February 06, 2009

Of Bicycle Laws in Japan and other Mythical Beasts

Quite often, as the resident cycling nutjob, I'm asked about bicycle laws in Japan. More often than not this question comes from a foreigner, because as far as Japanese people are concerned there are no bicycle laws in Japan, beyond "Don't have an accident" and unfortunately even that rule is not often adhered to.

So here is a concise list of the most important bicycle laws in Japan:

  • Exercise some common sense, and ride safely.

There you go, short and to the point.

OK, the truth of the matter is that a whole complicated mess of cycling laws do in fact exist, but they are loosely enforced. So loosely that almost the entire cycling population is completely confused as to what is a law, what is common sense and what is pure myth or urban legend. For example:

Riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol could earn you up to five years imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million Yen. Unless you cause a serious accident and injure someone other than yourself the usual police response is to turn a blind eye to the merely tipsy cyclist. If the cyclist is is over the limit on the policeman's internal 'tipsy-o-meter' then they'll be trundled to the koban till they sober up, then sent on their way after a stern talking to. Problem being that each policeman's internal 'tipsy-o-meters' is calibrated differently.

Riding at night without a headlamp, using an umbrella, cell phone or iPod won't get you jailed but could cost you up to 50,000 Yen. The only rule I've seen enforced with at least some consistency is riding at night without a headlamp, but rather than a 50,000 Yen fine it usually results in a short exchange in which the police officer informs you that you shouldn't ride at night without a light, then you both go your separate ways. Riding while talking on the phone may, to a lesser degree, get you the same treatment.

As for umbrellas, and iPods, once again, unless you cause an accident (injuring someone other than yourself) no policeman is going to tell you to stop using a perfectly good umbrella and ride till you're soaked nor can they be bothered catching up with you to ask you to remove your earphones. (They have to catch up because calling to a person listening to their iPod doesn't yield any response.)

Carrying a passenger (over the age of 6) or riding in tandem with another bicycle promises to fetch you a fine of up to 20,000 Yen. Futarinori (the practice of riding two to a bike) is common amongst high school students, couples, and friends. Its part of a Japanese teenage boys induction into manhood to cycle the streets with his girlfriend on the back with her arms around him. What policeman is going to put an end to such a simple teenage pleasure? Just don't cause an accident.

Failing to stop at a red light or stop sign, or cycling dangerously (for example riding with broken brakes) is another offense punishable by up to 3 months imprisonment or a fine up to 50,000 Yen. On most roads in Japan the traffic lights are timed to trigger on regular intervals, traffic or not, they'll change every few minutes. This results in a lot of stopping and starting which quickly wears you down. As a result I slow, check for traffic and use my judgement to determine if I'll stop or continue. I do this safely, every day, in front of a police box twice on the way to work and twice on the way home and have not once been stopped. Although I just read that in 2008 40% of cyclist fatalities were caused by cyclists going through red lights or stop signs without stopping, so I'll exercise some caution.

I'm not sure of the exact legal wording, but "cycling dangerously" is a rather subjective notion. I'll take my hands off the bars to get something from a jersey pocket, is that dangerous? No, but I wouldn't like to see my daughter try it.

So by now you see the pattern. Just like when you were a child playing dangerously with a friend, its all fun and games until someone gets hurt. You'll jump Billy on your skateboard 20 times, your mother will warn you not to 20 times, but on the 21st time when you land on Billy's ankle the full weight of your mothers fury comes down upon you.

Cycling in Japan is the same, "Obey this rule we never enforce", says the policeman, until someone gets hurt then his tone changes to "Why don't you accompany me to the station."

Therefore in essence all the rules for bicycles can be boiled down to "exercise some common sense and ride safely".

What about riding on the road or sidewalks in Japan? I don't even want to try and explain the complexities, myth and legend surrounding that question so I'll let you know the rules that work for me:

  • Yes, you can ride on the roads in Japan
  • Yes, you can ride on the sidewalks in Japan
  • Exercise some common sense and ride safely

The more formal definition of the rules is:

  • Yes, you can ride on the roads in Japan, except in places where you can't
  • Yes, you can ride on the sidewalks in Japan, except in places where you can't
  • (No mention of common sense or safety, as they have nothing to do with bicycle laws in Japan)

I like my rules better.

