October 27, 2013

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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