Japan's Stagnant Economy Strains Sidewalk Relations

I was recently speaking at a conference attended by Tokyo Metropolitan Government officials, and Tokyo Olympic Planning Committee members discussing cycling infrastructure options surrounding the Tokyo 2020 Olympics when the question about the legality of sidewalk cycling was opened to the floor. "Is it legal or not?", was the simple question posed and the range of blatantly incorrect answers was simply astounding.

Under the Japanese Road Traffic Act bicycles have always been considered light vehicles and are required to use the road and obey the laws of the road as would any other vehicle. But in the early 1970's as Japanese became more affluent and private car ownership boomed, so did collisions between motor vehicles and cyclists which prompted a change to the road traffic act allowing bicycles to use sidewalks which were specifically marked as being appropriate for shared use.

Of course as motor vehicle ownership increased even further so did the number of designated shared use sidewalks. The law was amended yet again to allow cycling on all sidewalks greater then 3 meters in width, and to allow cycling in the sidewalk in cases where the road is impassable, or considered too dangerous, and that is where it all came undone.

"Dangerous" is not defined, it is completely arbitrary. I cycle the roads of Tokyo every single day and consider the routes I choose to be perfectly safe. Perfectly safe for me that is, I don't want my wife and children being forced to ride those same roads because they're certainly not safe enough for them. I'm comfortable on roads that other people should not be forced to cycle because I'm a vehicular cyclist while the majority of cyclists in Japan are not.

Given Tokyo's lack cycling lanes and paths the majority of people cycling here (remember they're mothers, children, the elderly, businessmen, just getting around town, not bicycle commuters or "cycling enthusiasts") consider ALL roads to be unsafe which has resulted in the perception that is perfectly legal to cycle on ALL sidewalks.

This vagueness in the law has resulted in a situation where everyone rides on the sidewalks all of the time, and while that was never the intention, given the poor state of Japan's cycling infrastructure, that is how it has been interpreted by the people.

Until recently pedestrians and cyclists have existed in harmony in their limited shared space, but of late tensions have been rising between pedestrians and cyclists as they battle for precious space on Japan's narrow streets.

I believe that Japanese society is changing and that this change is altering the way people interact in all shared public spaces, not just sidewalks. Now I'm no sociologist or anthropologist, but I believe in Japan's post war years and rapid rise to become the worlds second largest economy there was overwhelming sense of harmony in Japanese society as the entire nation worked together to repair the damage from the war and largely grew prosperous together.

During the bubble years of the 1980's Japan was immensely proud of the fact that the entire citizenry was considered to be middle class and the gap between rich and poor was extremely low for a developed nation. But with the bursting of the bubble in the early 90's and the resulting decades of economic stagnation and deflation, the gap between rich and poor has grown and we're becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.  The perception that we're all in this together, working hard for a better future, is slowly eroding to the point where it has become every man and woman for themselves.

Maybe I'm taking a long shot, but as the income gap widens I believe people become less generous, put themselves and their families ahead of everyone else, and indeed become more selfish and this translates into being less generous and more selfish with public space.

As a result we are seeing more confrontation on the sidewalk between cyclists and pedestrians as both make a firm claim to "their" space. Both cyclists and pedestrians are less willing to give up "their" space for others, speeding and impatient cyclists, ring their bells angrily at pedestrians who resent having to give up "their" space to let another person past. As I said, it maybe a long shot, but I don't believe the sidewalks are any more crowed than they have been in the past, and that the increased danger and discontent on the nations sidewalks stems from a troubled economy.

Am I drawing too long a bow?

Whatever the cause of recent confrontation on Japan's sidewalks, the obvious solution is to stop treating cyclists as pedestrians, stop treating them as vehicles, and committing to providing infrastructure so they can travel safely in their own space.


Cycling Embassy of Japan Releases the Japan Cycling Handbook

Inspired by hard working groups such as the Dutch Cycling Embassy the Cycling Embassy of Denmark, and the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain the Cycling Embassy of Japan launched in Tokyo today.

The Embassy is dedicated to promoting cycling as a healthy, socially responsible, economically sustainable and environmentally friendly means of transportation, the support and betterment of which can only improve the design of our cities, the health of communities within them and the lifestyles of individuals within those.

Using an extensive local and international network the Embassy aims to import best practices in regards to cycling and cycling infrastructure to Japan, and to promote Japan's vibrant cycling culture to the world. In particular the embassy strives to dispel the myth that a city can grow too large to support cyclists, as Tokyo's 16.5% modal share clearly disproves.

Locally the Embassy is working hard to unite many small and diverse cycling groups around the nation encouraging them to work together and support each other so that their combined voices and opinions will be heard at a national level. The Embassy acts as a conduit linking individuals, advocacy organizations, businesses and government bodies for the betterment of cycling around the nation.

In order to better serve the cycling community the Cycling Embassy of Japan offers numerous services including guided urban design and architecture Tours, lectures, presentations, consulting and research. Professional designers and photographers at the embassy also provide photography, video and design services that cover all your media needs.