Around the beginning of each school year there is a 2 week road safety blitz. Police at every intersection directing traffic, and a crossing guard (or two, sometimes even three) at every crossing, waving flags, blowing whistles and generally getting in the way of everyone. Its during these waves of madness that the police may pull you up for riding on the road (which is legal, let us stress again) and tell you to ride on the sidewalk even though you already cycled past 5 police and didn't receive a warning. After riding 50m or so down the sidewalk jump out on the road again and don't be surprised if the next 5 police officers let you cruise on by.

Surprisingly it wasn't until June 2008 that helmet laws were introduced in Japan. Currently it is compulsory for all children under 13 to wear a helmet while cycling, even if they are a passenger on an adults bicycle. Despite this you still see few children wearing helmets and even fewer police officers enforcing the law. Adults have no legal requirement to wear a helmet.

Personally I wear a helmet every day on my commute (unless I'm taking the train, then I leave it at home) and on weekend rides, but if I'm taking the mama-chari to the supermarket I'll leave the helmet behind. On the road, wear a helmet, going shopping, give it a miss. My daughters, both under 13 wear a helmets whenever they're on the bike, its common sense.

In the event of an accident, when the enforcement of the law actually kicks in Japan attributes blame to the larger party. In a car against bicycle bout, the driver of the car is automatically at fault even if the cyclist was riding the wrong way down a one way street holding their umbrella while listening to their iPod. When a cyclist injures a pedestrian the cyclist is at fault, and the person deemed to be at fault covers the medical expenses of the other party.

So there you have it. While Japan does have a complex set of cycling laws, they are poorly understood and only really enforced in the event of an accident. I'm sure all of you exercise common sense and ride safely within the law, but while in Japan, forget the law, its incomprehensible, and just exercise common sense and ride safely. Its worked for me.

37 comments:

  1. I've cycled the streets of Tokyo (over 2,000km on them) for the past 1.5 years with no accidents and always rode my bike as safely as possible. The biggest threat I found on the streets were other people on bikes riding against the flow of traffic. That nearly caused many accidents.

    It was good to read what exactly the fines are for cycling offenses. On the other hand, it was totally infuriating because they are never enforced. So this gets my default reaction to such things of: why have the laws if you are not going to enforce them?

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  2. You're going to have to explain to me how wearing a lousy bike helmet is common sense.

    Yeah, in a race with 200 other bikes going 30km an hour or faster, I might see the merit of wearing a streamlined helmet (that's rated at only 10 km/hr). But then the morons in a race wear shorts and short sleeved shirts that make road rash more a danger in event of a fall. Sorry, no need to wear helmets on bikes for normal use. Now that is common sense.

    Other than that, a great article that pretty much sums up many of Japanese laws: turn a blind eye until you bother (hurt) someone other than yourself.

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    Replies
    1. I`m going to have to explain to you how wearing a lousy bike helmet is common sense.

      Its called making sure your head dont get cracked open like a watermelon if it slams into the road,car etc.

      Must be one of those `real men` who dont need a helmet as ur heads hard enough already!

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  3. Nukemarine, thanks for your comments.

    I won't preach to anyone, but for myself wearing a helmet when commuting, road cycling or mountain biking is something I consider right for me. I'm out there in traffic, riding at speed in a dangerous environment and wearing a helmet feels right. I've been in accidents that have severely damaged my helmet but left my shiny head untouched.

    When riding with my family to the park or supermarket I never bother with a helmet.

    As choosing for or against wearing a helmet impacts only the wearer I think each individual should be free to choose.

    Again, its a personal choice, but I equip my children with helmets whenever they ride or are passengers, not because its a (unenforced) law, but because I consider it the right thing for their safety.

    Bicycle accidents among children are common enough, but what is also common here is children tumbling to the pavement from the child seat of a parked bicycle when left alone or their parent's attention is diverted. Of course not leaving you child alone on a parked bicycle, and keeping a sharp eye on them will prevent such accidents, but kids have an fine tuned ability to get into accidents right before your very eyes despite your best intentions.

    I guess the point of the article is that when cycling in Japan, know the rules, but by simply riding in a safe and courteous manner you'll avoid any trouble.

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  4. you ARE preaching when you write that wearing a helmet is 'common sense' and 'the right thing...'

