April 19, 2015

Over the course of six months, while his girlfriend interned in a company in Tokyo, young graphic artist Florent Chavouet wandered the streets with a pouch full of coloured pencils and a sketchpad visiting many of its most well known and even some lesser known neighbourhoods sketching scened of everyday life in the city.

This 208 page book is filled cover to cover with beautiful hand drawn pictures from his journeys. The artist captures more than street scenes and architecture paying particular attention to smaller details such as posters, packaging and what many of us living in Japan consider to be most uninteresting everyday objects which when looked at through the eyes of a visitor are fascinating parts of Japanese life.

 Chavouet is also a wonderful people watcher, his sketches capture the various fashions of each district in the city, from elegantly dressed ladies in Ginza to the street styles of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. His drawings of people are filled with movement and actions, these people were actually doing things hen sketched which he captures in the smallest of details. Handwritten comments often accompany pictures letting you know just what was going on in the scene at the time, or why a particular sticker on a lamp post caught the artists attention.

I love that in each area he visits the artist has paid particular attention to the Koban, or police boxes that can be found all over the city as he showed me something I've not noticed in almost 20 years of living here. He showed me that the architecture of police boxes varies greatly around the city. You'd think these essential public facilities would all adhere to a particular style to cut costs but the truth is there are an amazing number of different styles of Koban. In addition to this more than one page is dedicated to capturing the antics of the local constabulary, including random bicycle registration checks.

Taxis, politicians, laundromats, train stations, garbage bins, vending machines, parks, bicycles, people, stamps, power lines, point cards, cafes, advertising, absolutely anything you can imagine about Tokyo is captured in this book. The artists attention to detail is truly amazing and he even treats us to a detailed look at his bicycle.

Detailed hand drawn maps abound, and the fact that they re slightly dated drives home the point that Tokyo is an city that is undergoing continual change.

When this book arrived my daughters studied the most minute details of every single page from cover to cover, unable to put it down for hours. Over the course of a month I would flip through the book revisiting scenes I'd viewed before always finding something I overlooked on the last viewing, the details are truly amazing.

If you love Tokyo as I do then I'd highly recommend Tokyo on Foot.

April 13, 2015

Last Sunday 319 people and an equal number of bicycles gathered under clear blue skies in the tulip filled gardens of the Embassy of the Kingdom of The Netherlands in Tokyo to partake in the third Tour De Holland to Flanders, Belgium bicycle ride an annual event hosted by the embassies of the Netherlands and Belgium, sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

I arrived slightly before 9am to find the gates of the Embassy flung wide open (a rare sight indeed) and dismounted to walk my bicycle down a slightly curving driveway lined with trees and flowering tulips to a courtyard filled with hundreds of cyclists all enjoying a complementary breakfast, coffee and Van Houten hot chocolate. I grabbed myself a coffee before joining Deputy Head of Mission Cees Roels for a chat and a stroll through the sea of parked bicycles which consisted of almost every style of bicycle imaginable, mountain bikes, road bikes, mamachari, folding bikes, cargo bikes, and more Dutch bikes than I could have believed existed in Tokyo. Surprising there were also a high number of DoCoMo bike share bicycles indicating quite a number of casual cyclists among the crowd.

It was not only the range of bicycles that was surprising, but also the range of riders. I learnt afterwards that of the 319 registered guests 43% were women, an unusually high number for a cycling event in Japan. Attendees ranged in age from under 10 to over 70 while the group consisted of people from all walks of life including middle age men tight fitting bike wear to ladies in frocks clearly enjoying the warm weather after a week of dreary wet days leading up to the event. (In its three year history, this event has consistently been rained on!)

After a photo opportunity with the heads of the respective embassies, sponsors and other high ranking officials the ride got underway with groups of 10 to 15 cyclists setting off at regular intervals through the embassy gates. Rather than having each group lead by someone who knew the route each rider was given a map, and volunteers were posted at regular intervals cheerfully announcing where to turn left, right or continue on. I quite enjoyed that style of ride as it gave me the freedom to stop for photos without holding up the group as I could easily join the  next line of riders who cruised on past or continue along alone in confidence that volunteers would see to it that I did not stray off course.

The 13 kilometre course began at the Dutch Embassy, and circled Tokyo Tower before heading in the direction of Toranomon Hills. No surprisingly not a single cyclist in my group took advantage of the shiny new, but dangerously narrow, bicycle lanes on Shintora Doori preferring to take their chances on the road instead. After a short stop at Hibiya Koen to collect the KLM stamp in our "passports" we continued on ast Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace where we mingled with even more cyclists enjoying 8 lanes of road closed to traffic on the Imperial Palace cycling course. From there we cycled through the gardens surrounding Nippon Budokan before winding our way through the backstreets, guided by even more cheerful volunteers before completing our journey at the Embassy of Belgium.

