How Many Japanese Cycle To Work?

Byron Kidd
Japan, a nation of 127 million people has 72 million bicycles with over 10 million new bicycles being sold every year. In a country where public transport is clean and efficient and where car ownership can be costly and inconvenient, the bicycle has risen to occupy a unique place in Japan's transport ecosystem. The bicycle is an essential form of everyday transport used by millions of people from all walks of life.

bicycle commuters wait in the rain for a commuter train to pass in Tokyo Japan
Recently I wrote about how government policy and inflexible insurance companies have created a situation in Japan which forces employers to ban cycling to work. This got me wondering, in the face of such widespread bike to work bans, just what percentage of commuter journeys are made by bicycle in Japan?

By far the most popular method of commuting in Japan is by train, with 53% of students and 48% of workers nationwide using the train as their primary means for commuting to work. Other forms of public transport including buses and streetcars are preferred by 13% of students but just 9% of workers. Students tend to rely more heavily on buses than workers as schools are generally well serviced by bus routes.

When it comes to cycling a healthy 18% of students indicated they rely upon the bicycle but this is offset by a much lower 9% for workers. Why the difference? Schools tend to be closer to homes, whereas workplaces are often much further afield, making cycling an attractive option for students, but less so for workers. The convenience, efficiency and cleanliness of Japan's public transport makes it an easy choice over cycling as a transport option for Japan's workers as many live conveniently within walking or cycling distance of a train station.

Sadly corporate Japan shoulders some of the blame for low bicycle commuter numbers among workers. Citing safety and insurance concerns, along with a host of other nonsensical reasons, many Japanese companies strictly ban employees from cycling to work. Until this is rectified bicycle commuter numbers among Japanese workers will forever remain low.

A mere 6% of Japanese students commuted by car, while that figure jumps to 24% for workers. In Japanese cities such as Tokyo where up to 67% of commuters rely on the efficient train and subway systems, and where private car ownership is more expensive, the number of workers who travel by car is much lower. But the Japanese countryside is not as well serviced by public transport, and this coupled with longer commuting distances bolsters the nationwide car usage statistic among Japanese workers.

Surprisingly when it comes to walking to work 7% or both students and workers chose this option and 3% of both groups indicated they commute by motorcycle.

In summary 66% of students and 57% of workers choose to commute via Japan's legendary public transport, while 9% of students and 27% of workers rely upon cars or motorcycles to get to work. At the healthier end of the scale 25% of students and 16% of workers cycle or walk to work, despite the practise of cycling to work being frowned upon by corporate Japan.

Of course there is more to a strong cycling culture than high bicycle commuter numbers as the bicycle will be used for a much wider variety of trips in a truly healthy and well balanced cycling nation.

In Tokyo 14% of all daily trips, not just commuter journeys, are made by bicycle with an average trip distance of less than 2km. Given that short distance and the fact that the average commute for a Tokyo worker is 60 minutes one way it is safe to assume that door to door bicycle commuting makes up just a small percentage of overall trips by bicycle in Japan each day. It is important to remember that certain cities or regions within a country can deviate greatly from the national average, and groups within the population can exhibit wildly different patterns of bicycle usage.

Therefore even under company wide bicycle commuting bans a healthy 9% of all commuter journeys by workers in Japan are made by bicycle. I wonder what portion of those commuters have company permission and how many are cycling to work in secret? I also wonder if companies were more lenient towards cyclists just how high the number of bicycle commuters would rise around Japan.

Ride safe and stick it to the Man.

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  1. I used to bike to work when I was on JET, since they gave us all really nice bikes. We had so many cases of drivers not looking round the corner before they turn and crashing into a cyclist that I actually gave up after a while and either used my scooter or walked.

    1. really?? i am using my bicycle to tokyo. But your post made me wondering, that should i continue to do so.

  2. Many thanks Byron, really useful. I found cycling in Japan really convivial and on the most part very safe. Beats the heck out of riding in Australia ...

  3. I had a bicycle in Tokyo, but I have to say that riding it to more frequented areas was stressful for me. When you ride on a narrow pavement, you have to be very careful not to bump into anyone and have to slow down all the time, and I never felt safe on the roads with more cars and wider roads.

  4. I lived in a suburb of Fukuoka, and biking under 2km was the name of the game. I was minding the house while my wife worked at her studies and did all of the grocery shopping and daycare runs on a bike. Bus or occasionally train for longer distances. Really stress free commuting. When I got back to the States I was scared to ride again for some time.

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