In a world where cyclists are fighting for acceptance on the roads, Japanese cyclists fight for the right to keep riding on the sidewalk.
The above statement may sound odd to western cyclists, but this is Japan where riding on the sidewalk with your family is the accepted norm. Here in Japan a person on a bicycle does not consider themselves a "cyclist", they're just out there, getting things done, using the bicycle as their primary means of transport for short trips. They are mothers, children, businessmen and the elderly. They are making short trips to the supermarket, school, train station, or cafe and the majority of these trips are made on the sidewalk, not the road.
These people are comfortable on the sidewalk, they have no desire to ride on the road as it offers them absolutely no benefit over the sidewalk, and exposes them to much more perceived danger. Sure a commuter can save 30 minutes over 10km by cycling on the road, but the majority of trips by bicycle in Japan are less than a few kilometers so any time saving is negligible.
Recently the all seeing eye of Sauron .. sorry .. the National Police Agency, has turned to cyclists after an increase in the number of accidents between bicycles and pedestrians. In 2011 whopping 12,630 accidents involving bicycles in Tokyo occurred up until August, that’s 37.8% of all traffic accidents in the city.
Currently we are witnessing a change in attitude by the police towards cycling on the sidewalk. But while the NPA are encouraging people to cycle on the road, they understand that Japanese roads, and drivers and cyclists are nowhere near ready for that. So, to prevent ugly incidents they have made a number of confusing and conflicting statements about who can ride on the sidewalks, where and when.
One report stated that children under 13, people over 70 and those with disabilities could ride on the sidewalk. Another stated that mothers carrying children by bicycle would not be forced to cycle on the road, nor would those people carrying luggage by bike. Yet another report indicated that anyone could cycle on a sidewalk as long as the sidewalk was 2 meters wide and had signs stating cycling was allowed. No, lets change that to 3 meters, said another. Others stated that it was OK for anyone to cycle on the sidewalk in areas where the road was deemed too busy or dangerous. Obviously these conflicting messages have left everyone confused.
Under that mish-mash of advice from the NPA when cycling to the park with my children I'll have to cycle on the road, while they ride unsupervised on the sidewalk, unless the road is dangerous or busy, or I have luggage in which case I can cycle the sidewalk also. But the meaning of "dangerous" or "busy" is not defined, nor is it stated anywhere what constitutes enough luggage to warrant cycling on the sidewalk. Confused? I know I would be if I paid any attention to the NPA, so I don't.
At the end of the day these are police guidelines, not cycling laws, so the only thing that has really changed since October is that the NPA look like a bigger bunch of unorganised idiots, and everyone else is confused.
So until the police make up their minds and pass consistent cycling laws that apply to all, instead of dishing up ambiguous guidelines please follow the Tokyo By Bike guidelines for cycling in Japan: "Exercise some common sense and ride safely."