Picture the scene. It is a blustery, rainy day and you are running late. You dash to the bicycle parking lot, fumbling to find the impossibly small key you needed to release the impossibly fiddly ring-lock around the back wheel of your unwieldy shopping bike. Mounting your steed, you set off, determined to make it to the station in time to avoid being late yet again in a country renowned for its punctuality.
Barely moments after your first full rotation of pedals, you are already stuck behind a group of schoolchildren, fanned out across the narrow sidewalk. You gently ring your bell, but they are shouting and laughing and seem to take no notice. Eventually one of them turns around, recognizes your plight, and steps aside.
On you go, carefully weaving in and out of meandering pedestrians who seem incapable of walking in a straight line. All is going well until your progress is brought to a standstill by the logjam that only the entrance to a Japanese supermarket can create.
Row upon row of parked bicycles obstruct your way, as their owners congregate to pass the time of day and compare the contents of shopping bags. Two supermarket staff members, specially employed to keep the entrance clear, proceed only to make things worse by needlessly rearranging all the bicycles and then waving their arms around maniacally to warn the vulnerable public of potential danger.
Moments later, a new set of obstacles emerge, as a street flower market and then a fruit and vegetable stall spill into the path of oncoming two-wheel traffic. This hurdle overcome, your momentum is brought to a snail’s pace by the cyclist ahead of you. She seems to be at least four times your age, and is tottering along so slowly that you begin to wonder how the laws of physics are ensuring that she is not going backwards.
Finally, some clear space and all is going well — until the melee of a thousand bodies pouring out of the station makes parking your bike seem like the icing on an increasingly stale cycling cake.
This is all a far cry from the tone of the contents of my first email to friends back home after arriving in Japan. “The sidewalks are a cacophony of cycling chaos,” I wrote. “It is the most fun I have had on two wheels for a long time.” Having grown up in England, where biking on the pavement is a passport to a punch-up, the sense of fun that I felt when I arrived in Japan still lives on. Just not when I am in a hurry.
It is estimated that there are almost 90 million bicycles in Japan. That means that nearly everyone in the country rides one, and with a fifth of the population already over the age of 65, that amounts to a lot of elderly people on two wheels. Throw into the mix cluttered sidewalks and a few too many younger cyclists in a hurry, and you have the makings of a grand pile up. Little wonder, then, that according to police statistics, there were almost 3,000 crashes between cyclists and pedestrians in 2006, almost five times more than the number a decade ago.
The root of the problem has always seemed to me that in Japan, cycling on the sidewalk is considered much safer than cycling on the road. Having tried both on a daily basis for the past two years, I can say with some conviction that I would much rather chance my luck against a taxi driver than a meandering sea of sidewalk obstacles.
On opening the newspaper recently I sought comfort from reading the Asahi Shimbun’s headline, “Cyclists a Menace to Elderly People out Walking.” It may not have quite represented the two-wheeled perspective of “Sidewalk Paraphernalia a Menace to Cyclists out Cycling,” but at least it was clear that I was not alone in my bewilderment that, in a country so obsessed with transport safety, there is not a single cycle lane.
However, as I read on, it was as though the heavens had opened and my prayers had been answered. Over the next two years, some 200 kilometers of cycle lanes are being marked out in almost 100 different areas across Japan’s busiest cities. The new bicycle lanes will be color-coded and divided from the main traffic by lines of trees or railings. An official from the Construction and Transport Ministry was quoted as saying that the hope was to create “a road network in which bicycles and pedestrians can coexist.”
In other words, once the lanes are marked out, cyclists will finally be able to travel faster than walking pace, and pedestrians will finally have no need to fear for their lives every time they go for a leisurely stroll.
It may take a while for the lanes to become popular, and part of me hopes that they do. For as long as they are relatively traffic free, I fully intend to put my shopping bike through its paces. This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine. (www.metropolis.co.jp)© Japan Today