May 20, 2013


Imagine cycling into work in central Tokyo in light traffic on a pleasantly warm spring morning. You approach a red traffic light at an intersection you pass through every day.  You slow to a crawl, standing to balance your bicycle as you check left and right, but as experience has taught you from the countless times you've cycled this route, the way is clear.

You crank down on the pedals and cruise safely through the intersection, against the light, on your way. Instantly three blasts from a police whistle drill into your skull. Damn, where did he come from? Then you remember its the 10th, the one day each month that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department has chosen to crack down on lawbreaking cyclists. You thought they'd given up that game ages ago.

Despite the intersection being clear, you know you're in the wrong, you're busted and now its time to face the music.

You've heard the police announce countless times over the past months that they will be targeting law breaking cyclists, handing out hefty fines to repeat offenders. You dismissed it offhand as previous announcements from the police had amounted to nothing. You pull to the side of the road, checking your watch estimating how long it will take the officer to take down your details and calculating how late you'll be arriving to work.

The policeman walks up to your bicycle, initially he is a little surprised by your foreign features, but soon regains his stern composure. He explains in comically oversimplified Japanese and with hand waving gestures that bicycles should observe traffic signals and that you'd ignored the light. Before you have a chance to plead innocence, ignorance or fake not understanding Japanese, the policeman hands you a packet of tissues and gestures for you to leave.

You're free to go and you've won a prize!

Later, when in need of a tissue you notice a bicycle safety leaflet inside and it all falls into place.  Once again, rather than enforcing cycling laws Tokyo's police continue to let everyone off with a warning and a reminder of the same cycling laws that they never enforce. As always you were never in any danger of being fined or worse.

"There are no traffic laws in Japan, just suggestions", you think as you clean your glasses with a complementary tissue, remembering to pocket the bicycle safety leaflet so you can blog about it later.

By "you" in this article I actually mean me.

May 14, 2013

The Rikisaya Tank is a bicycle from Japan designed for post disaster situations.

In the evening of March 11, 2011 after the tragic earthquake and tsunami struck northern Japan in many bicycle stores in Tokyo sold out in a matter of hours as desperate commuters attempted to make their way home after train and subway lines around the city were bought to a halt.  In the days after the disaster many residents of Tokyo chose the bicycle as an alternative to the intermittent train schedules.  In the following weeks and months bicycle commuters in the city were at an all time high.

Closer to the disaster area bicycles were being used to move people and supplies, generate electricity and even to purify water.  A small troupe of doctors in the disaster zone chose the bicycle as their main means of transport as bikes allowed them to access areas difficult to access by car.

Even in Tokyo, weeks after the disaster many people without running water and were forced to walk to their local water distribution point every few days and carry heavy tanks of water back to their home.  For this task many chose to balance water tanks on the back of their bicycles.

The Rikisaya Tank is one attempt to create a bicycle primarily for use in post disaster situations.  The bicycle has been designed with a large carrying capacity, in particular the ability to carry a tank of kerosene or water, a low centre of gravity, long wheelbase and stable kickstand.  Accessories including panniers and rack extensions can be used to increase the bikes carrying capacity even further.  The bicycles dynamo powered light can also be used to charge a mobile phone or portable radio.  The wide, thick rubber tyres provide an advantage when riding over uneven terrain.

Some have remarked the the non standard parts would see the Rikisaya Tank abandoned for a more conventional bicycle in a post disaster situation, others believe it has very little to offer over a conventional cargo bicycle.  I believe the bike is far from perfect, but also know a lot of people who would have welcomed such a bicycle in the days and weeks after the terrible events of March 11, 2011.

Hopefully we will see even better designed and built post disaster and utility bicycles at affordable prices in the future.

More photos of the Rikisaya Tank and its many functions can be found on the Cycle Spot blog.

May 12, 2013

In a positive move for pedestrians and cyclists, Shibuya-ku has announced plans to make the area around Shibuya Station more pedestrian and bicycle friendly by widening 1.1km of sidewalks from their current 3.5 meters to 5.5 meters.  Urban designers plan to reduce the roadway to 1 lane and reclaim space used by on street parking and sidewalk planters.

In addition to widening the sidewalk plans are being made to provide bicycle lanes through one of the busiest pedestrians intersections in the country which will provide designers with quite a challenge.
Area of proposed sidewalk widening and bicycle lanes in Shibuya

Serviced by numerous train and subway lines Shibuya is essentially a pedestrian dominated space, and  plans to reduce traffic in the area increasing the mobility of pedestrians make a lot of sense. Shibuya Center Gai which is legally open to traffic rarely sees vehicles during the day due to the sheer number of pedestrians.

Construction of the new pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is expected to be carried out in the late hours of the night and early hours of the morning to reduce the impact on shoppers and local businesses and is expected to be complete in 2015.

While I welcome the idea of a Shibuya that is more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, I hope they don't reduce the greenery too far.  Currently the sidewalks they propose widening are lined with some quite large trees which provide shade in the summer months. It would be a shame to see them go.

May 08, 2013

I don't get out much, out of Tokyo that is, and that has blinkered my perspective of cycling in Japan. Sometimes its hard to remember that Tokyo is not representative of Japan as a whole.

On a recent family trip to Kanazawa I was astounded by the fact that Kanazawa city has embraced cycling with its highly accessible Machi-nori bicycle share system, and its commitment to developing new bicycle infrastructure.