    Unfortunately, there is little science to back up claims that helmets or helmet laws work. Nowhere in the world has helmet usage reduced head injury levels.

    In addition, according to various scientific studies, wearing a helmet gives you a higher risk of brain damage, neck injury and even an increased risk of being involved in an accident.

    So 'common sense' is hardly applicable. Wear one if you like, but be aware of the limitations.

    www.cyclehelmets.org

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  5. Thanks for the post. What are the bicycle parking rules in Japan? I want to ride my bike to work in the morning and perhaps park it on the sidewalk in front of the company building. I would ride it back home after work of course. Would it be OK to park it there every day? If not what options do I have?

    Iv'e heard of bicycle parking spaces but I don't seem to see any around my work (right next to Shimbashi Sta.)

    As for the losers who replied to this nice and informative post, you guys are low-life losers. If you don't want to wear a helmet don't no one cares and it isn't that big of a deal if the writer thinks that it's common sense to wear a helmet. If you have a real problem go make your own post and say that wearing a helmet is not common sense.

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  6. Similar to bicycle road rules, bicycle parking rules are seemingly randomly enforced. Its common to see areas plastered with no bicycle parking signs full of parked bicycles as I'm sure you've witnessed countless times before.

    I'm lucky enough to have a place to park my bicycle at work but when I was working for a different company in Nishi Shinjuku I used to park my bicycle on the sidewalk outside the building every working day for over 5 years and never encountered any problems.

    I used to keep a heavy duty U-Lock attached to a railing 24-7. In the morning I'd use that to lock my rear wheel and frame to the railing, and a second wire lock to attach the front wheel to the frame. In the evening I'd leave the U-Lock attached to the railing as it was incredibly heavy and thus I did not want to lug it around. I'd leave the lock attached to the railing overnight, on weekends and during holidays. Once after a particularly bad accident I was off the bike for almost 4 months over which time the U-Lock remained attached to the railing waiting for the day I'd use it again.

    As when interpreting road rules for bicycles in Japan, when judging where to park your bicycle use a little common sense and you shouldn't have any problems. If your bicycle doesn't impede the flow of pedestrian traffic or loading zones, and you avoid clearly marked no parking zones its most likely your bicycle will go un-molested.

    I have nothing but a gut feeling to back me up, but as Shimbashi is a rather pedestrian rich area I believe the authorities may have a less tolerant attitude to illegally parked bicycles. But as far as I know they won't remove your bicycle on the spot if you're illegally parked. If illegally parked, your bike may be ticketed for removal at a later date. When it comes time for the authorities to remove the offending bicycles they'll only removed the ticketed ones, so keep your bike ticket free and you should be in the clear. If you find yourself being constantly tagged you may like to look into finding a new parking place a little more out of the way.

    Sometimes rather than tag individual bicycles you may see notices pop up indicating that all bicycles in the area will be rounded up and carted away on a specific date, so keep an eye out for those. These notices will include information about where to go or who to call in order to get your bicycle returned (for a fee). Once removed bicycles will only be kept for a limited time before being recycled, or more likely destroyed.

    I suggest buying a strong lock, then testing the waters and see how it goes.

    As for the bicycle helmet debate, everyone is entitled to their opinion. I choose to wear a helmet. Sure it won't save me if a truck rolls over my head, but I'm more likely to tip over at low speed trying to clip out of a jammed pedal because I'm a klutz, and in that case I'm pretty sure my helmet offers ample protection should I bang my head.

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  7. Thanks for the post, it was very informative. I have a question though regarding the nature of bicycles vs. car traffic accidents. My sister and I were riding our bicycles on the sidewalk and while we were riding, she crashed into a car that was waiting to pull onto the main street. No one was injured but there was some damage done to the car. The driver asks for payment for the damage. Is the driver still at fault, even if there was no injury involved? If so, do you know of any traffic law literature that you could point me to? Thank you!

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  8. Hi,
    As bikes share a similar status to cars/motorcycles in that they are legally allowed to ride in the street I was curious as to the legality of splitting lanes at low speed. I got clipped this morning by a guy changing lanes. I guess I just took it for granted that this was legal as it is back home, but I shouldn't assume that it is.
    Thanks!

