Danish Transport Minister: Japan's cycling infrastructure lacking

During a recent visit to Tokyo the Danish Transport Minister Pia Olsen Dyhr commented that Japan could learn as much about cycling infrastructure from Denmark, as Denmark could learn about rail transport from the Japanese.

bicycle lane tokyo japan
Its true, and it got me thinking. The Danish TRANSPORT Minister is overseas proudly touting their expertise in bicycle infrastructure design in much the same manner that Japanese transport ministers go about promoting multi billion dollar Bullet Train technology. The Danish TRANSPORT minister is concerned with bicycles as TRANSPORT, so much so that she places the same importance on cycling as she does on rail transport. From a Japanese political perspective that is unfathomable.

The Japanese Transport Ministry is still to realise the benefits of bicycles as transport despite millions of bicycles being used for transport daily in Japan, and despite the fact that in Tokyo cycling has 16% modal share. Bicycles in Japan ARE transport, they always have been, and the government needs to understand and cater for that.

Cycling for transport in Japan has been driven by the people out of need, a need that rich Japanese politicians, from rich political families, DO NOT understand. How can you understand the need to cycle to the supermarket when your employees have traditionally done your shopping for you? How can you understand the need to cycle to work when your primary mode of transport is a chauffeur driven automobile?

Remember that many politicians in Japan come from powerful political families, some that have ruled over us commoners for over 300 years such as Tokyo Governor candidate, and former Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa who seems to want to use the post of Tokyo Governor to meddle in national politics rather than focus on the needs of his electorate. These people are as far removed from everyday life as you can imagine. For politicians in Japan cycling for transport really is unimaginable.

The Government demonstrated its lack of vision late last year when it proposed the creation of a Ministry of Bicycle Promotion, headed by weekend recreational cyclist and Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki, whose father was once Minister for Education (another political dynasty). Initially it seemed like a great idea to get cycling on the national agenda, but after remarks from the Danish Transport Minister one wonders why cycling isn't governed and promoted by the Transport Ministry. Surely two Ministries governing our roads is inefficient and counterproductive.

So while the government, in response to being awarded the 2020 Olympic Games, has made token moves to put cycling on the agenda the creation of a separate ministry aside from the Transport Ministry demonstrates that the Japanese Government still DOES NOT consider bicycles an important part of Japan's Transportation mix, which they quite clearly are.

If you want to change that, please do sign this petition which will be presented to the Governor of Tokyo demanding better cycling infrastructure in the lead up to the 2020 Olympic Games. As cycling activists here in Japan, we are just beginning to gain momentum, help us apply pressure to the government and to have our voices heard.

I believe it is important for as many of us non Japanese to sign the petition as possible to show Tokyo that the world is closely watching the preparations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. As has often been the case in Japan in the past, it could be pressure from outside Japan that forces change within. Please sign the petition to lend us your support.

English instructions on how to sign the petition can be found here.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.



Help Improve Cycling Infrastructure in Tokyo, Sign This Petition!

Moves are afoot by cycling activists in Tokyo to apply pressure to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to improve cycling facilities and infrastructure in the city in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics which will be hosted in Tokyo.

You can support the effort by signing the NPO backed petition at which asks candidates running in the Tokyo gubernatorial election to take action to improve Tokyo's cycling infrastructure by launching a number of initiatives including:

1) Increasing the number and quality of Tokyo's bicycle paths. The total length of bike paths in New York is 1500km, London has 900km and in Paris there are 600km of cycling lanes yet in Tokyo there was a mere 8.7km of bike lanes a the end of 2011 despite huge numbers of cyclists. This needs to be addressed.

Kilometers of bicycle lanes in various cities.
Tokyo! You're doing it wrong!
2) Improving bicycle parking conditions by creating a distributed network of parking facilities in convenient locations around the city including close to major train stations.

3) Establishing a bicycle sharing system in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics which will assist in reducing traffic congestion around the city and in particular around the Olympic village and facilities.

