Bicycle Commuting in Tokyo? Are You Insane?

Byron Kidd
At first thought the idea of bicycle commuting in Tokyo is insane. Its a huge concrete metropolis, home to tens of millions of people, an untold number of motor vehicles and during rush hour they're all intent on just one thing, getting to work. The thought of cycling to work through that mess may strike you as insane, but in reality Tokyo is a great city in which to bicycle commute and the benefits make it all worthwhile.

a bicycle commuter in tokyo

Why would you want to bike commute in Tokyo, home of the worlds cleanest and most efficient public transport systems, anyway?

Trains are crowded

Lets face it, riding rush hour trains in Tokyo can be torture. Just when you think the train is packed to capacity it stops at a station and attendants push in even more people. At times you can feel the air being squeezed out of your lungs by the combined weight of humanity pushing you bodily against an overweight salaryman who evidently had nattou on garlic bread for breakfast. Lets not mention the body odour in the summer, the wet dog smell in winter, or the coffee and tobacco breath of of your fellow travellers .. sorry mentioned it didn't I?

"Roads are crowded too", I hear you say. True, but unless you're commuting along a major route such as 246 or route 20, which is  not advised, the traffic isn't horrendous and you'll discover yourself travelling faster than the cars anyway.  Most drivers in Tokyo are aware of cyclists on the road and are relatively polite to them too. Of course inattentive, careless and speeding drivers abound, but there really are relatively few openly aggressive drivers on Tokyo roads.

"Cars pollute, not only do they smell worse than a salaryman's armpit, but the pollution also damages your lungs", some may object. Maybe, if you're cycling in 1970, but emissions from today's cars are quite odourless. Unless you're cycling along 246, 20, or Kanpachi vehicle emissions are barely noticeable as you speed between the rows of almost stationary cars.

Bicycles are faster

Lets say your commute involves a walk to the station, changing trains once on the way and walking from the station to the office. Now lets agree that this commute takes an hour door to door. I can guarantee you the same commute can be done by bicycle in 30 minutes.  Why am I so sure? Because that's my daily commute exactly.

"But you're a finely tuned athlete, of course you're faster.", someone whined. Well believe me, that's quite untrue, I don't want to sweat like a dog on my commute therefore I cycle quite sedately. Twice a week I notice a mother cycling the sidewalk carrying her child in a child seat. We take the same route for 6km, her on the sidewalk me on the road, and she consistently keeps pace with me. We're both faster than the traffic, but neither of us are needlessly exerting ourselves.

Imagine saving 30 minutes each way. That means leaving half an hour later in the morning and arriving home half an hour earlier. That's a full extra hour a day you can spend with your family, or doing your own thing, an extra hour in the day to do with what you wish, not which is dictated to you by society.

If you don't want more free time please feel free to stop reading here.

Still with me? Great.

Benefits, benefits, benefits

Physical exercise has numerous health and mental benefits which have been well documented elsewhere, in addition to those, here are some of my thoughts on the benefits of bicycle commuting.

A crowded train and long commute can be tiring and stressful not to mention both soul and body destroying. By the time you arrive at the office you're tired, stressed and feel like you've already put in a full day. When you cycle in however you arrive feeling awake, alert, refreshed and ready to hit the ground running.

At the end of a long stressful day of work who needs a long stressful commute? In addition to the "commuter stress" you experience on an over packed train your mind is free to mull over all the stressful things that happened today, and all the stressful events of the future. By the time you arrive at your home station your stress is likely to have doubled.

On the flip side, when you're cycling the physical exercise gives you a rush of endorphins which naturally kill stress. In addition to this if you're not paying 100% attention to your surroundings you're likely to end up under a bus, so your brain doesn't have time to concentrate on all the stressful things in your life. You arrive home feeling refreshed, energised and stress free. In addition to this there has been a clean break between work and home life, you've left all your professional baggage back at the office to be dealt with tomorrow.

Another benefit of cycling to work is that if you enjoy cycling you get to indulge in your hobby twice a day. Take that golfers!

In short while public transport in Tokyo is clean and efficient, during peak hour the crowds can make it hell. By cycling to work you can avoid that unpleasantness and unnecessary stress.  Working in Japanese companies, or companies the world over, can be stressful and cycling helps reduce that stress both chemically, and by giving your mind a break by allowing it to concentrate on something else for a short while. Above all cycling in Tokyo can be faster than taking the train, and generally for commutes up to 15km this is the case. This means more spare time, something in short supply for workers in Japan. If you love to ride your bike you can do it every day by better utilising time you'd otherwise waste crushed into a train with unhappy golfers.