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  9. Hmmm - I have to say that I am struggling here. Why is it that people will purchase cars with all the safety features - but when they get on a bike, that's a different story. Living in Australia where helmet wearing is mandatory you live with it... especially as we have a government funded health system, I'd say it's fair that they have a say in how to reduce the impact on the health system.

    Do helmets make you safe? No. Do they replace common-sense? No. Are they some how going to make you less of a person? No!
    They are a simple way of providing you with a certain degree of protection to your most important asset. Your head... skin on your elbows and hands will grow back... a brain injury is generally for life.

    Having said that... Japan's interpretation of the "bigger is at fault" concept is just ridiculous... and it does more harm than any laws on helmet wearing. Japanese cyclists are some of the worst I've seen in terms of total disregard for other road users.

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  10. AdelaideBen,

    I believe that if you come from a culture where almost the entire population learns to drive at the age of 16 like Australia you naturally expect that everyone has a certain amount of road sense. Thats certainly not the case here in Japan where a large percentage of the population never learn to drive..

    To drive a car you undergo a reasonable amount of training and it is reasonable to assume that what you learn as a driver (or even as a frequent passenger) filters on down to other aspects of your life to the point where you take those lessons learned and apply them to cycling, and even the simple act of walking.

    Stopping at intersections, obeying traffic signals, being aware of those around me, traveling in a straight line, and keeping to the left are some simple rules I use(d) while driving and apply when I'm cycling, jogging or even walking. I'd expect the same of those around me but as you rightly point out that is not the case.

    Drivers are taught to and expected to be constantly aware while cyclists here just get up and go oblivious to other road users and the potential dangers around them. This behavior is not limited to cycling. How many people do you see here walking while reading, playing Nintendo or fiddling with their phones expecting the crowds to part for them?

    As for helmets, I believe they are a matter of choice. For a sensible cyclist partaking in everyday, primarily sidewalk bound, cycling such as trips to the supermarket and taking the children to school I believe that a helmet is not necessary and personally do not wear one. Yet, when I am commuting to and from the office in peak hour traffic I always wear a helmet.

    Your comments touch on a number of topics I had hoped to expand into full blog posts over the coming weeks.

    TasmaniaByron
    (4 years in Adelaide, but released on account of good behavior.)

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  11. Hi, I finally found an article about cycling in Japan... I ride a mama chari one sometimes, but mostly I go around by car... and here is the question that no one could answer me before: On a mama chari or not, ppl seem to think that they are invincible!!! what is wrong with the ppl who gets into the road without looking to the sides, or just gettin down the side walk without checking if there is any (maybe big) car coming from behind?? People!!! cars are harder than human body bones!!! I hope you post this question and even though I know that there is ppl (few of course) that know about this, I feel like if there are no penalties for not following cycling rules, ppl do whatever they feel like, but if a car hits someone on a bicycle by accident, even if it was the bicycle riders fault, the car driver goes to jail no matter what!!!

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  12. Here's a cute info from Gifuken, enjoy:
    http://www.pref.gifu.lg.jp/pref/s11129/kotsuanzen/hokousha-en.pdf

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  13. Good information about cycling. Thanks!
    There's also a recent episode of The Japanofiles Podcast with lots of information on bicycling in Japan. It's Episode #35:

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-japanofiles-podcast/id331131569

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  14. what about the cateyes on the bikes? are they mandatory? can i remove them if i use LED lights instead?

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  15. mh, I don't believe there is a law about cat eyes and reflectors on bicycles. You can safely remove them as long as you have a headlight. Tail lights, are not mandatory.

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  16. Japan (and the rest of Asia) is horrible with bikes, mainly because of the amount of people there. I think it's also because bicycles were introduced there as a viable way of transportation rather than a casual one. And everyone bikes on the sidewalks (although they are wide) and NO ONE wears a helmet. I have never seen anyone wearing a helmet while cycling in Japan. You have to develop a six sense of where bicycles are around you relative to your location, or you'll end up riding tandem. And unsurprisingly, bike accidents are frequent in Japan. Surprisingly, car accidents are low. But that's because they're really strict drivers there (no one there runs a yellow light). So there is some interesting correlation rather causation.

