How Suburban Tokyo Promotes Cycling (without even trying)

Cycling enjoys a 14% modal share in Tokyo one of the worlds largest mega-cities. While other cities can boast higher figures the fact that, in one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world, 14% of all trips made in a day are made by bicycle is really something Tokyo should be proud of.

Despite this high figure, bicycle commuter numbers are low primarily due to the cities fast, clean and efficient public transport system which allows commuters to cross the city more conveniently than other transport options. In the west daily cycling is often closely linked to bicycle commuter numbers, but this is not the case in Tokyo where employees are actively encouraged not to cycle to work and where the average trip distance by bicycle is less than 2km.

How is it then that cycling thrives in a city where the majority of citizens commute by train? Where are the daily cyclists and how can they possibly make up 14% of trips in the city? In short, Tokyo's cyclists are concentrated in the suburbs where they make many utilitarian trips by bicycle every day and  rarely venture much further than a few kilometres from their homes. Rather than using their bicycles to cycle into the city, a route already well serviced by public transport, citizens of Tokyo cycle almost entirely within the confines of their local neighbourhood. To understand why, you have to understand the structure of a typical suburban Japanese neighbourhood.

Tokyo's neighbourhoods resemble small, self contained, villages from a bygone age. At the centre of the village is the train station which is the focus of all village activity. As the majority of residents are reliant on rail transport anyone entering or leaving the village must pass through the station making it the heart of the suburb. Over 20% of Tokyo's 20 million daily rail passengers cycle from their homes to the local station and the provision of bicycle parking close to the station to keep up with cyclist numbers is a major challenge for local councils. Due to a lack of car parking facilities at suburban train stations the remaining 80% of passengers walk to the station.

With such high numbers of cyclist and pedestrian traffic converging on the station daily, merchants keen to ply their trade establish their businesses in a ring around the station and on roads leading radially out from the station secure in the knowledge that the high level of foot traffic will will bring in lucrative business. Within this commercial ring exist all the necessities for daily life including bakeries, vegetable stores, a butcher, fish monger, doctors, dentists, banks, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons and supermarkets.

The area within a 250m radius of Sengawa Station in Western Tokyo contains a multitude of supermarkets, restaurants, clinics, convenience stores, banks, post offices and small businesses. 
Local businesses and cycling share a symbiotic relationship in the suburbs of Tokyo. Due to the fact that small local businesses abound, and that sidewalk bicycle parking is tolerated, cycling thrives. Conversely, because so many people are willing to cycle from business to business on their shopping trips (trip chaining) small businesses flourish. This is a fact that other cities around the world are now just to realise with recent studies showing a direct relationship between higher cyclist numbers and stronger sales for small businesses.

Residential zones within 1 kilometre of Sengawa station overlap with neighbouring zones giving residents the opportunity to cycle easily to neighbouring "village centres".
Forming a larger ring around the commercial district is the village residential area. Primarily homes an apartments, the residential areas are also dotted with convenience stores, medical clinics, schools and kindergartens not to mention playgrounds and parks. Given the high density of train stations residents often have the option of cycling to two or more village centres for their shopping. Distances that would be a chore by foot evaporate under the wheels of a bicycle.

The convenience of cycling in Tokyo becomes apparent when the 1 kilometre zone around each village is plotted on a map of the 23 wards. Each neighbourhood is serviced by convenient public transport which is used for trips of more than a few kilometres. But as distances from homes to the local station, or neighbouring station all of which contain a multitude of local businesses nothing beats the bicycle for trips of just a few kilometres.

In conclusion everything a villager of Tokyo could possibly need for day to day living is within a short walk, or even shorter ride from their home close to their local station, or the next one along the line, and this is how suburban Japan promotes cycling use without even trying. The speed of cycling over walking, the convenience of cycling over automobiles, and the availability of almost everything within cycling distance makes the bicycle the most obvious form of transport in the suburbs of Japan.


night pedal cruising

Night Pedal Cruising Christmas Ride Deluxe 2014 in Tokyo

Ho Ho Ho! festive cyclists! Its time to dust off your Santa outfit (or obtain one if you don't own one already, shame on you!) and decorate you bike with lights, tinsel, mistletoe and whatever else you can think of because the annual Night Pedal Cruising Christmas Ride Deluxe is taking plce in Tokyo on December 23rd and naughty or nice you're all invited to come along and join in the fun!

Jolly cyclists will gather on December 23rd at the Aoyama United Nations University Farmers Market from 17:00 and the ride scheduled to start at 17:30. The distance won't be that great, and cycling is at a low pace so you can drift up and down the pack and enjoy a leisurely chat. Its a social ride with emphasis firmly on "social". Cyclists if all creeds, and bicycle of all style most very welcome.

