October 17, 2014

Common Complaints about Japanese Cyclists Refuted

If you're looking to push a persons buttons here in Japan just ask their opinion of cyclists. More than politics or religion, when it comes to the issue of cyclists almost everyone has an extreme negative opinion and can not be persuaded from their views.

And why wouldn't you have a negative opinion of cyclists? When they're on the sidewalks they're cycling too fast, on the roads they're too slow, everywhere they ride they're swerving unpredictably, ringing their bells and frightening the children.

Admittedly the customs and manners of some cyclists leave a lot to be desired, yes some do speed, some are dangerous on the roads, some claim the sidewalk as their own exclusive domain but lets not judge the group by the bad actions of a few. After all we rarely notice the law abiding cyclists around us, it is only the dangerous, impolite and reckless ones that stick in our mind leading to the impression that all cyclists are dangerous.

How many "good" motorists do you pass every day? Do you remember them? No, you only remember the bad ones, but you'd never conclude that all motorists are dangerous. Why not? Because chances are you're a motorist and you're one of the "good" ones right? Therefore not all motorists are dangerous. If you don't cycle and you witness dangerous acts by cyclists around you (yet subconsciously ignore the vast number of safe cyclists) then its easy to conclude that all cyclists are dangerous.

Statistically speaking 85% of Japan's population of 127 million own a bicycle, every day 16% of all trips in Tokyo are made by bicycle. However you cut it that's a lot of bicycles moving a lot of people around the city every single day. If everyone of those cyclists were as dangerous as the anti-cyclists claim then you'd have to question how anyone in Japan lived long enough for the population to reach 127 million!

Here are some common complaints made against cyclists in Japan

Cyclists should get off the sidewalks.


Under the Japanese Road Traffic Act bicycles are classed as a light vehicle and thus are required to travel on the road. This act was amended in the 1970's after a sharp rise in bicycle accidents, which coincidentally coincided with a sharp rise in private car ownership, to allow bicycles to travel on specially marked sidewalks. This amendment effectively forced bicycles off the road to make space for automobiles as Japanese society became more affluent.

Under the current version of the Road Traffic Act cyclists are allowed to cycle on specifically marked shared use sidewalks, sidewalks over 3 meters in width, and when they deem road conditions to be unsafe for cycling. Children under 13 and those older than 70 can cycle on all sidewalks.

Given the lack of cycling infrastructure on Japanese roads, and no definition of what are regarded as "dangerous road conditions" the vast majority of Japanese cyclists and choose to cycle on the sidewalks as they believe the roads are too dangerous for them.

The Japanese constabulary know that Japanese cyclists aren't ready for the roads, and Japanese roads aren't ready for Japanese cyclists so let the practise of sidewalk cycling persist lest they face carnage on the streets.


Cyclists should wear helmets.


There is no legal requirement for cyclists in Japan to wear helmets. Children under 13 are encouraged to do so, and manufacturers of bicycles designed to carry small children in child seats do include a children's helmet at the time of purchase, but there is no legal requirement for anyone to wear a helmet.

An why should there be? Only 2 countries in the world, Australia and New Zealand, have mandatory helmet laws and you only have to look at the low cyclists numbers in those countries to determine what a detrimental effect those laws had on cycling.

Cycling to the supermarket, or to pick children up from school is not, and should not be, an extreme and dangerous activity requiring the use of specially designed safety equipment, helmets, or pads. Governments forcing people to wear helmets are reinforcing the idea that cycling is dangerous. What governments should be forcing instead is the creation of cycling infrastructure capable of supporting Japan's millions of currently under catered for cyclists.

Helmets don't keep cyclists safe, well designed cycling infrastructure does.


Cycling with children is dangerous, those parents are irresponsible.


Statistics are clearly against this argument. Millions of children are transported around their town or neighbourhood by bicycles every day yet the number of deaths and injuries resulting from this practise remain low.

When police tried to implement a ban on carrying two children per bicycle parents refused to comply citing inconvenience as a major factor. Proving that when you make cycling inconvenient you make life inconvenient for those that rely on bicycles as transport.

Not surprisingly I most often here this argument from people who don't have children or have never enjoyed cycling with their child. Sure it takes some getting used to the extra weight and affected handling, but nothing is more fun than cycling down the street with your child in front of you, feeling the breeze in your hair an singing together loudly at the top of your voice.



If I can ride on the streets of Japan so can everyone else.


This is an argument I hear a lot from bicycle commuters, recreational and "sports" cyclists in Japan, and is one I used myself in the past when I was young, fit and arrogant. I cycle on the road, I consider Japanese roads to be some of the safest I've cycled on around the world, but I am not representative of the average Japanese cyclist, I'm a bike commuter, a cycling enthusiast, therefore most unlike the average Japanese cyclist.

What commuters, recreational and sports cyclists fail to realise is that they represent a tiny fraction of the total number of cyclists in Japan.  Not all cyclists have their confidence on the roads, most are mothers, the elderly, businessmen, and children who simply want to get from point A to B without exposing themselves to unnecessary danger.

You may feel safe cycling on Japanese roads, but would your wife, mother, grandfather or child? Consider that.


When a cyclist and car collide its always the cyclist fault even if he was being an ass.


Its called Strict Liability Law and in short it attributes financial responsibility for the accident (not criminal responsibility) to the driver of the motor vehicle in the event of a crash with a more vulnerable road user. Thus when a cyclist is hurt in an accident they are compensated by the driver of the heavier, faster and more dangerous vehicle.

It can be argued that this instills bad behaviour in cyclists but the same law applies to them in the event of an accident with a pedestrian, the more vulnerable party. In such a case the cyclists is financially liable for the property damage and medical costs of the pedestrian, yet we don't hear anyone claiming limited liability promotes dangerous walking.


Cyclists should be licensed, it'll make them safer.


Yeah, like that worked for automobiles. Statistics from around the world show that over two thirds of accidents between bicycles and cars are due to negligence on the part of the driver. Explain to me again how licensing cyclists will make them safer?


Japanese cyclists are still dangerous.


Japanese cyclists aren't dangerous, Japanese roads are dangerous as they're not designed with cyclists in mind. Make a safe place for cyclists to ride separated from both pedestrians and traffic and you'll see a drastic reduction in accidents involving bicycles. It works work in The Netherlands and Denmark and will work in Japan too but only if the government takes measures to prioritise people over automobiles when designing infrastructure. Until then, you'd better get used to cyclists on the sidewalk.


When it comes to complaints about cyclists in Japan I often find the ones complaining don't cycle and hence conclude that they can not identify with cyclists. They walk, they drive so they can identify with those activities and as they consider themselves are good drivers and attentive pedestrians they believe the majority of others are as well. When they see a motorist make a mistake they know that "sometimes happens" and "can't be avoided". But when they can't identify with cyclists they see only the bad behaviour.

I believe that if the roads in Japan were built with cyclists in rather than solely for motor vehicles you'd see complaints about cyclists decrease dramatically. Until the infrastructure is improved spare a thought for cyclists, the refugees of the transport world and recognise that the bad behaviour of a few is far outweighed by the good behaviour of the vast majority.

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