How Many Japanese Cycle To Work?

Japan, a nation of 127 million people has 72 million bicycles with over 10 million new bicycles being sold every year. In a country where public transport is clean and efficient and where car ownership can be costly and inconvenient, the bicycle has risen to occupy a unique place in Japan's transport ecosystem. The bicycle is an essential form of everyday transport used by millions of people from all walks of life.

bicycle commuters wait in the rain for a commuter train to pass in Tokyo Japan
Recently I wrote about how government policy and inflexible insurance companies have created a situation in Japan which forces employers to ban cycling to work. This got me wondering, in the face of such widespread bike to work bans, just what percentage of commuter journeys are made by bicycle in Japan?

By far the most popular method of commuting in Japan is by train, with 53% of students and 48% of workers nationwide using the train as their primary means for commuting to work. Other forms of public transport including buses and streetcars are preferred by 13% of students but just 9% of workers. Students tend to rely more heavily on buses than workers as schools are generally well serviced by bus routes.

When it comes to cycling a healthy 18% of students indicated they rely upon the bicycle but this is offset by a much lower 9% for workers. Why the difference? Schools tend to be closer to homes, whereas workplaces are often much further afield, making cycling an attractive option for students, but less so for workers. The convenience, efficiency and cleanliness of Japan's public transport makes it an easy choice over cycling as a transport option for Japan's workers as many live conveniently within walking or cycling distance of a train station.

Sadly corporate Japan shoulders some of the blame for low bicycle commuter numbers among workers. Citing safety and insurance concerns, along with a host of other nonsensical reasons, many Japanese companies strictly ban employees from cycling to work. Until this is rectified bicycle commuter numbers among Japanese workers will forever remain low.

A mere 6% of Japanese students commuted by car, while that figure jumps to 24% for workers. In Japanese cities such as Tokyo where up to 67% of commuters rely on the efficient train and subway systems, and where private car ownership is more expensive, the number of workers who travel by car is much lower. But the Japanese countryside is not as well serviced by public transport, and this coupled with longer commuting distances bolsters the nationwide car usage statistic among Japanese workers.

Surprisingly when it comes to walking to work 7% or both students and workers chose this option and 3% of both groups indicated they commute by motorcycle.

In summary 66% of students and 57% of workers choose to commute via Japan's legendary public transport, while 9% of students and 27% of workers rely upon cars or motorcycles to get to work. At the healthier end of the scale 25% of students and 16% of workers cycle or walk to work, despite the practise of cycling to work being frowned upon by corporate Japan.

Of course there is more to a strong cycling culture than high bicycle commuter numbers as the bicycle will be used for a much wider variety of trips in a truly healthy and well balanced cycling nation.

In Tokyo 14% of all daily trips, not just commuter journeys, are made by bicycle with an average trip distance of less than 2km. Given that short distance and the fact that the average commute for a Tokyo worker is 60 minutes one way it is safe to assume that door to door bicycle commuting makes up just a small percentage of overall trips by bicycle in Japan each day. It is important to remember that certain cities or regions within a country can deviate greatly from the national average, and groups within the population can exhibit wildly different patterns of bicycle usage.

Therefore even under company wide bicycle commuting bans a healthy 9% of all commuter journeys by workers in Japan are made by bicycle. I wonder what portion of those commuters have company permission and how many are cycling to work in secret? I also wonder if companies were more lenient towards cyclists just how high the number of bicycle commuters would rise around Japan.

Ride safe and stick it to the Man.



Japan's National Bike to Work Ban

Strict government policies regarding employee travel insurance, and inflexible insurance company policies, have created a situation where cycling to work is effectively banned in Japan. That's right, bureaucracy is preventing people from cycling to work in Japan.

Under Japanese corporate law, companies are required to insure their employees against workplace accidents and this insurance extends to cover commuting to and from work, despite this few employee insurance policies include cycling insurance. As a result employers in Japan implement company policies which prevent their employees from cycling to work to protect themselves from financial liability should an accident occur.

Fixed gear bicycle commuter in Tokyo, Japan
 For example the majority of IT workers in the Kantō region are covered by a single insurance company which provides insurance not only for Japanese IT companies, but global IT giants including Microsoft, Google and IBM.  Their employee insurance policy does not cover cycling which effectively means not only employees of Japanese companies, but Japan based employees of international companies are banned from cycling to work while their international colleagues are free to travel to work however they choose.