At the goal we were treated to Belgium waffles, fries and friendly conversation in the embassy's courtyard gardens. I took the opportunity to speak to as many European guests as I could to learn how they feel about cycling in Tokyo. The overwhelming consensus was the despite the lack of infrastructure it was a joy to cycle in Tokyo as the drivers were perceived to be more courteous to cyclists, something the people I spoke to attributed to the fact that the majority of motorists also being cyclists themselves. Others stated that suburban Tokyo's narrow streets acted as natural speed limiters for vehicles, and that the lack of sidewalks, forcing cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles to mix, did more to improve the situation for pedestrians and cyclists than worsen it.  Surprising comments indeed from nationals of countries with the finest cycling infrastructure on the planet.

But for me the highlight of the day was hearing Ambassadors Radinck J. van Vollenhoven and Luc Liebaut speak proudly of European cycling culture. Citing over 45,000 kilometres of cycling paths between their two countries they compelled Tokyo's cyclists to visit and experience cycling as it should be experienced everywhere. They also spoke briefly of the numerous benefits of cycling including social, economic and health benefits pointing out that cycling plays an important role in long life expectancies of Japanese citizens.

In short this was a wonderful event on so many levels. It gave many of us access to the beautiful embassy buildings and gardens which are normally off limits and also gave us the opportunity to share in conversation and exchange ideas with cyclists from many different countries, backgrounds and walks of life. Amusingly it allowed us to literally cycle from The Netherlands to Belgium without leaving Tokyo as technically the embassies are the territory of their respective nations.  But what I found most striking was how approachable, friendly and "normal" the Ambssadors and other top officials were, a point that was driven home at the end of the event after most people had already left when the Dutch Ambassador simply mounted his bicycle announced his departure and simply cycled off into the distance!

March 31, 2015

The moment it was announced in September 2013 that Tokyo would host the 2020 Summer Olympics cycling activists set to work on bringing cycling and cycling infrastructure to the attention of the Governor and the Tokyo Olympic Committee. Citing examples of how cycling infrastructure grew in London as a result of the Olympics in 2012 advocates seised the opportunity to use the Tokyo Olympics for similar gains.

Is this the final design of Tokyo 2020 Olympic bicycle lanes?
In the blink of an eye a new bicycle lane stretched across the Ariake area on the islands of Tokyo Bay where construction of Olympic venues was just beginning. It was with mixed feelings that I cycled the first of the proposed Tokyo Olympic bicycle lanes. Of considerable length the sidewalk level lane was a pleasure to ride, but was essentially a two meter strip painted on the sidewalk which was expected to accommodate bicycle traffic in two directions.

Feeling both excited about the new infrastructure, but disappointed that considering the space set aside for pedestrians at the site that more space was not allocated for cycling I approached a contact on the 2020 Olympic Marketing team for some answers. My contact spoke with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government official responsible for transport planning around the Olympics who assured us that the existing lanes at the site of the Olympic venue construction were merely temporary and that the final specifications for cycling infrastructure had not yet been decided. Encouraging for sure, but given that these so-called temporary lanes were an exact match of new lanes on Shintora-dori I wasn't entirely convinced.

Two meters is awfully narrow for a two way lane.
So imagine my surprise when hosing a Cycling Infrastructure Tour of Tokyo over the weekend the temporary bicycle lane suddenly stopped at a barrier beyond which appeared to be more permanent form of bicycle lane than mere paint on asphalt.

A 200m section of the existing asphalt bicycle lane, and sidewalk, close to the Ariake Sports Centre is currently being replaced by paving bricks. Continuing on from the existing painted bicycle lane is a 2 meter wide section of darker paving stones separated from the road and pedestrians by what will hopefully become hedges of flower beds.

Given the more permanent nature of this lane can we assume that this is the infrastructure that has been decided upon for the site of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics? While more permanent and more effectively separated by a physical barrier preventing cyclists and pedestrians from mingling, the lane is still much too narrow for travel in both directions. But from a survey carried out over the weekend it appears that all around Tokyo 1 meter is the accepted width for a bicycle lane regardless of the differences in design or location. One meter is barely acceptable for one way travel. By allocating just 2 meters for two way travel between physical barriers which prevent cyclists from being able to swerve out of the way of inattentive oncoming cyclists is a recipe for disaster.

