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.
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.
July 26, 2015
Japan's Stagnant Economy Strains Sidewalk Relations
Father of two, husband of one, lover of family, bicycles and running.
Urban Cycling Consultant, Tokyo By Bike.
Byron Kidd is the founder of the Tokyo By Bike website, writer, experienced urban cyclist, and expert on cycling in the staggering metropolis of Tokyo.
Working with NPO's and cycling activists to improve cycling infrastructure in Japan, Byron also operates internationally via a vast network of renowned urban mobility experts to promote Japanese cycling culture, and demonstrate how everyday cycling can work in megacities around the world. No city is too big for the bicycle.
Day Job, Software Developer.
Writing code and stuff, for games and things.