old daughter is just going off to start university in a new city. She’s a naive, well behaved person who obeys the law, tries to have good manners. So there she is one morning, cycling to university, along streets she is not yet familiar with. She turns into the large road leading to the university itself…she is cycling along as she recalls you mentioning to her the rule about not cycling on the pavement. So she moves off the pavement and onto the road. But this road has no bicycle lane, nothing at all. She nervously cycles along, with cars speeding past mere centimeters from her, almost touching her skirt as it flaps in the wind. Just then a bus pulls into the road and the driver, distracted by something for a moment, runs right into your daughter. She is sent flying off, hits her head heavily on the wall opposite. Is killed instantly. The bus driver looks in horror at the blood running down her young face. A tragedy.
Who is to blame for that? The driver? Your daughter? Is it just "one of those things?" It seems to me that there is a pretty good case for saying the main blame is with the ill-thought out rule that put her on the dangerous road in the first place. So, could you sue the local or national government for the death of your innocent daughter? This happens in other countries. For example, in the Canadian city of Edmonton, a cyclist sued for $152,500 because he was injured by a pothole in the road. In 2015 in California, the family of a doctor who was killed sued for $5.8 million, and won. They claimed: “ ...that the city was negligent in not providing sufficient width for bike lanes or lighting that would have prevented the crash.” Surely many authorities in Japan are equally negligent?
To avoid such deaths and legal action, it seems to me that one of two things should be done: redesign the road system, as is happening in many European cities to make an extensive system of bicycle lanes and pedestrian sidewalks that are actually wide enough to use safely. I can see some evidence of it very slowly moving toward this, but at the present pace it will take 50 years or more to result in any substantial improvement. Cars still overwhelmingly dominate Japan. Or, if the Japanese local and national governments are not insightful and caring enough to create safe road systems, then... reverse that RSI law. Scrap it.
What appears to be happening now, is that the rule is in place, but largely ignored. In most cities the police are, quite rightly, not bothering to enforce it most of the time. There is also an understanding that if the road does not have any bicycle lane, then cyclists are allowed to use the pavement, though this does not appear to have been made very clear in most city guidelines.
Of course, I can imagine many cars users and pedestrians shouting out "cyclists need to behave better on the road!" Yes, they do, certainly. They need to ride slowly, not go through red lights when people are crossing (a very common thing), groups of school kids should not use the whole pavement when going home, and they should use a light at night, which many young people don't (even if there is actually a light on the bike!). All that and more.
But here's the thing – if there was a good system of bicycle lanes, all those other problems would decrease as well. Even if cyclists rode too quickly, if they are doing it in a lane separate from where you are walking, then the danger is much less. Even if they stupidly refuse to use a light at night, if they are doing that on a wide bicycle lane, then there is far less chance of your car hitting them. If the lane is wide enough, then groups of school kids will not take up the pavement. Granny can walk along in peace. It will be better for us all.
Sean Michael Wilson is a Scottish writer living in Japan, with many comic books and manga published by U.S., UK and Japanese publishers. Eisner and Harvey award nominated, he has also written newspaper articles for The Japan Times and others.
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