Upon launch the Embassy released the Japan Cycling Handbook, a concise booklet filled with tips and informative graphics regarding all aspects of cycling in Japanese cities covering topics such as parking, laws, security, sidewalk and road cycling. Unlike guides which simply parrot the laws the Japan Cycling Handbook describes cycling as it is practiced daily and demonstrates how to best fit in with local cycling customs. The guide has been released under the Creative Commons License and we openly encourage its redistribution in an unaltered format for noncommercial purposes.

In addition to this the Cycling Embassy of Japan will be hosting a twilight ride (The Firefly Ride) on August 22nd coinciding with Tokyo's annual Pedal Day festivities. We encourage participants to decorate their bicycles with lights and sound, with prizes being awarded for the best decorated bicycle and/or riders.

Finally, the Ambassador of The Cycling Embassy of Japan already has a number of speaking engagements around South East Asia in the coming months and looks forward to the possibly of presenting at Velocity Global 2016 in Taiwan.


City Bike Riding For the Whole Family

Tell kids they’re going on a walking tour of a city, and they may be interested for a while – until their legs give out and boredom sets in. Tell them they’re biking around a city, and they’ll be attentive and happy for hours. Renting bikes and taking city bike tours is the ultimate life hack of family traveling. It’s a great way to explore your own city with your family, too.

Finding Great Bike Tours

The easiest way to explore a city on a bike is through a bike tour. Tour guides who know the city will navigate, leaving you free to enjoy the experience with your family. Plus, bike tours provide the bikes, so you don’t need to worry about renting them. The best city bike tours combine biking fun with cultural and historical lessons. Look for a tour operator that caters to kids (you’ll see kid-sized rentals available and photos of kids on the website), offers multiple stops en route, and provides snacks. Aim for a tour that’s shorter than four hours long. My favorite bike tour operator is Bike and Roll, located in cities all over the United States.

Sizing a Bicycle for a Child

Bike Rentals for the Whole Family

If you opt to rent bikes on your own, do your research ahead of time to ensure bike rentals will be available for everyone in your family.

Size kids on bikes before leaving home: Check your kids’ bike sizes (often determined by the wheel size) before your trip. This way, you’ll be able to accurately communicate to bike rental companies what size you’ll need. Kids should be able to stand astride their bike and place both feet on the ground.

Call rental companies ahead of time: When you call to check bike inventory, let bike rental shop personnel know the exact size of the bikes you’ll need. Ask about bike trailers and infant bike seats for younger riders, but be sure they’re offering a model you’re comfortable with. Don’t forget to ask about helmet rentals, too.

Just because you can ride somewhere, doesn’t mean you should: After ensuring the rental company can accommodate all ages, ask about safe biking routes. Just because your preschooler can ride in a given city doesn’t mean there are safe routes for doing so. The good news: if there’s a bike rental company servicing an area, there are likely to be appropriate bike trails there. Ask for them!

Biking Rules of the Road

Staying Safe While City Biking

The good news is that cities are meant for cyclists! Many city-dwellers commute via bike, so large cities are usually well equipped with bike lanes and drivers are used to cyclists. But city riding can be daunting to visitors used to quieter streets. To stay safe, follow these tips:

  1. Look for bike paths whenever possible. Most cities have wonderful bike paths, located in the most scenic parts of the city. Use them, remembering to ride on the right-hand side in North America.
  2. Ride in designated bike lanes, but cycle in the flow of traffic. Never ride against traffic, or on sidewalks. Teach children that when they are on a bike, they follow the same rules of the road as cars.
  3. If possible, place parents on either side of child riders. Much of the time, cyclists will need to ride single file. Place kids in the middle, with one parent or other adult in the lead and another at the end.
  4. Educate yourself about any bike-free zones. It seems counterintuitive, but some city parks, such as parts of New York City’s Central Park, are closed to bikes. Know which areas are off-limits to cyclists ahead of time.
  5. Keep bikes safe while you’re away. Always carry a combination lock for bikes (usually available to rent) and lock them up when stopping to tour, sightsee, or eat a meal.

Hand Signals for Cyclists

Best Cities for Cycling

Some cities are simply better for bike touring than others. Our favorites in North America include:

Washington, DC: It’s largely flat, making for easy cycling, and has many monuments and sights that are spread out, making for a lot of walking. In three hours on bikes, though, families can tour the top monuments in and around the National Mall, a tour that would take all day on foot.

New York City: NYC’s Battery Park has a wonderful bike trail that takes riders from the piers all the way to views of the Statue of Liberty. Only a few sections must be navigated in traffic. Alternatively, kids love biking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Vancouver, BC: Vancouver’s Stanley Park is so popular for biking, multiple cycle shops line its boundaries, and are always busy. Families can ride all the way around the park in an afternoon, following the path that hugs beautiful Coal Harbor. Let kids stop to play at playgrounds and beaches.

Nantucket, MA: It may not be a big city, but it is a large island to cover via the few hiking trails, and it is also simply too pretty to tour by car. Nantucket’s bike path system takes families to cute towns (get ice cream or lunch!) and even to the beach.

Enjoy exploring new cities on wheels! Your family will cover more ground, have more fun, and get more exercise, while getting up close and personal with city sights.

Ideal Cities For Cycling