Cycling in Tokyo already enjoys a 16% modal share despite inadequate cycling facilities, but the majority of those trips by bicycle are made on sidewalks endangering cyclists and pedestrians alike. Improved infrastructure will create a safer environment for both cyclists and pedestrians and cyclist numbers will soar even higher promoting Tokyo to one of the greatest cycling cities in the world.

Over 1000 concerned cyclists signed the petition in the first two days after opening and that number is steadily growing. Anyone with an interest in improving Tokyo's cycling infrastructure is eligible to sign the petition including residents and non residents alike. Therefore I would like to ask you to take the time to sign this worthwhile petition so we can start to get cycling in Tokyo discussed at a much higher level than it is being considered today.

Even if you're not in Japan, please add your signature to the petition to show your support for cycle friendly cities around the world, and a cycle friendly Tokyo for 2020!

You can sign the petition here :

How to sign the petition.

Simply enter your name, email address and select if you are registered to vote in the Tokyo gubernatorial election. Even if you're not eligible to vote in Tokyo, signing the petition is still very important s Tokyo needs to know thy face international as well as domestic pressure to improve the state of cycling in the city before the 2020 Olympic Games.

You can also follow @cycle_tokyo on twitter.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.



Snowy Ride at Mt. Hinode

I haven't always been a married with two children, bearded, bicycle commuter. There for a time I was a single, bearded, mountain bike racer. As you know young men with adrenaline addictions can be a little blasé when it comes to their personal safety, which is how we came to be mountain biking down Mt. Hinode in the dead of winter.

After taking the Chuo line out to Musashi Itsukaichi station in the foothills of the mountains west of Tokyo, we rapidly assembled out bicycles before jumping in the saddle and cycling directly to the nearest 7-ll for coffee, nikuman and burritos, the food groups that powered many a winter ride in and around Tokyo. Fully fuelled we began our climb by road, first heading back east, passing under the train line, before turning north to follow a fast flowing river up the slopes of Mt Hinode.

Its quite flat in the beginning giving our legs a chance to warm up, but by the time we reached the Tsuru Tsuru Onsen hot spring we were peeling off the layers. Sure the day was cold, but the it was also bright and there was no breeze. It felt good to be riding up a mountain in the winter still feeling warm wearing only short sleeves.

Three of four turns from the highest point on the road we hit our first ice, and I rapidly hit the ground. Being Australian, ice isn't my thing. The ice soon turned into hard packed snow with grooves of ice forged by the passing of vehicles. For me at this point it was smarter to get off and walk, but the snow offered little challenge for my cold climate colleague.

On the last turn from the top I spotted what appeared to be a burst water pipe. With icicles jutting out at all angles glittering in the sun it looked like an explosion had been literally frozen in time. It was beautiful. I took a picture with my state of the art 1990's era digital camera. I'd share it here, but its the size of a postage stamp.

We regrouped under a high tension power pylon which marked the point where we left the road to continue into the forest. From here there was no climbing, just a narrow trail hugging the side of the mountain with a frighteningly steep drop on the left hand side. I walked this often when it wasn't covered in snow, there was no way I'd ride it today. But, again, that didn't stop my friend from the far north.

One moment my friend was ahead of me, the next he wasn't. My initial thought was there was no way he could have ridden out of my sight in such a short time on such a narrow trail. Then I heard his call on my left. In the second I took my eyes off him he had tipped off the trail, and slid just a meter down the slope before managing to grab a tree with one hand and his bicycle with the other. He swung his bicycle up towards me and I used that to help pull him up the slope.

At the end of that nasty little goat trail is an intersection, right to the summit, left to make the descent. I don't remember why we chose left but the climb was worth it as the view from the peak was spectacular on this bright winters day and we had it all to ourselves as not even the hikers were up for a walk to the peak of Hinode that day. Panning our view from North to South we could take in Saitama, Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama, an endless expanse of cities all meshed into one. Being such a clear day we could easily make out clusters of buildings identifying Ikebukuro, Shinjuku in Tokyo, and Landmark Tower in Yokohama. In the foreground we could see aircraft landing at the Fussa Airbase.

Stay still too long and you get cold. So we began our descent into hell ...

