Thursday, 23 August 2012

Cycling in Japan’s cities: Japan has created infrastructure and rules that recognise bicycles are part-pedestrian, part-vehicle. The result is a culture where literally everyone cycles. Netherlands 10 points, Japan 7 points; UK 2 points

Typical Sunday scene in Tokyo - parents and kids
whizzing about. No helmets in sight
I’ve spent the last fortnight travelling around Japan. It was my first trip to Japan and much of it was spent cycling around different cities.

Japan’s cycling culture is so extraordinarily different to the UK, that I feel it’s worth sharing some of the amazing conditions for cycling as well as some of the disadvantages.

The biggest difference between Japan and the UK is that literally everyone in Japan seems to use bikes. Older people are particularly avid bicycle users, lots of parents with children loaded on both the front and back of their bikes, school children wobbling to and from school. Almost no-one wears a helmet and the only ‘cycling clothes’ I saw were on the few serious road racers on a Sunday morning.  Unless you count the bicycle umbrella holders used by rather genteel-looking older women to protect themselves from the sunshine.

I think it’s interesting to note a couple of specific features of the Japanese cycling culture:

Lots of this in Japan. Shared pavement AND
protected bikeway
In terms of bicycle infrastructure, Japanese cities are unlike any I’ve seen. There are some fairly decent protected bikeways. But most cycling is done on the pavement – and legally so. Virtually every pavement is shared use. This has the advantage that pretty much everyone feels safe enough to use a bike in the first place. It also means that people cycle slowly and considerately among pedestrians. And it all seems to work rather well. In the UK, I feel a lot of older people are scared of people on bikes because they’re scared of getting hit by inconsiderate cyclists. In Japan, the older people are cyclists. And they amble along quite happily on the pavements. It’s wonderful.

This means that junction design has one very interesting feature. Almost every major road junction has traffic lights where both pedestrians and cyclists can cross. What that means in reality is that cyclists almost never have to stop at a red light. Why’s that? Well, let’s say you’re cycling on the road (although you’d rarely want or need to): When you approach a red light on the road, you can hop back on to the pavement and carry straight across on the shared pavement which has a green light for pedestrians. Alternatively, if you’re on the pavement, you can hop on to the road. What you lose in slower speeds on the pavement, you gain in not having to wait in queues at traffic lights designed only to regulate motor traffic.

Woman cycling with umbrella on pavement.
All perfectly legal and completely normal
in Japanese towns and cities
What Japan has done is cleverly create rules that recognise bicycles are part-pedestrian and part-vehicle. This is something that is deeply lacking in the UK where the rules of the road and the designs of the road simply don’t recognise bicycle use.

Other features that really stood out: Every single one-way side street is two-way for bicycle use. And there seems to be a Japanese form of strict liability – motorists watch out for pedestrians and cyclists and they (generally) act in a hugely considerate way to non-motorised traffic.

The result of all this is a culture of real citizen cycling. You visit the local shops and every single shop has bike parking outside. And it’s mobbed. I saw one supermarket in Tokyo with 30 or so older people all standing and talking outside, their bicycle shopping baskets filled with purchases. Many shops even have ‘no parking’ signs to stop cars parking outside. One parked car is a dozen fewer customers coming by bike. Or thereabouts.

At the weekends, you see parents and children whizzing about by bike. Children perched on the back and on the front.

The 'Mama Chari'. E-bike, kids at the front
and the back. Shopping too. And mum. Cycling
home along the pavement. Fantastic. And everywhere. 
And one sight that I really loved was the so-called "Mamacharis". These are (often) e-bikes with a big shopping basket on the front and – usually – one child on the front, one on the back. And mum pedalling away in the middle. These things are literally everywhere with parents taking their kids from place to place by bike, instead of by car. And the kids seem to love it.

Outside every station, there’s bike parking for hundreds of bikes. At Kyoto station, I gave up counting the number of racks. Just one side of the station had at least 1,000 bike places with at least 1,000 more on the other side. Bike parking costs around £1.20 for a day or you buy a monthly season ticket. And what you get is a bike rack with in-built bike locks plus a security guard looking out for your bike. I’d happily pay something similar in London, to be honest.

And bikes are relatively cheap. At least compared to the UK. There are bike shops all over the place with sensible bikes complete with dynamo lights and baskets. Plenty of these bikes in the £3-400 range. 

And of course every block of flats has tonnes of bike parking outside.

Just one of a dozen bike sheds at Kyoto station
I know this probably all sounds rather idyllic. The truth is that cycling in Japan’s cities is fairly idyllic when you compare with UK cities. It’s not as good as the Netherlands, nor is it apparently anywhere near as safe as the Netherlands. But Japan seems to have achieved a comparable cycling culture to the Netherlands albeit in a very Japanese way. It’s a culture where your mum, dad, kids, friends, boss and customers ALL get about by bike. The result is that Japan doesn’t have ‘cyclists’. It has people who use a bike when it makes sense. And for most urban trips, a bike makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. 

Can you imagine this lady
having the confidence to cycle in London? No
helmet, no hi-viz, just lots of glamour.
And a bicycle. How it should be
The same could be said for people in the UK but we have suffered decades of government policy that ignores and actively dissuades cycling as a form of transport. So people in the UK think they 'HAVE' to drive. They feel that way because the options aren't there to make them feel they can cycle safely and easily instead. They don't have to drive. Government and local policies make people in the UK feel that they have to drive. I think that's to the detriment of all of us. 