Existing "temporary" lane.
So once again we're left wondering is this the style of bicycle lane that has been decided upon for the 2020 Olympics?  We also have to ask why Japanese planners and engineers are not looking towards cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Utrecht where cycling infrastructure has been perfected and is a proven success for ideas rather than repeating the mistakes of the past?

Cycling infrastructure isn't rocket science, the answers, the design, the expertise is already out there. There simply is no excuse for getting it this wrong.

March 25, 2015

Last week Hyogo Prefecture passed a new ordinance requiring bicycle owners to purchase liability insurance making it the first (and hopefully last) prefecture in Japan to make such a misguided decision. The new law, which comes into effect on October 1st, applies to all cyclists regardless of the purpose of their bicycle journeys and is said by the Governor to be a response to a rising number of incidents where cyclists have injured and in some cases killed pedestrians. 

Bicycle retailers will be asked to confirm if customers have liability insurance at the time of sale and encourage those that don't to acquire an insurance policy. Parents and guardians of underage bicyclists will be required to purchase insurance for them, and companies will be encouraged to cover the cost of insurance for employees who ride for business purposes.

The Hyogo Traffic Safety Association will begin accepting insurance applications, which range in price from ¥1,000 to ¥3,000 and provide maximum compensation from between ¥50 million and ¥100 million, from the beginning of April.

But similar to the nationwide bicycle registration laws, there is no penalty for violating the new ordinance which makes one wonder just why the Hyogo Prefectural Government went to such lengths, and indeed expense, to implement a law that nobody will feel the need to obey. 

Despite being a "mandatory cycling insurance" law most cyclists will opt out without punishment. The government can "ask" retailers to "encourage" people to purchase insurance all they like, but at the end of the day retailers will still sell bicycles to uninsured customers. They can "suggest" companies cover employees who cycle till they're blue in the face, but can't actually enforce anything because the law carries no penalties.

What an epic waste of taxpayers money. How much did it take to plan, write, pass and implement such a stupid ordinance? How much will be spent promoting this "requirement" that isn't a "requirement" at all?

Since a landmark case in 2013 when the Kobe District Court ordered a mother pay the extra ordinate amount of ¥95 million in damages after her son struck and killed an elderly pedestrian, not a week has gone by without a newspaper article playing up the danger that cyclists pose to pedestrians, and pointing out that in such cases the cyclist is financially liable. This sudden media attention has made it easy for politicians to claim "increasing bicycle accidents between cyclists and pedestrians" without having to back these claims with hard facts. The insurance industry has been whipped into a frenzy at the possibility of expanding into an emerging market and have no doubt been fanning the fire by lobbying local Governments to pass laws that would make bicycle insurance mandatory.

So rather than provide infrastructure that would see pedestrians, cyclists and motorists all safely separated, and result in fewer accidents the Hyogo Prefectural Government have chosen to maintain a dangerous environment and place an additional financial burden on cyclists in the form of mandatory insurance which isn't really mandatory at all. 

This is the kind of idiocy we as cycling activists in Japan have to deal with on a daily basis.

How long before some misguided Prefectural Government implements a mandatory helmet law reducing cyclist numbers forever? I dread the day.

March 14, 2015

Bikevibe Tokyo is the first edition of the highly awaited Bikevibe Semiannual City Journal Series edited by Norway based writer, designer and photographer Mari Oshaug.

This beautifully produced softbound book consists of 200 pages packed with full colour photographs and enlightening articles that celebrate Tokyo's cycling culture and Japanese bicycle design.

Within its pages you'll discover a range of articles and interviews about cycling in the mega-city of Tokyo including stories about Tokyo's vintage bicycles, the first graduates of Shibuya's frame builders school, a look at the history and future of Tokyo Bike belong with an overview of Japan's famous (and not so famous) cycling brands which reveals a number of facts even I wasn't aware of.

Among the interviews is a short interview with me, how I arrived at where I am today, and my thoughts on cycling in this wonderful city of ours. For the infrastructure addicts out there I penned an article for the book on Tokyo's recent efforts to improve cycling infrastructure in the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But by far one of the biggest attractions of this book is the hundreds of full colour photographs of bicycles and cyclists accurately documenting the current state of cycling in Tokyo, Japan.

As the Bikevibe Tokyo has been self published there are only a limited number available so be sure to get yours before they run out!

March 08, 2015

I grew up with a close cousin 4 years older than myself, his name was Michael and he was born with Down Syndrome. In our family he was never "disabled", instead he was "special". OK, so "special" was merely a poorly disguised cover word for "disabled", I know that now, but now I also know Michael truly was special.

