The Success of Everyday Cycling in Japan Defies Logic

Amsterdam does cycling infrastructure right, and we'd be fools not to learn from that experience. Denmark is no slouch in the cycling stakes either, so I've heard, you'd be crazy not to pick up some ideas from there. But as Velo-city 2014 gets underway in Adelaide this week I'd like to take the opportunity to remind everyone not to overlook Japan, a nation of 100 million cyclists and home to Tokyo the most bicycle dense mega-city in the world in which 16% of all trips made in a day are made by bicycle, and one whose cycling policy is completely illogical.

When you refer to cyclists in Japan you're referring to everyone as everyone rides a bicycle regardless of age, sex or income bracket. How can a country as densely populated as Japan, home to the worlds biggest auto makers, and most efficient public transport networks, possibly main such a healthy culture of everyday cyclists?

Sidewalk cycling. Even the police do it!
Japan's lack of cycling infrastructure is astonishing, Tokyo itself has just over 10km of cycling lanes despite the fact that 85% of its 13 million residents own a bicycle. As a result the majority of cyclists choose to cycle on the sidewalks (where they exist) a practise banned in cities around the world. The sidewalks that aren't teeming with cyclists darting around pedestrians are clogged with illegally parked bicycles. Due to lax education and enforcement of cycling laws by the authorities the Japanese have developed their own set of unwritten, culturally accepted, cycling rules many of which don't agree with those laid down by the law. On the surface it appears to be complete anarchy, an utterly hostile environment for cycling, yet everyone rides a bike without concern for their safety, everyone.

When investigating what makes cycling work in Japan there are a number of factors at play including the cost and inconvenience of owning a motor vehicle, the compact self sufficient suburbs where everything required for daily life is a short walk or ride away, and clean efficient public transport which renders private car ownership obsolete for the vast majority of city dwellers.

Cycling with an umbrella. Against the law, generally accepted practice
by Japanese cyclists.

But above all, the one factor that makes cycling work in Japan is the attitude of the Japanese people. Polite to a tee and possessing an almost psychotic desire to avoid confrontation Japanese pedestrians, cyclists and motorists respect each others right to the road and share the space with minimal fuss.

In late 2013 Scotland's road safety campaign labelled the "Nice Way Code" encouraged motorists and cyclists to simply "get along" and share the road. It was publicly lambasted by cycling safety experts and the campaign came to an early end as it seems good manners are too much to expect on Scottish roads. Surprisingly, it is an unwritten, unspoken, culturally accepted "Nice Way Code" that maintains order on what would otherwise be dangerously chaotic Japanese roads and sidewalks.

Japanese parents overturned a ban on cycling with two children.
While an extensive network of safe separated cycling infrastructure, one that will provide cyclists with the safety they deserve, is a major goal for any cycling friendly city to achieve it is worth noting that Japan supports tens of millions of everyday cyclists with third world cycling infrastructure, based on an unwritten set of rules that closely resemble a failed road safety campaign from Scotland.

What a disaster!

Cycling in Japan should not work, but it does, because the Japanese people have taken ownership of cycling and turned it into something that works for them as it has been neglected by the Japanese government for too long.

Japanese people cycle according to a set of culturally accepted rules they've honed themselves over time that sometimes run counter to the law. When new cycling laws are introduced that make cycling, and thus the lives of the Japanese people, more inconvenient the laws are largely ignored. Japanese cycle where they feel safe regardless of the law. Because Japanese officials don't understand cycling, and its importance in the daily lives of the Japanese people, because they don't provide the facilities and infrastructure to support their enormous population of cyclists, cyclists largely ignore officialdom and just get on with it.

Lack of cycling infrastructure in Japan sees sidewalks used for
walking, cycling and bicycle parking.
Almost everything about Japan's thriving cycling culture flies in the face of logic and therefore I encourage everyone attending Velo-city 2014 in Adelaide to learn from the expert speakers in attendance, but to also look beyond conventional wisdom and be open to the idea that there are many ways to reach the ultimate goal of becoming a thriving bicycle friendly city.

Cities are unique, their citizens and culture all different and what works to promote cycling in one city may fail in another. Therefore I believe it is important to gather ideas from cities all around the world, learning from those with experience and success, but also picking up new, sometimes disruptive ideas from emerging cycling cities, and those that do it just a little differently.



The Gi Bike. The Future of Urban Transport.

If you've ever tried taking a bicycle on the train or subway in Japan you know what a hassle it can be.

If your bicycle doesn't fold then you're required to remove both wheels, strap them to the frame, then wrangle the whole contraption into a bicycle bag. Done well its time consuming, done poorly its also dirty and there is a possibility you'll damage your bicycle, in particular the rear derailleur.

Recently I was introduced to the Gi Bike, a full sized futuristic looking bicycle that folds in just seconds and this, despite of all the other wonderful features, is why I'm intrigued by the Gi Bike project on Kickstarter. Sure it doesn't fold down to the size of an umbrella like the Sada Bike, but it is certainly more than compact enough for rail travel here in Japan and that alone makes it incredibly convenient in a city like Tokyo.