Sorry, I was being dramatic.

The trail was muddy, sometimes icy, often slushy, rocky in places, in others crossed by gnarled roots. There are sections of the hiking trail where I still had to get off and walk, but today with fresh, soft, welcoming snow banked up on each side of the trail a fall meant leaning just a little to either side only to become devoured by a huge pile of snow.

That day I rode like a madman without fear of falling or injury. I fell many times. Doof! was the sound we made wiping out on corners launching ourselves without care into the soft snow. On that ride I went over the handle bars for the first time I could remember since my childhood only to land in a soft snowdrift. Despite, or shall I say because of, the snowy conditions that had to be one my fastest, and hands down the most enjoyable, descents of Mt. Hinode.

But the best was yet to come. It involves a climb, back towards the peak, over road we covered in the morning. Back up the hill to Tsuru Tsuru Onsen to warm our bodies and soothe our muscles in the exquisitely hot, hot springs. If we hadn't been regulars I fear we would have been turned away as covered in mud and dirt as we were, but we washed off before soaking for ages in a hot bath overlooking the mountain that had given us so much enjoyment that day.

In reality we weren't prepared for the snow and ice. I didn't tell anyone where we were going, my parents were half a world away, and other than more cycling buddies I had nobody else in my life at the time to tell. We had little food, no means to stay warm and only the clothes on our backs as we'd left a clean change of clothing in a locker at the station to be picked up on our way to the onsen. Looking back we were more than a little foolish.

It was an incredibly fun day, I remember it with fondness, but also with a little fear as it could have quite easily turned out differently.

Given the chance to do it again, I don't think I would, but I'm glad I did it the first time. I guess that's what it means to be young.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.



Winter Bike Commuting in Tokyo

One of the great things about living in Tokyo is that you can cycle to work all year round, even through the dead of winter.

Overnight temperatures in Tokyo rarely fall below 0 degrees Celsius, and daytime temperatures usually manage to creep up to at least 6 or 7 degrees. In an average winter Tokyo gets no more than a mere two or three snowfalls which means there is little excuse not to ride to work. In comparison with the recent Polar Vortex which has frozen large parts of the United States its practical tropical in Tokyo during the winter.

I commute daily in my work clothes and have cycled past winters in the following kit:

Upper Body:
Natural layer of body fat
Woolen Turtle Neck Sweater
Windstopper Jacket

Lower Body:

Thinsulate Gloves

Whatever socks don't have holes in them
Dr. Martens Boots

Giro Helmet

That's it, essentially its just what happens to be in my wardrobe at the time. In fact I'd have dress warmer to survive a walk to the train station, by switching the helmet for a wool hat and replacing the windstopper jacket with a down jacket, as my body could not generate enough heat to keep warm just by walking.

I'm rather flexible when it comes to riding in the rain, but I avoid cycling to work when there is snow and ice on the ground. Sure people cycle in the snow for months on end in colder parts of the world, but I grew up in Australia where it never snows and as such I have little experience cycling on icy roads. Given the infrequency of snowfalls in Tokyo I've little opportunity to learn to ride on snow. So on those rare snowy I actually prefer walking to the station, because to anyone who grew up in Australia snow fascinating.

Fair weather riders like me aside, intrepid Tokyo cyclists will kit up and cycle icy and snow covered roads and sidewalks the few times a year it does actually snow in Tokyo because they know the convenience of the bicycle can't be outweighed by the inconvenience of a little snow on the ground.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.


night pedal cruising

Night Pedal Cruising Hatsumōde Ride 2014

Hatsumōde is the first visit to a Shinto Shrine in the New Year and as such the destination for the first Night Pedal Cruising Ride for 2014 will be the Toyokawa Inari Shrine in Akasaka to pray for safe roads, family security, business prosperity and good health.

Unlike last months Christmas Ride Deluxe there is no dress code for this ride, although I'll have a freshly shaved head like a Shinto Priest which you can rub for good luck and fortune in 2014 ... come on! Its tradition!

Anyone else who turns up to this midwinter ride with a shaved head will earn my eternal respect!

