Why is free bicycle parking at this Tokyo station going unused?

Byron Kidd

Recently our local railway station in suburban Tokyo increased the number of "3 hour free" parking spaces in a large, multi-story bicycle parking facility to reduce sidewalk congestion by encouraging shoppers to park their bicycles off the street. Interestingly the majority of these free parking spaces remain unused while the number of bicycles parked on the sidewalk have not decreased. Why is this the case?

The bicycle is the most common choice of transport when it comes to shopping in the suburbs of Tokyo where the local shotengai, or shopping street, with its vegetable store, butcher and bakery etc. hasn't been forced out of existence by large supermarket chains. Japanese mama-chari bicycles feature an relaxed upright cycling position and are equiped with large baskets, usually front and rear, making them perfect for suburban shopping trips.

Tokyo shoppers have become accustomed to cycling from store to store, plotting an efficient course with minimal backtracking, or one where frozen goods are purchased right before the ride home rather than at the beginning of the shopping trip.  As a result shoppers are used to parking directly outside the store they're visiting, in many cases they'll leave their comleted shopping in the bicycle basked outside while they quickly pop inside the bakery for a loaf of bread.

Compare this to cycling to a central parking facility then having to walk back and forth between stores, carrying your groceries, before having to return to to the parking lot before cycling home.  Obviously the former method of cycling from shop to shop is faster, more efficient and convenient than using a large parking complex. Suburban shoppers know this and will not switch to centralized bicycle parking if it means longer, more inconvenient shopping trips.

So while large bicycle parking facilities conveniently located close to train stations are essential for commuters who cycle to the station then take the train to work, they aren't a viable alternative to convenient street parking for shoppers.

I believe urban planners should have paid more attention to existing patterns of bicycle use and cater for those patterns. It seems obvious that increasing the number of free parking spaces will lead to a decrease in the number of bicycles parked on the sidewalk, but a deeper investigation of how shoppers use their bicycles reveals that no matter how many free parking spaces are available, if they're not conveniently located for shoppers they'll never be used.

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  1. I never thought about centralized bike parking vs multiple convenient lock up points, but you're absolutely right. This is how we do it. And, quite frankly, what we've come to expect as cyclists: free parking at the doorstep!

  2. If bicycles cluttering the sidewalk is such a problem, it would be far better/cheaper/convenient to transform a few nearby car street parking spots into bicycle parking "corrals" like they have been doing in some cities. You can probably fit at least 10 in one car spot. Surely shopkeepers, at least, could see how this would benefit their business.

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