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.