Tokyo serious about number plating cyclists

Byron Kidd

In a move that would leave any cycling activist absolutely dumbstruck, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is seriously considering making it a requirement for all cyclists to display a large number plate on their bicycles.

Under the proposed law cyclists will be required to pay a fee to register their bicycles, and then will be bound by law to notify authorities when they change address, sell, or dispose of their bicycle as is the case with motor vehicles. Government officials say the plan hopes to achieve a number of goals including reducing the number of illegally abandoned bicycles, lowering rates of bicycle theft, and preventing cyclists from riding in a dangerous manner.

A common scene around shopping centres in Japan.
In 2009 approximately 740,000 of Tokyo's 9 million bicycles were removed for illegal parking and of those 310,000 were subsequently disposed of after their owners failed to retrieve them in the 6 month period stipulated by most municipalities. The cost of removing and storing illegally parked bicycles has been estimated at 13.5 billion yen and as deflation pushes bicycle prices down number of abandoned bicycles is rising.

Japan already has a nationwide bicycle registration system.  Once a Y500 registration fee is paid owners receive a sticker which they attach to their bicycle frame.  Registration is compulsory, yet there are no penalties for non compliance, and despite this over 90% of bicycles in Japan are registered.  Under the current system there is no requirement for bicycle owners to notify officials of change of address, or change of ownership, and this say police makes it difficult to keep track of bicycle owners.

The number of accidents involving bicycles has stood steady at 30% of all traffic accidents since 2001, but that rose to 36% in 2010. The number of accidents between bicycles and buses in the January-October period of 2011 rose 40% from the same period the previous year prompting the Tokyo Bus Association to urge the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to make bicycle number plates mandatory as identifying a cyclist who flees an accident is almost impossible. Police are expecting that cyclists will ride more safely if they are more easily identifiable.

As a cyclist I stand firmly against the proposed law for a number of reasons.  Firstly, any law that makes cycling more expensive will reduce cyclist numbers.  Currently there is no mention of how much it will cost to register an individual bicycle, nor is there any indication if children's bicycles will require registration. In most Japanese families every family member has their own bicycle including children. With consumption tax in Japan set to rise and electricity prices already increasing due to the March 11 nuclear disaster, family budgets will be further stretched to support the cost of re-registering already registered bicycles under the new system.

My current registration sticker.
In addition to cost, the requirement to notify city officials upon change of address, change of ownership or disposal of the bicycle adds an extra burden to bicycle owners.  Each change to the bicycle registration records will require the owner to make a trip to city hall which in many cases requires taking a half day off work to accomplish. Any law that puts an extra burden on cyclists or makes cycling inconvenient will also reduce cyclist numbers.

The argument that making cyclists easily identifiable will prompt them to ride more safely is easily dismissed. We've always been able to identify motorists via their number plates yet still witness countless examples of dangerous driving on a daily basis.

There is no indication of how much the system will cost to administer and police. Will the registration fee cover the cost of administration in addition to the cost of disposing of abandoned bicycles or will it need to be subsidised by the taxpayer meaning less funds for more essential services?  What about penalties for not registering, or failing to notify authorities of changes of address or ownership. In the event a number plate is stolen, how much will it cost to replace?

Lets not even get into the issue of where on the bicycle cyclists will be required to display the number plates.  Front? Back? Front and back? Below the saddle? What if I have a saddle bag? Tape it to my backside?

This misguided action by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government can only result in a decrease in the number of cyclists and I can't help thinking that that is the point.

Tokyo has few bicycle lanes which results in the majority of cyclists riding on the sidewalk and as cyclist numbers increase so have the number of accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists.  In January the Tokyo Metropolitan police force made the statement urging more cyclists to ride on the roads, rather than the sidewalks resulting in the number of accidents involving bicycles on the road increasing by 7% over the period till May.  So for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department reducing cyclist numbers, rather than providing safe cycling infrastructure, could be the solution to their problem.

Try as I might, I can find no avenue to appeal against the proposed laws.  Therefore I would like cyclists and cycling activists the around the world to help create an uproar online, in the hope that international attention may cause Tokyo to rethink its poorly planned cycling agenda.


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  1. "So for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department reducing cyclist numbers, rather than providing safe cycling infrastructure, could be the solution to their problem."

    Ping Pong!

  2. Yeah, James, that level of stupidity is only possible for a politician or senior-bureaucrat, so it must be true. I don't like either caste in any country, but on cycling I'd thought the Japanese ones had, if not more sense, less animosity to cyclists. If cycling and collisions go up in ratio, there is not a growing problem, per capita. And how is Tokyo improved by fewer cyclists, but more taking to motorized transport of already overburdened trains and buses?

  3. Of course, in a sane world, the government would be doing everthing they could to inconvenience the motorists in their 2 ton kid-krushing machines - but, alas, in the world we live in, Toyota, Nissan and Honda write the rules.

  4. Less cars= more bikes=more pede bike accidents. Lose lose situations

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