Tokyo Bicycle Commuters - Cut that out!

Byron Kidd

My company recently moved to a new office building, so for me this means a new bicycle commute.  My new route takes me directly from the western suburbs of Tokyo straight into Shinjuku, avoiding the main east/west arteries of Route 20 and 246 which Tokyo cyclists will tell you are hell during rush hour. They'll also inform you that rush hour on those stretches began one sunny September morning in 1968 and is yet to subside.

My route to Shinjuku includes Honan Dori, which I've discovered is quite popular among bicycle commuters despite the fact that it has more traffic lights than many pacific countries, many of which seem to be permanently stuck on red.

As one who is quite opinionated about Tokyo cyclists and bicycle commuters I have been watching their behaviour closely in order to amass enough content for a blog post, namely this blog post. Here are some of the behaviours I've observed.

Cycling in the gutter - cut that out!

I see many commuters on my new route cycling as far left as they can go without striking their pedal on the curb. Some swerve to avoid drains, which is dangerously unpredictable for the motorists around them, others power over the drains which has its own dangers. The National Police Association are encouraging cyclists to use the road rather than the sidewalks, so Tokyo commuters show some pride, drag yourselves out of the gutter and take your entitled portion of the lane before I'm forced to slap some sense into you.

Jumping unpredictably from road to sidewalk to road to sidewalk to roa ... cut that out!

I'm a big fan of Japan's lax enforcement of cycling rules.  Despite what the law says cyclists are pretty much free to ride the roads and sidewalks as they see fit.  This is wonderful if there is a traffic jam or road works ahead blocking progress on the road, simply hop on the sidewalk, cycle around the obstruction, and return to the road once its clear. Perfect!

According to Uncle Ben (not Uncle Ben Kenobi, the other Uncle Ben) "with great power comes great responsibility". Cyclists have a responsibility for their own safety and for the safety of those around them.  When jumping onto the sidewalk few are looking behind for approaching pedestrians or sidewalk cyclists, and I swear few are even looking forward.  Of greater danger to themselves is that once they've finished their sidewalk jaunt they jump back onto the road without even a glace over their shoulder at traffic into which they're merging.

Cyclists also have the responsibility not to overuse their super transport powers. Constantly jumping on and off the sidewalk whenever it suits you is not acceptable. I witnessed one cyclist pumping away in the gutter and each time he reached a parked car instead of going around it he would hop onto the sidewalk (without looking for pedestrians) underpass the parked car then jump back out onto the road (again without looking). He did this for every single parked vehicle over the short stretch I was watching him.

If this convenient power is abused the police will crack down and we'll lose the freedom of being able to cycle where we like, then I'll slap you.

Salmoning - need I say it? Cut that out!

This doesn't occur so much amongst the long distance commuters, but shorter distance commuters and less experienced road cyclists seem to think that cycling against the flow of traffic is a safer alternative. Basically the only advantage to salmoning is you'll get a good fix on the numberplate of the car that is most certainly going to kill you.

I decided to play chicken with a salmon (huh?) a few nights ago maintaining my rightful place on the left side of the lane while she cycled directly towards me on her right, eventually I had to chicken out as she was also checking her mobile phone and had her headphones in meaning she was oblivious to our game, and oblivious to the danger around her. I was too shaken to slap anybody, but someone deserved a slap, maybe me for knowingly attempting something so foolish.

Its hard to believe that these people survived to adulthood given their lack of common sense and self preservation. While the National Police Association are encouraging cyclists off the sidewalks and onto the roads, which provide little in the way of cycling infrastructure, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government still suggests cyclists stay on the sidewalks. I believe the Tokyo Metropolitan Government do in fact realise that their citizens are not ready to ride the roads and that forcing them to would result in a nightmare, which is what I believe too.

Note to self: Never play chicken with a salmon, they're oblivious to the rules.

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  1. Hate the salmon! I won't play chicken, but will come to a stop rather than have them make me swerve out farther into the road and perhaps get hit.

    Great site!

  2. Was nearly hit by a cyclist jumping off the sidewalk to road this morning. This happens way too often - why don`t they at least look before attempting such a move - are they conditioned to think of the danger of cars first and foremost, so the possibility of cutting off another cyclist doesn`t occur to them?

  3. All that and more is true, and is something encountered everyday. It is even worse on places like the "bike path" along the Tamagawa. I fear other cyclists as much or more than I do taxis, buses, and other commercial vehicles. I have a friend---Japanese---who is (was, he gave up on cycling in Tokyo) who has also lived and cycling in Germany and the US. According to him, Japanese tend to think of bicycles as a form of walking, not as a type of vehicle. I believe he is pretty much correct. Watch how people walk and then note nearly the same actions while cycling.

  4. Interesting salmoning does not seem to be a problem in Beijing where a large percentage of riders do this. I think it is at a level of chaos where everyone expects the unexpected all the time so things work well.

    1. It's quite possible that in Bejing because a large percentage of the population salmon it has become expected and accepted, much like bicycles on the sidewalks in Tokyo.

      In Tokyo a reasonably small percentage of cyclists salmon, its not a problem, but rather an annoyance for other cyclists observing the law and keeping to the left as the salmoning cyclist will stick to the curb and force law abiding cyclists to swing wide into traffic.

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