Imagine riding to the station in your business suit, folding and bagging your bike for the commute then unbagging and unfolding and completing your journey by bike. With a regular bicycle that is next to impossible but with the Gi Bike it becomes reality. If your your commute is just too long by bicycle, take the Gi Bike partway by train before alighting at a convenient location and cycling remainder of the way. Imagine getting caught in the rain while cycling to work, simply head to the nearest station, fold and jump on a train. Even with the rain delay you won't be late.

Manufactured from aluminium the standard model weighs just 12kg while the electric assist version is 17kg. The Gi Bike features inbuilt lights (which can activate automatically in low light conditions), an electric assist option which will run up to 65km per charge, and a carbon belt drive which means you'll save on dry cleaning bills as it's oil and grease free.

Using an smartphone application owners can control their lights and locking directly from their smartphone, and the bicycle will lock automatically when the owner moves just 10 feet away. The bicycle can be configured to recognise more than one owner allowing easy bike sharing among friends and family members.  An inbuilt USB port allows you to recharge your phone from the bicycle's battery.

But best of all, it folds easily in seconds, and doing so doesn't get the rider all dirty.

As someone who has been trying to reduce the gadgetry on their bike I thought I could do without all the bells and whistles the Gi Bike offers, but the convenience of automatic lights and locking is really tempting. Regardless of the technological ingenuity it really is the quick folding operation and the carbon belt drive that I find most appealing about this bicycle and I'm sure they're features that any urban commuter would appreciate.

If you'd like more information about the Gi Bike visit their Gi Bike homepage or if you'd like to get involved you can back the Gi Bike project on Kickstarter.



Fukuoka Targets Illegally Parked Bicycles

Japan, a country where 85% of the 127 million population own a bicycle, has a national shortage of bicycle parking resulting in the growing problem of illegal bicycle parking.

Under the current system city workers tag illegally parked bicycles giving the owners notice that their bikes will be impounded if not relocated to a legal parking location within a specified time period. Once the period of notice expired workers return and remove only the bicycles that have been tagged.

This system effectively clears the area of bicycles that can reasonably be assumed to have been abandoned by their owners, but does nothing to curb illegal parking as officials can only remove tagged bicycles and most bicycle owners simply remove the tags and continue to park in the same spot illegally.

Illegally parked bicycles being removed.
Officials in Fukuoka announced last week that they've changed the rules to allow illegally parked bicycles to be removed immediately, without warning, from streets around Akasaka subway station.

According to a study conducted last October officials claim 1,241 bicycles are perked around the station daily of which 658 are parked illegally, in some cases blocking sidewalks and obstructing braille pathways used by the visually impaired. The station bicycle parking facility has space for 1,060 where cyclists can park for just ¥100 per time but 40% of the spaces go unused.

On the surface given ample parking spaces, and plans to increase those by another 290 in June, officials see justified in what some would consider hard stance against bicycle parking but this is about more than numbers, its about people.

Area within which illegally parked bicycles
can be removed without notice.
People in Japan rely upon the bicycle as one of their major forms of daily transport, any move that makes cycling inconvenient makes life inconvenient for millions around the country.

Large centralised parking facilities are inconvenient. Given the nature of the average Japanese neighbourhood shoppers tend to cycle from shop to shop, parking outside for a few minutes each time as they go about their business. Forcing people to park in a central location greatly restricts their mobility, restricts the number of shops they can conveniently visit to those in the immediate area, and turns what would normally be a short trip to the shops into an inconvenient and time consuming journey.

Spare a thought for the elderly in Japan's rapidly ageing society for many of whom the bicycle is their main form of transport and their only link to the community, without which they'd be unable to go about their daily lives.

Parking is expensive. Sure ¥100 isn't a lot if you're parking your bicycle at the station for the day while you work but if you're just popping out for a ¥100 loaf of bread, add parking and the cost of your trip has doubled! Make two or three trips in a day and you're substantially out of pocket.

What Japanese neighbourhoods need isn't expensive centralised parking, but many, small free parking lots and racks scattered around the neighbourhood allowing them to cycle from shop to shop as they currently do. If officials continue to insist cyclists use centralised facilities, I can see business that provide free bicycle parking gaining many, many more customers.

As we see all too often city officials are too out of touch with society to provide the facilities that society needs. As far as officials are concerned there is a large underutilised parking facility with ample space to hold all the illegally parked bicycles so cyclists should park there under the threat of having their illegally parked bicycles removed. The numbers stack up, end of story.

But society isn't made up of numbers, its made up of people and I'm amazed that the people who make these decisions are so out of touch with the needs of society.



10 Tips for Cycling in Tokyo

If you've recently arrived in Tokyo and are about to venture out on the road on your bicycle, here is a list of quick tips to get you up to speed and cycling safely.