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  17. Do you have a supporting source for this paragraph?
    "In a car against bicycle bout, the driver of the car is automatically at fault even if the cyclist was riding the wrong way down a one way street holding their umbrella while listening to their iPod. and the person deemed to be at fault covers the medical expenses of the other party."
    I was hit by a car coming around a curve up in the mountains last week, and I'd like to be able to show this to the driver + my mother in law before a deal is stuck. I copied it into Google translate - but it just came out as Japanese looking gibberish.

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  18. Japan is great for bikes, why? Because no one wears a helmet, you can potter around on the footpath and in the country/suburbs there are narrow lanes and paths everywhere which are pretty much car free and great to ride along. But riding in the 5-6 wards around central Tokyo isn't so much fun - even though there are a couple of places which are ok. In the narrow streets drivers normally take great care not to run you over - unlike most parts of the world where intimidation is the name of the game. If you want to be a Lycra clad, helmet wearing, racing road warrior then Japan most probably isn't the best, but for casual utility cycling with 1000s of other people its great - much like Holland.

    PS Japan is terrible for car drivers running red lights. Slowing and stopping at yellow lights is likely to get you rear ended. Turning right expecting people to slow and stop when the lights turn yellow/red will get you in a head on smash. And taking off real quick as soon as the lights go green will get you T-boned.

    After getting into the habit of accelerating at yellow lights and running red lights like every other driver in Japan (good sense to blend in), when I returned to my nanny state with red light/speed cameras at nearly every junction it was all I could do to get out of the habit before I copped a crazy fine.

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  19. Hi Byron, a parking car has opened its driver side door just when I was about passing him. I broke a toue, and bruised a lot of stuff.

    After 3 months of recovery the insurance company wants to pay me 50,000 yen, a sum less than what I spent on a weekend onsen travel for two.

    Do you have any resources, of what can I claim from the insurance company or from the guy who hit me on the first place?
    Thank you.

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  20. To Anonymous (above),

    After a bicycle accident I had in Japan, in which I broke my collar bone, the drivers insurance company came to me with an initial offer that was outrageously low. My wife and I pushed back and received a MUCH larger payment than their original offer. The insurance company employee even admitted to us that they always open with a small offer and that we were right to question it.

    Your medical expenses should be covered, along with repairs to your bicycle, clothing, helmet and other equipment. In addition to that they should cover any income lost due to time off work after the accident. You should collect receipts or quotes for replacing your equipment and your bicycle, which you can present to the insurance company.

    These expenses should be covered as a mater of course, after which you should be compensated for the sheer inconvenience of the accident. The amount of that payment is difficult to quantify but do not settle on an offer that you feel is unfair.

    Push back, speak to the drivers insurance company and they will cover your expenses plus a little more. Enlist the support of a Japanese friend as the insurance company may feel like they can push a foreigner around as they aren't expected to know all the rules.

    Good luck!

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  21. Thank you very much for your most useful information Byron.

    Kind Regards,
    Tamas Gecse

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  22. I'm planning on another trip to Japan & this time I'm seriously considering hiring a bike to get across Tokyo, say from Meguro to close to Takeshoku University. Am I being too adventurous and putting my life at risk for whay? Maybe I should just take the subway?

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  23. Helmets do get worn by cyclists - This article is supported by a pic that shows helmets being worn. Also discussed attempts to reel-in dangerour riders.
    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ2011110716039

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  24. Blinky Bill, I consider Tokyo much safer than a lot of other cities for cycling. Sure the rules are vague but that works to our advantage rather than your disadvantage. I commute by bicycle every day and once you get used to riding in traffic in Japan you'll wonder why you ever took the subway.

    In general the only people wearing helmets here are sports cyclists like those in the article you linked to. People cycling to the supermarket, or taking the kids to school, they're not wearing helmets and they make up a much larger number than sports cyclists. At the end of the day its up to you to decide if you'll wear a helmet or not. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't, it depends on the ride I'm doing.

    HIre a bike and try commuting, if its not for you then you've lost nothing in trying. But if you enjoy cycling I'm sure you'll enjoy cycling in Tokyo,

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  25. Gidday Byron Kidd - Thanks for the reply & info.

    I think I will take your advice and give cycling a go. I actually found a web site that shows several videos of hire bikes, and I have to say that it looked surprisingly safe, easy & quick to get around. Even entering the Shibuya area with it's scarey crossing (gulp)....looked do-able. :)

    And yep I see what you mean about helmets & sports cyclists.

    Wish me luck.

