December 16, 2014

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.

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