There is no obligation to get dressed up to attend the ride, but hey, its only Christmas once a year so why not?! Santa Clause costumes can be had at your local Daiso or other ¥100 shop for ¥400, but feel free to come as a reindeer, elf, snowman or whatever! Got an Easter Bunny costume instead? We don't care! Hell, in the summer we rode (almost) NUDE! Just get it on and join the fun!

Suggested Ride Items:

  • A costume. Santa Clause preferred but its up to you.
  • Lights, lots of lights, the more flashy and annoyingly Christmasy the better!
  • Decorated bike. Tinsel, mistletoe, Christmas decorations, lights, inflatable reindeer, anything goes. The more outrageous the better. 
  • A beverage or two, remember you have to ride home, but we ARE celebrating.
  • A sound system. This will not be a "Silent Night".
  • A means of making it snow, failing that, a means to blow bubbles!
  • Christmas cheer, and lots of it!

I will be attending and would like to invite all Tokyo By Bike readers to come along and join in the fun. I've not met nearly enough of you!

If you do plan to participate let me know, or shoot me a message on Twitter so I can look out for you. You may think it easy to spot a man in a Santa suit, but its not when EVERYONE is dressed as Santa!

Still not sure of you want to join? Check out this ride report from last years event. I hope to see you there.

What : Night Pedal Cruising Christmas Ride Deluxe 2014

When : December 23rd, 17:00 for a 17:30 start.

Where : Aoyama United Nations University Farmers Market

Details : Night Pedal Cruising Christmas Ride Deluxe Event Page


Inokashira Park Declares War on Bicycles (for a few weeks)

Tokyo's Inokashira Park has always been a popular cycling destination for families but it seems authorities are hell bent on putting an end to that.

Over the summer months my family and I would often cycle along the Kanda River to its source, the lake in the middle of Inokashira park. We'd park our bikes among hundreds of others in what appeared to be the designated bicycle parking area and enjoy an afternoon viewing the weekend market, watching the kids play in the playgrounds and even enjoy a boat ride on the lake itself.

Imagine my surprise in September when we cycled up to the parking area to find it roped off, devoid of bicycles and being watched over by 2 security guards. What the hell? One of the guards began walking towards us waving us away, but rather than politely walk away I confronted him. What the hell? Where are we supposed to park?

He unfolded a map that he had in his pocket indicating the location of paid bicycle parking lots, not one of which was in convenient distance from the park and a number of which were already full when we arrived.

I was fuming. For as long as I can remember people have always parked their bikes in that spot without authorities giving two hoots. Why now? What the hell? Where would we park on future visits? Would the inconvenience of not having bicycle parking force us to take the train to the park instead? Having a coffee while my daughters rode a swan boat I was getting angrier by the minute.

It was then I remembered something about Japan, this was a campaign, just like thousands of others held around the country each year, and that all campaigns come to an end. There is no way authorities would keep security guards on site for any longer than a couple of weeks and once the barriers and security guards disappeared the otherwise law aiding Japanese public would simply go back to parking in exactly the same spot and things would return to normal.

So imagine my smugness when we returned to Inokashira Park weeks later to find that bicycles were slowly returning to the park. Barriers are still up, and signs abound warning visitors not to park in the park grounds, and there are maps everywhere showing the location of inconvenient, over capacity and expensive parking lots, but these are being largely ignored and bicycles are returning.

Authorities must learn that the bicycle is an incredibly efficient and important form of transport for millions of people around Japan and accelerate the development of cycling infrastructure rather than impose insane parking bans without providing suitable alternatives.  Whenever they step in and make cycling more inconvenient, they're really inconveniencing everyone that cycles, and in Japan that is just about everyone.

Non cyclists may never understand, but I love the lawlessness that exists around cycling in Japan. More power to the pedal pushers!


Rainy Afternoon Cycling in Tokyo

So it rained in Tokyo last Saturday which gave me a chance to fit a new set of Tioga Factory FS100 tyres to my Giant STP. Of course when the job was done I couldn't resist the opportunity to try them out in the wet conditions.

While out and about I stopped by the Omiya Hachimangu Shrine in Suginami-ku where I had hoped to photograph some of the beautiful autumn colors, but given the nature of weather that was not to be. Instead I got a couple of great shots of my bike in the temple grounds.

The Giant STP is my play bike. In my younger years I spent a lot of time mountain biking in the mountains surrounding Tokyo, but now I have a family I can't justify spending all that time on myself. Luckily we live near a river that has parklands on each side, areas of which have been left rather wild that provide fun off road challenges so I can get out for short quick rides that don't take up the whole day.

In addition to this the urban landscape of Tokyo offers some pretty interesting challenges itself, especially the business districts if you tackle them at night when there is nobody around apart from skateboarders. This makes the Giant STP a great choice of bicycle for the city bound rider who still yearns for the hills.