The Machi-nori bike share scheme was established in 2012 with 155 bicycles and 18 parking stations scattered around the city.  Bicycles can be hired for just Y200 per day. The schemes administrators provide convenient maps (in Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese) which not only show the location of docking stations, but also routes to Kanazawa's numerous tourist attractions.
Machinori bicycles in Kanazawa City
Machi-nori bicycles in Kanazawa City

Where space permits, the sidewalks around Kanazawa Station are wide with areas marked for pedestrians and cyclists alike. As the majority of Japanese bicycle users are sidewalk cyclists many find this style of bicycle lane much more comfortable than bicycle lanes on the road.  Where the sidewalks are too narrow for bicycle infrastructure, bicycle lanes have been established on the roads, and even where the roads narrow to the point where separate bicycle lanes are no longer feasible there are still road markings encouraging cyclists to keep to the left and reminding drivers that bicycles do have a place on the road. Most of the routes to tourist sites on the Machi-nori map are accessible via roads with bicycle lanes or keep left markings.
Spacious bicycle lanes and pedestrian facilities in Kanazawa City
Spacious bicycle lanes and pedestrian facilities.

Beneath central Kanazawa City is a complex series of passages and arcades which provide warm routes around the city for pedestrians in Kanazawa's extreme winter months. While cycling in these passages is prohibited, underpasses provide a convenient way for pedestrians and cyclists to cross busy streets without needlessly interrupting the traffic flow.  To give cyclists easy access to the underpasses and underground arcades planners have provided ramps on the stairs. Some elevators also accept passengers with bicycles.
Easy access to underground bicycle parking in Kanazawa City
Easy access to underground bicycle parking.

Directly beneath Kanazawa Station and scattered through out the vast network of underground passages are numerous bicycle parking lots, so many in fact that it is rare to see a tangle of illegally parked bicycles on Kanazawa's main streets.
Ample underground bicycle parking at Kanazawa Station
Ample bicycle parking.

When it comes to bicycle usage Kanazawa city just gets it. Local government is providing residents with world class bicycle infrastructure and more importantly is boosting the local tourist industry by enabling tourists to easily access more tourist sites by bicycle in a day than they could manage on foot or by using public transportation, effectively driving more tourist dollars into the economy.

By investing in cycling Kanazawa is investing in the future of its growing tourist industry.
Cycling routes to tourist sites well marked around Kanazawa
Cycling routes to tourist sites well marked.

Kanazawa pleasantly surprised me, as there seem to be no such coordinated efforts to provide comprehensive cycling infrastructure in Tokyo.  I encourage anyone visiting Kanazawa City to rent a Machi-nori bicycle and take in the beautiful sights of this historic city. Also when visiting any new city I encourage you to seek out a bicycle share program, because cities all over the world are better by bike.
Even locals are using Machinori bicycles for shopping runs in Kanazawa
Even locals are using Machi-nori bicycles for shopping runs.

May 01, 2013

Organisers of Japan's most well known cycling sport, Keirin track racing, have been fighting a battle to lift the image of the sport on their home soil for decades.

Despite the popularity of Olympic Keirin racing amongst cycling fans world wide, at home Keirin cycling is heavily associated with gambling and the average spectator is perceived as a 50 something, chain smoking, half drunk male with a gambling problem. Keirin Japan have been trying, unsuccessfully, to change this perception of the sport with a series of television commercials and advertising campaigns.


In their most recent attempt Keirin promoters have abandoned all creativity and fallen back to the sex sells advertising method which features professional women's cyclist Tanaka Maimi in high heels and a short red skirt straddling a Bridgestone Anchor track bicycle.  The catch phrase of the poster can be roughly translated as "Its not the face, its the thighs". Classy Keirin, classy.

Sadly no matter what style of advertising Keirin Japan comes up with it will not attract new fans to the sport because very little is being done at the tracks to improve the spectator experience.  Lured to the track by television commercials featuring a carnival like atmosphere including brightly lit grandstands packed with young fans (clutching betting tickets, fail) loudly cheering on the riders while enjoying delicious looking food and drinks, potential fans arrive at the track to be greeted by groups of depressed looking, 50 something, chain smoking, half drunk, males with gambling problems drinking One Cup Ozeki while huddled around monitors which don't display the races, just the race results while the grandstands sit cold, dark end empty.

Given the recent, but now waning, popularity of single speed bicycles among young Japanese hipsters you'd think that Keirin would have seized the opportunity to attract them to the track, but organisers single minded focus on gambling rather than the actual sport saw that opportunity pass by.

I remember visiting the track with my family as a child.  There really was a carnival like atmosphere with food and drink vendors calling loudly competing for trade, with performances and other events between races to keep the crowds warmed up.  The stands were always packed with men, women and children cheering on their favourite racers as they knew them all by name, not just as numbers or colours on a betting sheet.

I have fond memories of the track, and was heartbroken when I first visited the depressing atmosphere of a Japanese Keirin event.  Lets hope organisers look past simply improving the image of the sport and actually concentrate on improving the experience.

But on a positive note the latest advertising campaign is sure to expand their market from 50 something, chain smoking, half drunk, males with gambling problems, to 50 something, chain smoking, half drunk, male perverts with gambling problems.

What a leap. Go Keirin Japan!

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