Walking and Cycling to School in Japan

Byron Kidd

I read with dismay an article posted on twitter recently by Carlton Reid which reported that North Downs Primary School in Surrey, England are planning to ban walking and cycling to school over fears that roads around the school are unsafe.

Schoool girls cycling to school in Tokyo Japan
Cycling to School in Japan.
Interestingly in Tokyo the situation is reversed. Schools ban parents from dropping children off by car, knowing that roads around the school are too narrow and crowded with young children and that adding cars to the mix would be a disaster.  Ban may be too strong a word in this case as schools may not release an official statement banning the practice, but there is an unwritten social understanding between parents and the school.  In 5 years of walking my children to school I've only once seen a child arrive by car, and then she was dropped off in a side street more than 100m from the school gates.

As a result of this "understanding", all children at my daughters elementary school walk to school, there is no on site parking at the school, nor convenient parking in the area so even teachers commute by train and walk from the station to school.  Many elementary schools have defined walking routes to school. Children are required to take the most direct route from their home the defined route closest to their home.  This results in children walking in groups for safety.  Along each route intersections and train crossings are manned by elderly crossing guards who know all students by sight, and most by name.

Each morning volunteers from the Parent Teacher Association are assigned to "patrol" the routes to school keeping a loose eye on children, but more importantly looking out or suspicious adults and potentially dangerous situations. Its not unusual to see the school principal out on his bicycle patrolling the neighbourhood around his school even in the dead of winter.  The local shopping street in our school zone is closed to traffic for 2 hours in the mornings and afternoons around the times children are walking to and from school.

Unfortunately most elementary schools in Japan do ban cycling to school, citing safety concerns, although this hasn't always been the case. My daughter's school, until recently, had spacious covered bicycle parking which must have been used by luckier students in the past.

First year elementary school children in Japan are already capable cyclists, and while they're banned from cycling to school, after school they will cycle themselves, often unattended, to soccer practice, piano lessons or to the park to play with friends etc.

When it comes time for bicycle safety training at Elementary schools a rather odd situation occurs. Children are required to bring their bicycles to school for the training sessions, but are banned from riding them, so are forced to push their bicycles to school.  At the end of the day when they've supposed to have absorbed the bicycle safety information, rather than applying it on their ride home they are once again forced to push their bicycles home.  Do the bicycle education instructors have no faith in their own ability to teach?

But thankfully cycling to school in Japan isn't banned forever.  Schools above elementary school level each implement their own cycling to school policy.  Some schools still ban the practice, others are accepting, although very few are actively encouraging students to cycle to school.

Oddly when one matures cycling bans may come into play again.  Most Japanese companies pay their employees a commuting allowance to cover the expense of travelling to work, primarily by train.  Companies also insure their employees for the duration of their commute and in order to secure cheaper insurance rates these policies don't cover cyclists.  In such a situation the company will ban their employees from cycling to work.  Like the unspoken ban on driving children to school, in many companies the cycling ban isn't official, its just assumed to be in place. In most cases a careful bicycle commuter can hide their lifestyle choice, but if they're involved in an accident on their commute they're usually shut down pretty quickly by management and find themselves commuting by train with everyone else.

Anyway back to the situation in England. The article states that the local council will pay for taxis to take children to school.  Isn't that an unnecessary expense? Isn't that encouraging children to lead lethargic lifestyles? Despite objections from parents, North Downs Primary School head teacher plans to go ahead with the walking and cycling ban saying there was "no alternative".

"No alternative?", what kind of defeatist attitude is that? How about making the streets around the school safe for walking and cycling once more? Hows that for an alternative right there?

If these are the people charged with educating our children. Really, what kind of education are they receiving?

On a side note: I have to attend an event at my daughters school tomorrow. Parents have been asked to walk, not cycle to the school. Nobody has to be asked not to drive, its assumed nobody would be foolish enough to do so.

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  1. Wow, really cool and really crazy all at the same time. I love the unspoken ban on driving kids to school, but the ban on kids cycling, even with their parents is just as crazy as the English paying for taxis.

  2. If you have lived in Japan that long I would have thought you would know by now that there are massive cultural differences that permeate all aspects of life, not just the journey to school. In urban Japan train, bus, walking and cycling are the dominant ways of getting around and social conformity & respect for others are the dominant norm. The nail that stands out..... etc. Which is very different to the liberal individualism of the West. To pretend that those cultural traits where thay apply to getting to school could be transposed onto the UK is wishful thinking.

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