While people cycle to work for numerous different reasons, these are some of the benefits I enjoy and I'd like to encourage you to give it a try. Tokyo is such an easy city to get around by bicycle, you'll be amazed at just how compact the city really is.

If you're not already cycling to work what is stopping you? If you are, you may have different reasons for doing so that me. What are they?

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  1. Summers in the Tokyo area suck for biking. I had to quit for the last two months and only just started riding again. I wish there were some way around it, but I can't figure one out.

    Winter is incredibly cold, but at least I can generate my own heat. Just need to make sure my hands/toes/ears are warm and I'm good to go.

    The rain can be a problem sometimes too, but I got one of those cleverhoods and am eager to see if it works during the severe downpours.

    1. Summers in Tokyo can indeed be unbearable. Unfortunately I have to hide the fact that I commute from my company so I usually ride to work in my jeans and a t-shirt. I carry a towel and a shirt in my bag then dry down and change before I start work for the day.

      Personally I don't find winters so bad. I commuted all last winter with jeans, t-shirt, woolen sweater and a light jacket that keeps out the wind. Gloves and thick socks are a must. I find its easier to keep warm in winter than to cool down in summer when simply standing in the sun causes the sweat to pour.

      I've been using a Cleverhood for commuting too and it does a great job of keeping me dry, although cycling while wearing a cape can take some getting used to.

      I'm planning two future articles, one on the equipment you need to start bicycle commuting, and a second on how to deal with the weather. Stay tuned!

    2. Tokyo winter? Well, I commuted by bike in Toronto...

      Summer? Tokyo summer is BS, and I am glad I am a teacher at an international school with more than half of the hottest weather off.

      The road death rate here is a quarter of Toronto, which is 'damning with faint praise', but I'll take it. The usual threats are there: taxis and tools in BMWs and other 'luxury vehicles'. The local truck drivers are better, but made up for by the blue-collar in micro-trucks and Yankees on scooters.

    3. It was a Lexus that overtook me way too close this morning only to swerve violently right into a lane of traffic travelling in the same direction to avoid hitting a schoolgirl cycling ahead of me.

      He would have collided with a taxi if it hadn't swerved into a lane of oncoming traffic and slammed on its brakes. The Lexus hardly lost any speed during this whole incident and continued on his merry way.

      When I caught up with him minutes later he was on the phone while smoking a cigarette!

      I tapped on his window and politely gave him the international sign for "Please be aware of cyclists on our roads" which is a single middle finger pointing to the sky, then proceeded to ride in his general vicinity for the rest of the journey so he could get some practice driving around cyclists.

      I stand by my opinion that cycling in Tokyo is safe, but it pays to be on the lookout for assholes.

  2. Just out of interest - how common are showers in large Japanese office towers ? I am not so worried about winter, that's what decent clothes are for, but in the summer having the option to have a quick shower in the office might be really good.

    1. Many companies in Japan ban their employees from cycling to work therefore as a result very, very few offices in Japan have showers.

      Many bicycle commuters hide their bike commuting habit by taking out gym membership close to their office if they feel they'll need a shower in the morning. Quick shower, on with the suit, stow the cycling gear in a locker and the company has no idea you're commuting by bike.

  3. I've been using my folding bike to get to work for 3 years now. Rain or shine, typhoon or snow.

    I get one train (37k) from Yokohama (Isogo) to Ginza (Yurakucho).
    Then I cycle an easy 6k from Yurakucho to Shinjuku.
    About 2/3 time a month I do the whole distance by bike.

    I have to say, regardless of the weather, it's a great way to start the day.

    Most of the time the traffic is agreeable.Rush hour seems to make people more agressive. If anything I find that when I am riding aggressively that's well things go awry.

    Tokyo is a great city for cyclist commuters. The roads are in good shape and clean from debris. I'm guessing theft of cycles is lower than in most big (western) cities (can you imagine leaving you bike unlocked for a second in London ?). Plenty of bike shops for quick repairs.
    Employees get their travel paid so cycling to work is a good way to save money.

    1. Which route do you find is best from getting from Ginza to Shinjuku?

    2. From Ginza I Just go around the imperial palace moat (along the path) and along shinjuku dori past Sofia Uni'.
      Maybe 20mins from Shinjuku to Ginza. 25 mins from Ginza to Shinjuku.

  4. Why do companies ban cycling commutes?

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