Imagine a culture where using a bicycle is about getting from a to b. Not about survival. Not about helmets. Not about hi-viz. Just sensible, easy, simple. So simple that everyone can do it. And can cycle in their own style and ditch the car for shorter journeys. That's how it should be.

Japan is not the Netherlands. But it is lightyears ahead of the UK when it comes to cycling as everyday transport. 


  1. Otsukaresama deshita! Spot on. To the outside world, general attitudes to, and provision for, cycling in the UK must look ever more eccentric.

  2. Ah, I miss cycling in Japan. Excellent write-up. As you say, they still need to improve some areas - some parts of Tokyo were very inaccessible with all the superhighways cutting through them. I wouldn't say huge numbers cycle but you definitely have a wider demographic on their bikes. Did you go to Fukuoka? Cycling on the pavement there seems to be a constant game of chicken and the cyclists are real pests.

  3. I'm Japanese, living in the southern part of Japan. I'm afraid your depiction of Japanese cycling culture is too idyllic. For example, indeed, we are allowed to cycle on the pavement, but this is simply because cycling on the roadway is too dangerous. The traffic law stipulates that cyclists should cycle slowly on the pavement, but many cyclists ignore this; or, they simply don't know such a stipulation. So, those who cycle "slowly and considerately" among pedestrians are rather in a minority. As a result, accidents between cyclists and pedestrians on the pavement are rapidly increasing. This led the police to issue a statement that cyclists should basically cycle on the roadway, causing a backlash because cycling on the roadway is dangerous for cyclists. So, bicycles are not "part-pedestrian and part-vehicle," but are left in limbo, blamed both by pedestrians and by drivers.
    Your comments about junctions, bike parking, and bike prices are also misleading, I have to say. I have never lived in Britain, so Japan might be better than your country, but it is by no means comparable to the Netherlands, where I had lived more than five years. If you have another opportunity to visit Japan, please drop by my city, Kumamoto. I can show you how dangerous and inconvenient cycling is in Japan.

  4. I’ve just returned from a long weekend in Verona, and I think it offers some parallels to what you describe about Japan. (5 points, perhaps?)

    Our hotel was just outside the city walls, overlooking an inner ring road with 4 lanes of heavy, fast moving traffic bordered by wide pavements and lines of mature trees – rather like the Victoria Embankment. Unlike Embankment however, one of those pavements was configured as a bidirectional cycle path, about 3-4 metres wide and inside the tree line so well protected. The pavement was also partly used as car parking spaces, on the inside of the cycle path, and finally it was a pedestrian path so it really was “shared use”.

    All roads like this one, insofar as I saw others, were similarly equipped. When it came to smaller roads, the pavements were also extensively used by bicycles. In some cases it was evident from signage or pavement markings that cycles were permitted to ride them, and in others it was less clear – possibly pavement cycling is permitted generally, or perhaps it is just tolerated. As to why pavement cycling, on relatively minor streets and relatively narrow pavements, is tolerated/permitted, I can suggest two reasons: the Italians are generally much less buttoned-up, and more tolerant of a little harmless anarchy than we Brits tend to be, and in Verona, the vast majority of bicycles are being ridden really rather slowly by our standards. Perhaps that is because it really was quite hot, and people simply aren’t motivated to hurry in hot weather.

    Observing about bicycles and bicycle culture, I would say that the vast majority of bicycles I saw around the town fell into two groups. There were traditional roadsters, single speed with full chain cases and in many cases old-fashioned rod brakes (even on bikes of recent manufacture). And there were geared bikes of a type which are also popular in France, but which you hardly see at all in the UK, apart recently from the “Somerby Cruiser” offered by Halfords in their Pendleton range – derailleurs with rear change only, and a chain guard completely encircling the chainwheel and the entire top run of chain. In either case, a rear rack and front basket were standard, and small child seats were common. Nearly everyone rode sedately, on pavements where streets were busier but on the road otherwise, in pedestrianised streets or the inner city where traffic was lighter and generally much slower. To an outsider’s eye, there was no observable conflict between riders and pedestrians, or between riders and motorists, but bikes were ridden slowly, and motor traffic was effectively calmed by the ubiquity of pavement cafes and cobbled surfaces. There were a few people out on road racers, in their helmets and Lycra, but they really were noticeable by their rarity.

    I couldn’t say that there were quite as many cyclists about as you see morning and evening somewhere like Blackfriars Bridge, but the key difference was that the volume was fairly consistent throughout the day and evening, as people used their bikes for all sorts of purposes apart from just getting to work.

    All this struck me as being in spite of, not because of, the Italian car culture. Driver manners and behaviour in Italy are definitely not any better than they are in the UK, and through roads outside the town centres looked decidedly unpleasant and dangerous to cycle, with fast and aggressive traffic. Provision for pedestrians to cross major roads was poor to say the least. On the other hand, Verona is an ancient city stuffed with Heritage architecture, narrow streets and extremely limited car parking – I doubt that even the whining of the motoring lobby for more parking could drown out the cries of outrage if a traditional quarter were to be flattened to build a multi-storey car park. If you decide that you are not going to throw away your heritage for the sake of the great car god – unlike the UK, where motor-centric planners wreaked destruction which Herman Goering would have envied – it is actually quite easy to build a cycle culture.