Michael was gifted with a photographic memory. He stored away every moment he experienced and constantly reminded us of family events, who was present and what was said long after everyone had forgotten. He used this amazing memory to effortlessly remember names of players and statistics for his favourite sports of Australian Rules Football, cricket, tennis and golf. His favourite food alternated between a solid roast meal and a simple Vegemite sandwich. When sick, as he often was as a child, Vegemite sandwiches were the only thing that kept him alive.

Growing up with Michael helped shaped me into who I am today, he taught me compassion in a way nobody else could and for that I'm grateful. At an age when children point, stare and make rude comments about anyone "different" I had already learned to accept people based on more than their appearance or abilities and defended him fiercely. Often I'd cry "He's not dumb/stupid/fat/weird, he's special!" before getting into a vigorous childhood scrap.

As an adult Michael was entitled to a Disabled Pension, yet he spent his days painting surveyors pegs and sorting bottles at a local recycling facility. His payment was the pension he was entitled to all along. I've always been proud that he worked rather than simply accepted a handout.

As we grew up my life moved on, while his routine barely changed, and we saw less of each other. At the time he passed away I had been living overseas for over a decade with a family of my own and had not spoken to him for years. It pains me that I did not do more for him, a simple phone call, a present from Japan in the mail, anything.

He was special. He shaped me. I owe him.

In 2010 I ran the Tokyo Marathon successfully raising over $650 for Down Syndrome Tasmania who surprisingly asked if there way a particular way I'd like the money to be used. Being a parent of two children myself nothing brings me more pleasure than seeing them having a good time. A trip to the ice rink, an afternoon of horse riding, the chance to jump on a trampoline, small things to us, but to a child they're happy memories that will be treasured forever.

Some choose to support research, I choose to support fun times.

Frivolous? Maybe. Worthless, most certainly not.  

March 21st, 2015, is World Down Syndrome Day and I'd like to ask that if you're a regular reader who appreciates the time and effort I put in to Tokyo By Bike, or you've occasionally stumbled upon the odd article that struck a chord, then please support me by supporting my favourite charity, Down Syndrome Tasmania. Nothing will encourage me to serve you better than seeing the donations rack up and imagining the smiles those donations will bring to kids who deserve a good time.

This donations page will be active for 2 months, and I think $1,000 is a modest goal, so please give as little or as much as you can afford. Its all appreciated.

I will tweet my heartfelt thanks for all non anonymous donations.
Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe announced last week that the heads of the four central Tokyo wards of Chiyoda, Minato, Chuo and Koto have reached an agreement which will finally see their, until now illogically separate, bicycle sharing programs integrated.  Beginning in 2012 each of the wards have gone about individually implementing their own bicycle sharing systems in cooperation with NTT DoCoMo yet until now each of these systems had been independent. 

Until this announcement it had been impossible to borrow a bicycle in one ward and return it to another. Anyone wishing to do so would have to pay for separate memberships in each of the wards and change bicycles at the border, rendering the entire system comically useless compared to the city wide bicycle sharing schemes of Paris, London and New York. Under this new agreement bicycle share users will finally have the freedom to travel between wards without the need for multiple memberships or changing bicycles.

But now Governor Masuzoe must turn his attention to an even more difficult problem as the autonomy of Tokyo's wards is also taking its toll on city wide cycling infrastructure. 

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is responsible for just 2,000km of Tokyo's public roads, with the remaining 18,000km under the control of local governments.  Each local government has their own standards and policies for cycling infrastructure with some championing protected bicycle lanes while others opt for blue paint, or sidewalk level bicycle lanes.

In addition to this the Governors plans for a city wide network of bicycle lanes before the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are also hampered by the fact that a lack of coordination between local governments means that while they may be working hard to improve cycling infrastructure in their individual wards these networks may not necessarily link up to the network in the neighbouring ward.

Not only is this a headache for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, this lack of uniformity across the city adds to the confusion of cyclists and will ultimately make the cycling environment more dangerous despite good intentions.

Going forward it is positive that bicycle sharing systems and cycling infrastructure are being considered at such a high level of government and that there appears to be a commitment to making improvements.  We can only hope that Tokyo looks towards countries such as The Netherlands and Denmark for inspiration and doesn't choose to go it alone making all the mistakes we've seen in the past.

