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Japan's road system needs to be redesigned to make it safer for cyclists

13 Comments
By Sean Michael Wilson
Photo: SEAN MICHAEL WILSON

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:

  1. Roads with a very narrow bicycle path, insufficient for the purpose.
  2. Roads with no bicycle path at all.
  3. 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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13 Comments
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As bad as roads are for cyclists in Japan i still feel way safer riding a bike in Japan than Australia !

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I feel the same about NZ as you do about Australia. It's almost as if cyclists are a target.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Unfortunately, many roads in Japan are too narrow to be able to change anything. When I first came to Japan, no one cycled on the road. But then, cyclists rode on the sidewalks with more care and there did not seem to be too many problems. There will never be any way to change this whilst roads are so narrow. It becomes a give and take between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

Today, cyclists are becoming a bigger menace by not following normal traffic rules. They race across pedestrian crossings while they are red, therefore stopping legitimate left turning traffic. They cross from behind vehicles on an angle from which car drivers can not see. They race down the wrong side of the road and race through pedestrians on diagonal pedestrian crossings. Even though a lot of city roads now have cyclist arrowed signs for bicycles, they still completely ignore them.

As a person who drives every day, I would say that drivers in Japan are far more law abiding and have more tolerance to the law breaking cyclists and pedestrians who in many cases are just as bad. Another problem is cycling on busy roads with no lights or even rear reflectors. I have no problem with cyclists on the sidewalks as long as the ride responsibly and do not speed.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

My own experience of cyclists in Japan has generally been ok... they usually seem to blend with pedestrians quite safely, with the occasional exception. I think the state of Japan's road transport infrastructure in general will make it very difficult to modify except in a few token areas.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

My city has good cycle lanes in some areas, and none at all elsewhere. It's ridiculous.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

Today, cyclists are becoming a bigger menace by not following normal traffic rules.

Indeed. I'm a regular cyclist myself both local and distance. I always wore a helmet for distance cycling but several years ago I started wearing it for local cycling. I've had far too many close calls with idiots on bicycles shooting out of side streets not looking one way or the other and with morons, even grannies, weaving around while texting. The worst are parents, both male and female, blasting along on electric assist bicycles.

Those bicycles are heavy to begin with and you put an adult and two, sometimes three kids on one, and you have a lethal weapon.

I've road cycled in Britain (England only), France, Holland, and the US (mostly California). For similar traffic density, Japan is easily the best. I would never think of cycling in London. Driving is bad enough. And in England, it is not unusual to encounter punks who try to run you off the road. Holland with its bike lanes is something else again, but there are not many places in Japan where it would be feasible to create a similar infrastructure.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Most of the cycle lanes in Sendai are downright dangerous, with sudden, blind bends, obstacles, people walking in them, cars and bikes parked in them etc. It's often easier, and safer, to cycle on the road than on the cycle path. The city is absolutely clueless when it comes to designing cycle paths that are fit for purpose.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

As a cyclist in this country I'm sympathetic to the general point, but I think the author puts too much emphasis on the letter of the law, which as he himself admits is never enforced anyway and thus largely irrelevant (also, its always been the default rule that bicycles belong on the street here, that wasn't introduced in 2015).

The problem, to the extent that there is one, is really just one of infrastructure, as the author notes in the last paragraph.

Also this:

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%.

Is way off. Roads with no bicycle path at all must easily be 80% of roads in the cities if not higher, the vast majority are just side streets with no sidewalk/shoulder in which cars, pedestrians and cyclists share the same space. Semi-major routes might have a sidewalk and small shoulder for cyclists, and only the major routes in selected areas have any sort of dedicated bycicle path - I would guess maybe 1% of streets have one.

For the most part though, as someone who has cycled daily here for about 15 years, I'm not convinced that the roads require any major redesign for cyclists. I've never felt in danger here and its probably (ironically) because 80% of streets are shared by all users. Motorists are way more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists than they are in a lot of other countries and they (mostly) drive quite safely as a result.

This is where the article loses me though:

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.

Where are they going to get the space to build "wide bicycle lanes"? It doesn't just materialize out of thin air, pretty much every street in every city in this country is already compressed into exactly as much space as it can occupy between the buildings on either side of it with no room for expansion. it would certainly help to bury power lines on some streets so as to remove poles as an obstacle, but that is only an issue on a few streets.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Compared to America where hitting cyclist is a sport and juries often side with a car Japan is a safe haven. I have even been struck by a scooter on two occasions; One resulting in limited use of my left arm for life: I stll cycle and feel safe. The only issues I have are with Prius owners who hog the side of the road and take an eternity to turn. nd of course Panel vans AHAHAHAAHAA

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Like others have said, most roads are too narrow to accommodate these changes easily. However, one thing mentioned in the article could be improved...

All those unsightly electrical poles that should have been gone 20 years ago can be removed, and the wires can be put underground. Almost everywhere they paint the imaginary line where pedestrians can walk along the road, those same pedestrians (and cyclists) are forced into the street every 20 meters to get around an electrical utility pole. This very dangerous element should have been gone ages ago, but better late than never.

And, as a bonus, the cities will look less like 3rd world backwaters.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

There's a road system??

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You want people on bicycles to folow rules when you have idiots of scooters, motorcycles, and the like weaving in and out between cars, ridng the middle line, going around cars on the left and right lanes to be first in line. Yea, ok.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

My own experience of cyclists in Japan has generally been ok... they usually seem to blend with pedestrians quite safely, with the occasional exception.

Agree. When in Tokyo I always visit Asakusa for a chat with my fav bartender.

An excellent hood for biking but as I live in an advanced bike country I see the flaws immediately, along the wider roads they drive along with the pedestrians but their 'path' is not that clear. A different colour or shade would work. At the crossings the situation becomes unclear and bikers mingle up with pedestrians. Several times I experienced near missers with females bikers who just went on if nothing happened. Last year I asked a guy at the hotel if 'Oi, gyaru' would be suitable, but he said 'no,no,no too rude' :)

The good thing is that the traffic even during the rush hour is limited compared what I'm used to at home which makes it feel safe.

I think the state of Japan's road transport infrastructure in general will make it very difficult to modify except in a few token areas.

Agree.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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