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  26. In general the only people wearing helmets here are sports cyclists like those in the article you linked to. People cycling to the supermarket, or taking the kids to school, they're not wearing helmets and they make up a much larger number than sports cyclists.

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  27. Hi,
    I plan to visit Japan for 2 week cycling holiday, i would like to bring my bike which i bought second hand in 1982. I used it in UK, Spain, Australia and Thailand...
    My question is will i have to register the bike when i arrive in Japan, even though i will only be there for a fortnight?

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  28. Anonymous,

    No need to register your bike if you're bringing it here for a short holiday. Chances are nobody will check your registration, and if they do then explain you're here as a tourist. The police may want to see your passport as proof if you look sufficiently suspicious to them, but I don't think you'll have any problems at all.

    Byron.

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  29. Great article. Common sense when so well shared by so many actually works. I'd use the word 'tolerance' too, although it's slightly tinted with the idea that bikes are 'tolerated'...! I live in NYC, and we're barely tolerated here, yes recent bike-lanes have improved things, but bike use is still limited to hipsters and delivery-people. No moms with infants, no seniors, no schoolkids, no 'salarymen'....and of course, we can get fined for riding a bike on mostly empty, spacious sidewalks at 2am! Also, I wonder what would Japanese think of programs such as Velib' in Paris, CitiBike NYC!! THey sound absurd to me: can't people buy or rent a bike by themselves?

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  30. Amazing post. Gave me good laugh - learned a lot as well. It's almost like a fun history class, except you learn more.

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  31. Nukemarine doesn't understand about helmets. You wear them to protect your head from blunt trauma. You do not know when you'll hit your head. My student died 3 weeks ago from blunt trauma to his head. I've been saved twice by my 'lousy' helmets.

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  32. Thanks - good article.
    An update about parking - I live near Shibuya station and recently parked my bike along Meiji-dori, using my light cable lock to attach to the pedestrian guard rail (i.e. the low fence between road and walkway). I was a good 10m or more from the intersection and not blocking anything. There are no signs along Meiji-dori to indicate no parking.
    Bike was impounded, lock cable cut and a Y2,000 fine.
    I called Shibuya City council to complain and was told it was 'common sense' not to park there. Which is just bollocks. It is common sense to park a bike in a place where it doesn't bother anyone instead of using a car or taxi.
    Tokyo seems to have gone on an anti-bicycle blitz as I found I wasn't the only one. It seems they want to charge people for parking a bike.
    (It would never occur to them to charge people for smoking on the street though).
    Hard to believe Tokyo is a candidate city for the 2020 Olympics.

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  33. Drivers are taught to and expected to be constantly aware while cyclists here just get up and go oblivious to other road users and the potential dangers around them. This behavior is not limited to cycling. bike accident can be stopped by doing following that.

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  34. As the manager/mechanic of a bicycle shop here in Japan I can honestly say that Japan is not a safe place to cycle compared to my home country of New Zealand. In NZ it is the law to wear a cycle helmet at all times no matter what age , if you forget to wear your helmet the police do not give you a warning they give you a fine !.

    As mentioned in the above article Japan has plenty of laws regarding what you should not do on a bicycle e.g listening to your i pod while playing with your smart phone( more like stupid phone )whilst cycling. What do the cops do - nothing and giving a warning for not having a light is useless as the cyclists will walk until out of sight from the cops then re mount and cycle home without a light. The cops need to start handing out large fines to everybody, cyclists and motorists on a daily basis then things might change !

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  35. The biggest problem of cycling in Japan are other riders that ride against the flow of trafic. Many times two riders side by side. Even if that see you (e.g. not playing with cell phones or holding an umbrella) they do not any anything to yield those that follow the trafic rules.
    You told to use common sense. Well it works for Western people. Japanese hardly ever have a common sense so it won't help them.
    Riding a bike is very stressfull in Japan.

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  36. JUst read an article on how they are removing bicycle crossings from thousands of crosswalks to get bikes off the sidewalks the truth of the matter is it's legal to ride on the street where it's legal and legal to ride on the sidewalk where it's legal it's all about common sense and public safety. Try to remember Japan is a country where it is a criminal offense to injure another person, If you can wrap your mind around that your 1/2 way there. and you know what GI Joe says...(knowing is half the battel)

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