So while more than 7% of Google's Mountain View employees cycle to a workplace which maintains a fleet of 1300 bicycles, provides showers with lockers, a towel service, secure parking with access to bicycle tools and even bicycle friendly shuttle buses, 100% of Google employees in Japan are banned from cycling to work as the company must comply with local regulations.

Despite this technical ban on cycling to work, many companies have a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy towards bicycle commuting,  whereby companies never make a strong formal announcement of the cycling ban, and employees who choose to cycle to work do their best to keep the fact hidden. Employees who make their cycling habits too obvious, or those unlucky enough to be involved in an accident during their commute will be asked to refrain from cycling to work in the future. Yet despite employer demands around 9% of commuters still commute by bicycle.

When informing errant employees of the company's bike to work ban, few companies take the time to explain to employees the insurance situation. Companies will claim that because they pay employees commuting fees employees are required to commute by train, others cite a lack of bicycle parking near the office, while yet more simply close the issue with "Its dangerous, please don't cycle to work in the future". This creates employee animosity towards the company when in reality the company is playing by the rules laid down by the government and their insurance provider.

Resourceful bicycle commuters go to the trouble and expense of arranging private bicycle parking near, but not too near, their office. In the summer months many take out gym memberships close their offices so they can shower and change into business attire before beginning work for the day.

Increasingly cyclists are taking out private insurance after a court ruling in July ordered the mother of a child who caused a serious bicycle accident to pay ¥95.2 million in compensation. Following that incident the number of enquires about bicycle insurance spiked and in reaction insurance companies expanded their products covering cyclists. Private cycling insurance can be purchased in Japan for as little of ¥4000 per year with payouts ranging from ¥50 million to ¥100 million. But despite the insurance industry warming up to cyclists, employee insurance policies still do not accept cycling as a valid means of commuting to work.

Japan is home to over 70 million bicycles, almost equal to the number of automobiles, but there is no obligation for cyclists to take out insurance. As a result only 30% of bicycle users in Japan are covered in the event of a bicycle accident.

With private cycling insurance, a legal place to park, and if possible a place to freshen up before work a defiant bicycle commuter has counter arguments to the most common employer concerns when it comes to cycling to work. But at the end of the day if a company demands an employee refrain from cycling the employee has few options and will reluctantly comply, even if only for a few months until the whole thing blows over.

Interestingly employers had little to say about bike to work bans in the weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 when eager to please employees shunned the disrupted public transport systems and chose to cycle to work.  Also, in an anomaly of unfathomable proportions, the very same employers that claim a lack of facilities as a reason to ban bicycle commuting go out of their way to provide smoking lounges for their employees.

Fixed gear bicycle commuters in Tokyo, JapanWhile the outlook remains bleak for Japan's bicycle commuters, a handful of forward thinking companies have devised internal policies to support bicycle commuting. Most require bicycle commuters to be privately insured and rather than providing commuter passes, cyclists are paid for the kilometres they ride, while others received a lump sum based on the estimated number of rainy days per year to ensure their travel costs are adequately covered in inclement weather.

In most cases employers that embrace bicycle commuting discover the cost of supporting bicycle commuters is much less than providing the same employees with commuter passes and that their employees are healthier, resulting in fewer days off work due to ill health, and more productive as they arrive to work in a positive state of mind full of energy.

Cycling to work has tangible benefits for employers, employees and ironically insurance companies, the very ones ultimately responsible for the bike to work ban. But until government regulations, or insurance policies adapt to accommodate bicycle commuters millions of Japanese will be prevented from cycling to work and employees who do cycle will forever have to do so in secret under the fear of discovery.

This nonsensical bike to work ban must not be tolerated, nor should Japanese workers accept this type of interference in their private lives.

Don't stand for it.

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Japan Proposes Appointment of Bicycle Promotion Minister

Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) announced today a proposal which would appoint Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki to a newly created post of Bicycle Promotion Minister. Excuse me for not getting excited about this.

Tasks facing the new minister would include promoting the bicycle as an effective means of transport ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, improving cycling infrastructure by increasing the number of bicycle parking lots, installing bicycle lanes and the possible introduction of a bicycle share system in Tokyo.