The ride will take place on Saturday January 18, 2014, starting at the Aoyama United Nations University Farmers Market with registration beginning at 17:30 and the ride getting underway at 18:00. The exact route has yet to be announced but the destination is Toyokawa Inari Shrine in Akasaka which is very close by. If you're unsure of how to navigate your way home there is usually a group who will cycle with you back to the starting point of the ride.

As always it is recommended that you ride with both front and rear lights, bring your camera and if possible a radio or other sound system.

The Night Pedal Cruising Rides are short, and at a very slow pace so remember to dress for winter temperatures. While Night Pedal Cruising pace won't be enough to keep you warm you're sure to make some warm friendships at the event.

Full details about the ride can be found here.

I look forward to seeing you there and riding with you in 2014.



Why Cargo Bikes Face a Tough Market in Japan

Recently cargo bikes such as the Yuba Mundo, the Xtracycle, and Surly Big Dummy have been receiving a lot of press particularly in the US where they're billed as being the perfect family bicycle and as a replacement for the family car. Love it or hate it cargo bikes have been labelled the SUV of the cycling world. When it comes to carting about kids and groceries cargo bikes make perfect sense in cities around the United States, but in Japan I believe they will struggle to capture a market for a number of reasons, some being cultural and others being practical.

Japan is less car centric.

In cities such as Tokyo where public transport is king and private car ownership is low the population have already adapted to using the bicycle for daily transport, shopping and ferrying around one, two or sometimes even three children at a time. Japanese neighbourhoods are compact and self contained meaning all the necessities for daily life are a short cycle away. As a result the majority of people do not need a SUV replacement as they've never owned a car, and already have a perfectly good bicycle that is up to the task.

Given the low level of private car ownership there exist many cheap and sometimes even free alternatives to getting large items home delivered. Most stores will deliver items for free, the local courier services are cheap and will pick up and drop off packages at your door, and online retailers such as Amazon and Nittori all provide free delivery.

As a result of a lower dependence on automobiles and cheap delivery services I believe that most Japanese citizens may not grasp the need for a bicycle capable of transporting a refrigerator when the refrigerator can be easily and cheaply delivered.

Japan already has a family station wagon.

Japanese families have been reliant on the domestically designed mamachari bicycle for decades for transporting children, groceries and goods. Over that time the the design of the mamachari has been adapted to suit the needs of Japanese families with today's models sporting longer wheelbases, smaller wheels, a lower centre of gravity, child seats with seat belts and baskets that can be quickly converted into child seats for smaller passengers. They also feature wide stable kickstands, dynamo lights, mudguards, step through frames and convenient frame mounted locks, all small features but ones that make the mamachari exceptionally convenient. Not having to mess about with cable locks or attaching lights while struggling to control a toddler and loading groceries is a huge design feature.

Given the overall satisfaction with existing bicycle design and the expectation of certain standard features, I believe it will take considerable marketing effort to make Japanese citizens consider an alternative.

Japan's alternatives are cheaper, much cheaper.

A mamachari bicycle with a basket and child seat, capable of transporting two children or one child and a pile of groceries can be purchased in Japan for less than one third of the price of a cargo bike. That means enough money left over to buy your children bicycles once they're old enough to ride by themselves.

An electric assist mamachari, which gives a welcome boost to your pedalling power, handy when you're pedalling about kids and their luggage, can still be purchased for half the price of a cargo bike, although the "deluxe" models are comparable in price.

When it comes to carrying children and luggage electric assist bicycles have been booming in Japan as Japanese families consider them safer to wobbling about on an overladen, under powered bicycle. Increases in the popularity of electric assist bikes has increased competition in the market and as a result prices have dropped drastically. I believe cargo bikes are perceived as overpriced and they will have a hard time competing against cheaper electric assist mamachari.

The Mamachari has just enough carrying capacity.

Surely a single front basket isn't enough carrying capacity compared to cargo bikes, right? Wrong, and here's why; Japanese homes have traditionally been quite small, many lacking a pantry, large refrigerators and freezers which means that families in Japan make more trips to the supermarket than their overseas counterparts. Due to the lack of space to store food in the average Japanese home, and the close proximity of supermarkets to residences, many families visit the supermarket almost daily purchasing only what they need for the next day or two. One upside to this being food is always fresh and rarely frozen.

