May 28, 2014

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.


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