Tanigaki is a career politician, like his father before him, and has also served previous terms in government as Finance Minister and Minister of Construction and Transport.  He lists mountaineering, cycling and wine tasting among his hobbies, but most notably appears in the press as being the person responsible for signing the execution orders of death row inmates, condemning 6 prisoners including a 73 year old man to death in the past 12 months.

While we would welcome a newly created post of Bicycle Promotion Minister we question if Tanigaki is the right person for the job, even given his love of long distance cycling. The LDP have a track history of cronyism, and while there is no indication of who will work with the Bicycle Promotion Minister, but we assume there will be more career politicians, representatives of companies with a vested interests and countless Tokyo University "experts" and academics who have been on the government payroll for decades.

Whatever eventuates you can rest assured that public consultation will never feature in the decision making process and that our voices will go unheard.

While this should be a happy day for cycling advocates around Japan, how can we get excited about a bunch of politicians, sons and grandsons of politicians, with track records of corruption, self serving policies and ignoring public opinion, electing one of their ilk to a position that holds so much promise?

But there is at least one positive, we now know where to send our complaints about bicycling infrastructure in Japan, even if they will fall on deaf ears.



Cleverhood Rain Cloak Review

Today as two typhoons lash Tokyo simultaneously I realise it was exactly one year ago, during another powerful typhoon, that I first put my new Cleverhood rain cloak to the test. To put it mildly, I was incredibly impressed with the results.

As anyone will tell you, its much easier to sit out a typhoon if you have snacks and beer, exactly the two things we didn't have as the rain came in sideways and the typhoon moved ever closer. Under normal circumstances it would have been a long day without the much needed snacks and beer, but I had recently taken delivery of a new Cleverhood rain cloak, it looked sturdy, and I wanted to put it to the test. What better way to test a rain cloak than in a typhoon, on a daring mission for a six pack and some crisps?

Cleverhood TF Green Rain Cloak

Looking at the Cleverhood cloak the first thing you notice is how stylish it is, as if stylish is ever something you've said about a rain cape before. The version I have would look quite at home over a tweed outfit and high riding boots, in fact given its unique waterproof design you can essentially wear what you like underneath without fear of getting wet.

The Cleverhood cloak is made from a sturdy waterproof polyester with sealed seams to keep you dry in even the most inclement of weather. It is tastefully trimmed with 3M reflective tape which shines amazingly brightly under lights, but which disappears in daylight making this a very stylish but stealthy high-viz item.

Two arm slits in the front of the cloak feature magnetically closing flaps so that when you draw your arms inside they automatically snap shut preventing water from seeping in. Below the arm slits on the interior of the cape are finger loops so when the rain really pours you can slip your fingers into the loops and drape the cloak over your handlebars keeping everything underneath nice and dry.

The cape's hood has a wide brim, and moves around with your head so as to not cut down your peripheral vision. If so inclined it is possible to secure the hood under your helmet. The Cleverhood has elastic draw strings (internal) so you can draw the cape in closer when you're on the bike. I make good use of these because if the cape is flapping around in the wind I'm always in fear that it will catch on to a car as it speeds past. Zippered pockets and a small loop of fabric on the back from which you could secure a light or reflector are additional details that round out this amazing product.

The material is hardly breathable but the cape is loose fitting enough to allow air to circulate. Also, being a cape it does not cover the lower part of your legs so in extreme conditions you may want to complement the coat with some waterproof boots, leggings or trousers, but outside of typhoon conditions and gale force winds they're not necessary.

Cleverhood TF Green Rain Cloak

The cloak comes in its own convenient drawstring carry bag, and folds down so compactly that I carry it on every single commute to work even when the chances of rain are zero.  Knowing I have a rain cape I can rely on has resulted in more riding days as I'll cycle to work knowing it will be raining on the return journey, but that the Cleverhood rain cloak will keep me dry.

If I could ask for an addition to the cloak there would only be one, an internal pull tab for opening the front waterproof zipper from inside, as currently the only way to open it is to pop your arms out of the slits and use the external pull tab. A small thing, and one which may have already been included on newer designs.

I don't often recommend products on Tokyo By Bike, but the Cleverhood Cloak comes with my 100% backing. This review comes after a full year of use of the Cleverhood cloak in heavy rains through Japan's notorious wet season, summer squalls, typhoons and snow, both cycling and walking.  This is an exceptionally high quality product which will serve you well for a long, long time.