Given this lifestyle, the basket of a mamachari provides just enough space to carry the average families grocery haul as they buy less groceries, but buy them more often.

Carrying cargo on the mamachari is convenient.

A standard cargo bike has a large rear rack, but that is not sufficient to transport even a single bag of groceries. How do you secure it on that flat surface that has no walls? Of course the solution is to strap bags (usually expensive optional extras) to the rack for carrying shopping.

Not everyone in Japan enjoys the convenience of a garage, and bicycles are often left parked in the elements. This means at the end of a shopping trip the bags must be removed from the rack and taken inside lest they fill with rainwater, or turn mouldy in Japan's humid summers. Having to constantly attach and remove bags, along with (possibly) having to attach and remove lights, and fiddle with wire locks, makes using a cargo bike much more inconvenient that  a mamachari.

With the mamachari's basket, dynamo lights and frame locks going to the supermarket is as easy as putting the key in the lock and getting underway.

I commute on a mountain bike with a rack and choose to use a side mounted basket because attaching and removing panniers is an inconvenience I can do without.

While the cargo bike has unprecedented cargo carrying space, in it's off the shelf configuration it is essentially useless for daily usage in Japan without the addition of optional extras, themselves inconvenient compared to the mamachari alternative.

Cargo bikes, well they're big.

Even newer model mamachari with their longer wheelbases are not a great deal different in size than a standard bicycle making them easy to park.

Cargo bikes, on the other hand, may be more difficult to park in Japan's tight spaces. On the sidewalk their tails will obstruct pedestrians, in crowded unstructured parking areas their size will cause hassles and they will be difficult to manoeuvre, and a cargo bike may simply not fit in some of Japans more creative or high tech parking solutions.

You'd think that in a country that transports so many children by bicycle every day would have warmed to the concept of the child trailer, but its sheer size, making it inappropriate for narrow Japanese roads, sidewalks, and cramped parking conditions and the aforementioned problem of outdoor parking means it never took off in Japan. While a cargo bike is not nearly as large or inconvenient as a bicycle trailer, it must be remembered that bicycle facilities in Japan have been designed with bikes of certain dimensions in mind and being outside those dimensions may cause inconvenience.

Similar to the difficulties large foreigners have finding clothing in Japan, or the fact that they're constantly banging their heads on low door frames, an over sized bicycle will experience similar inconveniences around Japan.

Carrying adult passengers is illegal in Japan.

One of the great attractions of the cargo bike is romantic bicycle dates during which you ferry your partner, and picnic supplies, around on the back of your bicycle. Unfortunately "futari-nori", or carrying an adult passenger on a bicycle is illegal in Japan (Luckily picnics are not) and thus one of the more attractive features of the cargo bike is lost.

I love cargo bikes.

Don't get me wrong, I love cargo bikes. I would love to own one, I would have loved to own one when my daughters were younger so I could have carried them, their lunch, and all the sports equipment we own to the park for a picnic and afternoon of games. Even now they're growing up I still see an advantage in being able to carry EVERYTHING when we go out. I would carry insanely large loads on the back of my cargo bike, but I'm not representative of the majority of the Japanese cycling public who want nothing more than a bicycle that is capable of cheaply, safely and conveniently transporting themselves, their children and luggage around the local neighbourhood.

While I love cargo bikes I believe the Japanese public are entirely satisfied with both the price and practicality of the bicycles currently on offer and see very little need for a bicycle with the kind of carrying capacity cargo bikes provide.

Of course there will always be an enthusiast market, but I can't imagine cargo bikes earning a larger market share in Japan unless they borrow some ideas from the millions of mamachari bicycles currently in use in Japan today.

This article features photography by James Szypula of Yokohama Rides and Rentals. James is the proud owner of a Yuba Mundo and has provided some insights into cargo bike ownership in Japan which I will publish in a future article.

For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.