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The two-wheel revolution

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By Richard Kimber

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)

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18 Comments
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Good to see in the midst of all the upheaval in the site design, the quality of the commentary remains unchanged.

However, since he's from the UK, why is he talking about sidewalks and kilometers, not pavements and kilometres?

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Not to mention bicycle parking lot instead of bicycle park or parking area.

“a road network in which bicycles and pedestrians can coexist.” That's worrying; when the icr talks about 'humans and whales coexisting' what they mean is one butchering the other. Cyclists beware. Or pedestrians.

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When I'm a pedestrian it's: GET OUT OF MY WAY YOU IDIOTS STOP SWERVING IN FRONT OF ME RINGING YOUR #"$# BELL!!!

When I'm on my bike it's: GET OUT OF MY WAY YOU IDIOTS WALKING 3 ABREAST STOP MEANDERING IN FRONT OF ME OBASAN rings bell furiously

Definitely need to separate the two.

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Kasukabe has had a separate lane for cyclists and a separate one for pedestrians on the main street in front of the station for years, and they are separated by a barrier, but everyone ignores it and walks and cycles where they want.

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From another source, it appeared that they would carve out the new cycle lanes from the traffic lane - meaning that in some places where there now are two traffic lanes, there will only be one. Where there is one, it will be much narrower. Cyclists will truly go faster than cars.

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Any cycle lane that actually gets built will be understood to be a parking lane by motorists.

I'm amazed that the author feels safer on the streets than on the sidewalk. Sure, the sidewalk can be perilous and frustrating, but it's nothing compared to the streets, where motorists are angry that you are sharing their space AT ALL.

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It is illegal to ride your bike on the sidewalk in Japan just no one enforces the rule. In fact police illegal ride their bikes on the sidewalk.

You shouldn't feel guilty when getting out of the way of bikes as they shouldn't be there anyway.

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Will it be OK to ride over any pedestrian intruders at a bicycle path? Cause I really doubt anything else will keep them off

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There is a cycle lane near where I live which is just slightly narrower than the width of a bicycle tyre. To remain within the lane would mean smacking your left pedal against the raised concrete blocks separating the pedestrian area from the cycle lane.

Never underestimate the power of japanese bureaucracy to say they're taking action and produce the costliest way to exacerbate the problem.

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Cycle lanes are pointless, unless they are done like in the Netherlands, where they are segregated from both other vehicles and pedestrians with curbs. They should also take road space from cars, not from pedestrians, as its the dominance of the car we need to curb to lower pollution and encourage people to use bikes more.

However, I am not sure you need to do anything in most Japanese cities. I have spent a lot of time cycling on a daily basis in Tokyo and touring in Japan and training, on mamachari, road bike and MTB, and cycling on the road is perfectly safe if you are confident and obey the rules. The only real hazard is idiots who cycle the wrong way into traffic (which for some reason some people do in the USA too) even though it is illegal and dangerous, mainly to themselves.

The plus side of the concreted river sides in Tokyo also means you have miles of wide paths which can take you from the centre of the city to way out in the country (especially along the Arakawa...). Cycling at night in Tokyo in the summer is just amazing too - warm air, neon, empty roads - one of my favourite cycling experiences in the world.

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Honen, "Any cycle lane that actually gets built will be understood to be a parking lane by motorists."

Touch 'em all. That one was still going up when it left the park.

Actually, I prefer to cycle on the road myself. Living in a city center, traffic is almost always slow enough for cycling to be safer there than on a sidewalk.

Not that it's without its risks. I once had a man empty his ashtray out his window (and on to me) exactly as I pedaled by. That sucked more than I can put into words but the experience did teach me that it is far easier to rip the side mirror off someone's car than you might expect.

Taka

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I agree about cycling on the road being safer. I can't see cycle lanes being of much use for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is that pedestrians will use them more, or high school students will choose to cycle down them, 4 bikes wide, while sending emails on their mobiles or listening to teeny-crap on their iPods thereby slowing everyone else down. In my local city they built a nice wide cycle lane that goes straight through the centre of the city for about 5 or 6 kilometres. It would be perfect except for the fact that it runs parallel to the busiest road with the most polluted air in the area. Unless you want your lungs filled with gunk it's best avoided.

But I cycle nearly everywhere on either my MTB or road bike over very long distances and nearly always use the road. If you make yourself visible to drivers, cycle with confidence, and obey the rules you'll be fine. A rear light is also very important. I can't understand why it's not the law to have one here. They are far more important than a front light if you are on the road where you legally should be.

Furthermore, as a cyclist if you have an accident while on the road you'll have the law on your side, but if you have an accident while on pavement the pedestrian will get the protection and the cyclist will probably end up in trouble.

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When I first arrived here 8 years ago I could not believe that adults cycled on the pavement. Being a Londoner, I used to cycle on the road but wondered why cabbies used to hoot me out of the way. I was told that it was illegal to cycle on the road !

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Cleo, LOL. The "...can co-exist" verbal construction, as I'm sure you know from your translation work, is a codeword for "paying lip service to something while trashing it." The prime example is "coexistence between nature and urban amenity," which is the matran chanted by public servants and developers as they uglify beaches, forests -- heck, what else ya' got?

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"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."

Warning: Sharp learing curve ahead.

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Enforce no-parking regulations and you wouldn't even need cycling lanes. But the retailers enjoy using the street as their free parking lots, so they will object.

In some countries, the cycling lanes were shared by buses, so the effect of installation was an increase in casualties.

For an interesting take on skewed bicycle accident reporting, check this baby out: http://www.velonews.com/article/73458/questions-about-the-cupertino-crash-

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Shoyiron wrote: "But I cycle nearly everywhere on either my MTB or road bike over very long distances and nearly always use the road. If you make yourself visible to drivers, cycle with confidence, and obey the rules you’ll be fine. A rear light is also very important. I can’t understand why it’s not the law to have one here. They are far more important than a front light if you are on the road where you legally should be."

Yes, yes, yes. Rear light is crucial.

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Riding in Japan.....you need to have your you know whats screwed on pretty tight when you ride here especially if you have a bike capable of some speed and your ride on the road with the idiots in their steel & glass coffins. Just yesterday 3 idiots, including one in a big truck pull into traffic from entrance driveways right in front of me. My only hope is that if I ever hit one, its a Benz or something expensive (not Yak car though) and the driver pays me a load of 'shut up' money.

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