The Cleverhood cloak can be purchased on line from the Cleverhood store. International shipping is available.

Try it, you'll love it.



Japan's Inner Tube Vending Machines

What a great idea! The town of Imabari in Shikoku, at the beginning of the Shimanmi Kaido Cycling Road has teamed up with DyDo Drinks and Panasonic to install vending machines that dispense bicycle inner tubes in addition to their normal fare of sweet sugary drinks, and brown water deceptively labeled as "Coffee".

The vending machines sell three types of inner tube including road bike tubes with Presta valves. The tubes sell from between 1330 and 1400 yen which is comparable to their in store price, so cyclists aren't being charged a premium for convenience.

Bicycle inner tube vending machine in Shikoku, Japan

These are the first such vending machines in Japan and have yet to spread beyond Shikoku.

In general the Japanese public don't change their tubes, relying on in shop mechanics to do it for them so it is doubtful these vending machines will become a common sight all around the nation. Having said that, these vending machines would be a welcome addition to other popular bicycle touring areas such as Hokkaido and Kyushuu, and near popular weekend cycling routes, the kinds of places that attract cyclists who are comfortable changing their own tubes.

The Shimanmi Kaido is an expressway linking the main islands of Honshu and Shikoku via series of bridges and islands covering a distance of 60km from Onomichi City, in Hiroshima prefecture, to Imabari City, in Ehime prefecture alongside which runs the 70km Shimanmi Kaido Cycling Road.

The Shimanmi Kaido Cycling Road is a popular tourist destination with thousands making the journey every year, some covering the entire distance in a single day, others taking a more relaxed pace stopping ad numerous sightseeing spots along the way and breaking up the trip with an overnight stay in a local ryokan. While people do opt to make the return trip by bicycle many choose to return by bus or ferry.

It is possible to rent bicycles at your starting point for as little as 500 yen per day and bicycles can be returned to any rental terminal along the course. Electric assist bicycles are available for 800 yen per day, but they're not available at all rental terminals and must be returned to the terminal from which they were borrowed.

These vending machines will be a welcome addition to Shimanmi Kaido Cycling Road, and we can only hope that they become more widespread around the country. The only addition we'd like to see is an air compressor on the vending machine which would allow cyclists to quickly inflate the repaired tyre and continue on their journey with a minimum of inconvenience.

Visit the Shimanmi Kaido Cycling Road homepage for more information.



Japanese Cycling Rules a Mystery for Japanese Cyclists (Infographic)

While Japan has always had a high number of cyclists the number has been growing even more rapidly as many people not only use the bicycle as a tool, but are also beginning to take up cycling for recreation and health reasons.  In addition to this after the transport disruption caused by the March 2011 earthquake many more Japanese have taken up commuting to work.

As a result increasing number of cyclists, and changing use of the bicycle in Japan, the number of accidents involving bicycles has increased, and it has become painfully obvious that the general public have very little awareness of Japan's cycling laws. 

This prompted Insweb Research to conduct a survey of 1443 people (1072 mane, 371 female) asking them questions about Japanese cycling laws. Upon completion of the survey they produce this most enlightening infographic.

Some interesting points from the survey include:

A huge 72% of those surveyed were unaware that it is illegal to operate a bicycle one handed and that it can result in a ¥50,000 fine or 3 months imprisonment.

44% of those surveyed had no knowledge that children are required by law to wear helmets when cycling.

49% were unaware of the requirement to use a headlight when cycling at night.

62% believed that stop signs do not apply to cyclists.

While the general public's lack of awareness of the rules in a problem, as I always state in this blog, the real problem is the rules are not being enforced, and until the police do their jobs and enforce the laws they will go largely ignored endangering the lives of millions of Japanese cyclists each day.

Additionally now the results of the survey are in, what is going to be done about the problem?

* This has been a rushed post, I'll translate the results of the survey more thoroughly as I find the time, so please remember to come back.



Another Case For Bicycle Commuting in Japan

From late yesterday to early this morning Typhoon 26 (Wipha) lashed the Kanto region of Japan, its fury peaking in Tokyo around 6am bringing heavy rain and strong winds. Japanese media have reported Wipha to be the most powerful typhoon to pass so close to Tokyo in 10 years. All schools in our area are closed for the day, but us hard working Japanese salary men are still required to go to work.