February 24, 2015

Cycling to work in Tokyo may do more than just keep you healthy, fit and happy, it also may help you earn a little additional income on the side if our employer isn't smart enough to have a bike to work policy in place.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare 86% of Japanese employers pay the commuting fees of their employees, and as the majority of employees in Tokyo travel to work by train companies usually take the easiest route when it comes to payments and simply deposit the cost of of a monthly commuter pass into the accounts of their employees along with their wages each month.  Bicycle commuters, however, exist in a grey zone. As most companies have no policy surrounding bicycle commuting (other than often trying to ban employees from cycling to work) they continue to deposit commuting allowances into the accounts of those who choose to cycle to work.

So by cycling to work in Japan, you're not just saving money, you're making money. In my case for example, my employer deposits ¥9,660 into my account each month to cover the cost of a commuter pass between my home station and work, yet I choose to cycle, paying just ¥100 per day for bicycle parking. Working on the assumption of 20 work days in a month I will pay ¥2,000 each month for bicycle parking and pocket the remaining ¥7,660. Thank you very much!

Some however have questioned the soundness of my theory when taking into account what they call the "hidden costs" of bicycle commuting, arguing that the cost of maintenance, clothing and equipment will quickly consume any additional income received.  Not surprisingly the people who believe cycling is expensive are recreational rather than utilitarian cyclists as they quote the need for cycling specific clothing and kit that really isn't necessary for the everyday cyclist.

Some of the "hidden costs" raised include:

The Cost of Bicycle Maintenance

Bicycles must be properly maintained in order to be both comfortable and safe. But personally I spend very little each year on maintaining my bicycle, occasionally I'll replace brake pads, or cables, but rarely have to purchase tubes or pay for puncture repairs since fitting a pair of indestructible Schwalbe Puncture Proof tyres to my commuter bicycle.  In fact new tyres are always the most expensive maintenance item on my list, but as they only need replacing every few years the cost isn't that great when averaged out over the length of use. Bicycle maintenance barely makes a dent in my budget.

The Cost of Cycling Clothing

Helmets, gloves, wind shell, thermal underwear, backpacks, and socks were all cited to me as significant hidden costs of bicycle commuting, But when you commute in your work clothes and average out the cost of some winter kit over the lifetime of its use you're really not spending a significant amount each year. The only speciality clothing item I own, that I probably wouldn't otherwise, is a Wind Stopper (Gore Tex) jacket I purchased on sale for less than ¥2,000 well over 10 years ago, everything else I need for cycling to work comes directly from my wardrobe.

The Cost of Consumables

Here is a hidden cost I don't often think about, but one that is certainly a slow drain on my finances, consumables. I'll admit I seem to be constantly replacing batteries in my lights and in the summer I use alcohol wipes to freshen up with when I arrive at work. While they are expenses I would not incur when if commuting by train they are insignificant ones at that.

The Cost of Cycling Insurance

While not necessary, if you're spending a lot of time on the roads of Tokyo on your bicycle it is probably a good idea to have some form of insurance to cover yourself (and a third party) in the unlikely event of an accident. Almost every major insurer in Japan offers cycling insurance and with a number of high profile accidents in the news lately insurers are paying a lot more attention to cycling insurance and competition in the area to offer more for less is heating up. Perhaps the most simple way to purchase cycling insurance is via the Internet or an electronic kiosk at any 7/11 convenience store where cycling insurance can be bought for as little as ¥5,000 per year.

Hidden Transport Costs 

Utilising a commuter pass a round trip to work is ¥483 while to cost of a regular ticket for the same journey is ¥600. Therefore on days when the weather isn't conducive to cycling, days I'm feeling under the weather myself, and days when I plan to have a drink or two after work, I have to pay the full ¥600 ticket price, a significant ¥117 more than the commuter ticket price. Fortunately, unless I'm taking the train an awful lot during the month I don't end up out of pocket and if I believe its going to be a terrible month for cycling (for example during Tokyo's notorious rainy season) I may deem it more economical to purchase a commuter pass and forgo the bicycle until the weather clears up.

While there are expenses related to cycling to work, the expenses encountered by a utilitarian cyclist who rides to work on a modest bicycle while wearing regular clothing are far less than those incurred by recreational cyclists who believe they need special kit to cycle to work. You don't, if you have a bicycle you already have everything you need, all the rest is just marketing hype. If your employer continues to pay you a commuter fee even if you chose to cycle then you'd be crazy not to do the math, because you will be better off financially (not to mention that you'll be healthier, stronger, fitter, and happier too!)

On the other hand, if you're an employer and you continue to pay bicycle commuters a commuting fee based on their train journey then we need to talk about implementing a bike to work policy within your company, as having one will substantial savings, and result in happier, healthier and more productive employees. Trust me, its true.

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