  1. When cycling on the road always cycle on the left, don't argue just do it.
  2. Obey the rules of the road as if you were driving a vehicle.
  3. Don't run red lights but expect cars to rush through the intersection on orange and fresh red lights, especially taxis.
  4. Don't get doored. Ride a safe distance from parked cars taking the lane if necessary. Beware of delivery vehicles whose drivers tend to exit their vehicles in a hurry without looking. 
  5. Beware of taxi's as they tend to pull into and out of traffic giving little or no warning. Also look out for automatically opening taxi doors.
  6. Wet manhole covers and freshly painted road markings are slippery, as are rail lines.
  7. Don't jump from the road to the sidewalk and back without looking. Choose where you're comfortable riding and stick with that choice. If you choose to ride on the sidewalks ride slowly and respect pedestrians.
  8. If parking your bicycle on the sidewalk do not let it block pedestrians.
  9. Register your bicycle, its compulsory but there are no penalties for not doing so. Being registered will help you avoid awkward situations with the police and it helps you prove ownership if your bicycle is stolen or impounded.
  10. Lock your bicycle no matter its worth. Japanese bicycle thieves are opportunistic and go for easy, unlocked, targets.

Despite widespread ignorance and poor enforcement of cycling laws in Japan cycling here just works. It works largely due to a set of unspoken yet socially observed rules, many of which don't reflect the law, but which have been crafted by society over the years.

The best way to learn how to cycle in Tokyo is to observe the cyclists around you, you'll soon learn what is socially acceptable. But I advise you pass your own common sense filter over your observations because there are many practices in which Japanese cyclists engage that they deem acceptable, but will challenge your own view on personal safety.


night pedal cruising

Night Pedal Cruising, The Tokyo Ride

This months Night Pedal Cruising ride takes in some of the more popular sightseeing spots of Tokyo and is one not to miss.

Riders will gather at the Aoyama United Nations University Farmers Market at 5:30pm on Saturday May 17, and will set off at 6:00pm. A little longer than the usual Night Pedal Cruising rides the route will pass through  Aoyama Ichome and Akasakamitsuke before swinging by the Imperial Palace  to Tokyo Station where riders can enjoy a short break and great night time photo opportunities.  Frm there the ride will continue through Akihabara to Ueno Park and Ueno Station before ending up in front of Kaminari-mon in Asakusa.

If you're new to Tokyo or just visiting this is a great way to take in the sights of the city, at night, from the vantage point of your bicycle which allows you to really experience the city, not just observe it from behind the window of a car or bus.

The pace is slow, the distance not too great, and the company is excellent.

I always like to dress up or decorate my bike in a way that fits the theme of the ride so I believe on this rile I'll be wearing a chonmage wig and jinbei. Don't be shy!

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.

Full details about the ride can be found here.


Electric Bicycle by Toyota

On a visit to Odaiba Hawaiian Festival 2014 over Golden Week I took my daughters into the Toyota's Mega Web facility to try out the driving simulators. My eldest has told me when she grows up she doesn't want or even need a car, but my youngest is car crazy!

After they'd finished driving we took a walk around the rest of the facility. My eye was drawn to a three wheeled single passenger electric vehicle tucked away in a corner of the showroom. As cycling campaigners we constantly complain at the space vehicles take on our roads, but my imagination was captivated by the image of a city where the only vehicles were ones such as this so I wandered over for a closer look.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed an electric bicycle hidden behind that vehicle. Here in the "Experimental Vehicles" area was a bicycle. Now I'm pretty sure the bicycle was perfected a long long time ago and even electric bicycles are nothing new. Is Toyota really that far behind the times?

Sadly the bicycle had no information or explanation it was just there. The only defining features I could note were that the battery, which had charge indicator lights, was incorporated into the top tube and could be removed with a key. Tucked under the rear seat was a compartment which when opened revealed a cord which could be plugged into a (non standard) socket to charge the bike without removing the battery.

Instead of a chain it had a belt drive, and internal hub brakes. There was some kind of display attached to the handlebars which most likely had GPS functionality and the ability total you just how good you were being to the environment in your local area by importing your electricity from a dirty coal fired power station hundreds of miles away!

Cynicism aside I was impressed by this bicycle as automakers tend to try and redefine rather than refine the bicycle and this one wasn't a monster. I was a little sad though that the bike was tucked away at the back of the showroom and wasn't out front on display as the the vehicle of the future which it most clearly is.




Velo-city Global 2014 will be held in Adelaide in May

Velo-city Global, to be held in Adelaide from 27 – 30 May 2014, is the world’s leading international urban cycling planning conference. The four day event will host a program of over 170 presenters, social activities, cycling tours; offering delegates from around the world a chance to share the best practices for creating and sustaining cycling-friendly cities, where bicycles are valued as part of daily transport and recreation.

Running alongside to Velo-city Global 2014 is Velo-Fringe festival. Just like the famous Adelaide Fringe, but just about bikes. It will see the city filled with events and activities that are related to bikes and cycling; from bike tours, design competitions, bike rave’s and much much more. Running from 16 - 31 May 2014, it will be a celebration of what's great about cycling in Adelaide.

For tickets and further information please visit or