As a result of the continuing winds, and flooding in some areas, Tokyo's normally ruthlessly efficient rail system has been severely disrupted, with numerous lines closed completely. In anticipation of transport chaos companies expect employees to be late for work today, in the face of mother natures fury it can't be helped. Many employees, relying on yesterday's forecasts, chose to take this morning off work, others decided to take the entire day off today.

I'm a bicycle commuter, in a company that bans bicycle commuting, I'm unaffected by transport delays.

I chose to wake up this morning, look out the window, heed the weather reports and decide a course of action based on that information. My options being, take the morning off and go back to bed, take the train and possibly arrive at work late, requiring that I work late to make up the lost time, or cycle to work business as usual.

Based on the information on hand this morning I cycled to work in dry conditions, but with strong winds. I left home at my usual time, and arrived as I normally do, 20 minutes before the start of business. I encountered a lot of debris on the road, mostly leaves and small branches, and a countless number of broken umbrellas. I arrived to an almost empty office, although it is slowly filling as people file in late.

So as a disobedient employee who chooses to flaunt company rules to cycle to work, I end up being among the most productive employees in the company today. My entire team has taken the day off so I'll be shouldering their load today too, but I wouldn't even be here had I obeyed company policy and taken the train to work.

It is not unusual for Japanese companies to ban employees from cycling to work. Some claim their insurance does not cover bicycle commuters, or protest there is no bicycle parking nearby, or that they have no facilities for bicycle commuters. Others simply close the matter with "Its dangerous, therefore forbidden". None of their claims hold water in my case as I have private insurance that covers cycling to work and I've also arranged bicycle parking near the office. As for "facilities for bicycle commuters" what other facilities do we need?

My company hasn't confronted me about cycling to work, not yet. We have an unofficial "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but I am adamant that outside of business hours the company has no right to dictate employees behaviour.

I didn't hear any Japanese companies complain about eager to please employees cycling to work after the March 11, 2011 earthquake disrupted transport in Tokyo for weeks, in fact they must have been secretly overjoyed. Yet despite this once transport returned to normal so did the intolerance of cycling to work.

Companies stand to gain so much by allowing employees to cycle to work.  Bicycle commuters arrive at work in a much healthier mental and physical state, more alert and ready to get down to business than those that have been battered and beaten by a long train commute.

But what do Japanese companies care for the health of employees? Long work hours are not only common, they're expected, resulting in employees eating calorie packed meals late at night which leads to obesity. But even more astonishing is that in this day and age many companies conveniently provide employees with smoking lounges!

Smoking yourself to death on company time is acceptable, cycling to improve your health on your own time is systematically forbidden. Its illogical, some would say criminal.

Sadly big Japanese companies are opposed to change and altering their thinking on this issue is an act of futility. Unless Japan's employees stand up for their rights those rights will continue to be abused by Japanese companies, and haven't they been abused enough already?

Ride safe, stick it to the Man, and smoke 'em if you got 'em.



Experiment moves Tokyo's cyclists from the sidewalk to the road

In early 2013 Japan's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT) collaborated with the Metropolitan Police Department and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to initiate an experiment at two traffic intersections in Tokyo. The intersections involved were painted with arrows in blue to indicate to cyclists where to ride and cross. Not surprisingly results have shown that more bicycle riders follow the guide arrows rather than taking the sidewalks.

woman bicycle lane tokyo Japan
From February through July, between 7:00 AM and 9:00 AM, the Sengoku Icchome intersection in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward had an increase of cyclists taking the left side of the inbound car lane of Hakusan Dori Avenue. The increase was from 51% to 81%. As for those who use the sidewalks, the decrease was from 39% to 16%. In Minato Ward’s Fudanotsuji intersection, cyclists taking the lane for bicycles have increased from 26% to 53%, while those who keep using the sidewalks have gone from 33% to 19%.

With the improvement resulting from the use of guidance lines, Professor Tetsuo Yai, the project’s chairman from the Tokyo Institute of Technology, said, “Road usage increased at Sengoku thanks to the bicycle lane and other measures. We should spread this success to other areas.” There are also other lanes set for bicycles besides those at the intersections at Bunkyo and Minato wards.