Japan's National Bike to Work Ban

Byron Kidd
Strict government policies regarding employee travel insurance, and inflexible insurance company policies, have created a situation where cycling to work is effectively banned in Japan. That's right, bureaucracy is preventing people from cycling to work in Japan.

Under Japanese corporate law, companies are required to insure their employees against workplace accidents and this insurance extends to cover commuting to and from work, despite this few employee insurance policies include cycling insurance. As a result employers in Japan implement company policies which prevent their employees from cycling to work to protect themselves from financial liability should an accident occur.

Fixed gear bicycle commuter in Tokyo, Japan
 For example the majority of IT workers in the Kantō region are covered by a single insurance company which provides insurance not only for Japanese IT companies, but global IT giants including Microsoft, Google and IBM.  Their employee insurance policy does not cover cycling which effectively means not only employees of Japanese companies, but Japan based employees of international companies are banned from cycling to work while their international colleagues are free to travel to work however they choose.

So while more than 7% of Google's Mountain View employees cycle to a workplace which maintains a fleet of 1300 bicycles, provides showers with lockers, a towel service, secure parking with access to bicycle tools and even bicycle friendly shuttle buses, 100% of Google employees in Japan are banned from cycling to work as the company must comply with local regulations.

Despite this technical ban on cycling to work, many companies have a "Don't ask, don't tell" policy towards bicycle commuting,  whereby companies never make a strong formal announcement of the cycling ban, and employees who choose to cycle to work do their best to keep the fact hidden. Employees who make their cycling habits too obvious, or those unlucky enough to be involved in an accident during their commute will be asked to refrain from cycling to work in the future. Yet despite employer demands around 9% of commuters still commute by bicycle.

When informing errant employees of the company's bike to work ban, few companies take the time to explain to employees the insurance situation. Companies will claim that because they pay employees commuting fees employees are required to commute by train, others cite a lack of bicycle parking near the office, while yet more simply close the issue with "Its dangerous, please don't cycle to work in the future". This creates employee animosity towards the company when in reality the company is playing by the rules laid down by the government and their insurance provider.

Resourceful bicycle commuters go to the trouble and expense of arranging private bicycle parking near, but not too near, their office. In the summer months many take out gym memberships close their offices so they can shower and change into business attire before beginning work for the day.

Increasingly cyclists are taking out private insurance after a court ruling in July ordered the mother of a child who caused a serious bicycle accident to pay ¥95.2 million in compensation. Following that incident the number of enquires about bicycle insurance spiked and in reaction insurance companies expanded their products covering cyclists. Private cycling insurance can be purchased in Japan for as little of ¥4000 per year with payouts ranging from ¥50 million to ¥100 million. But despite the insurance industry warming up to cyclists, employee insurance policies still do not accept cycling as a valid means of commuting to work.

Japan is home to over 70 million bicycles, almost equal to the number of automobiles, but there is no obligation for cyclists to take out insurance. As a result only 30% of bicycle users in Japan are covered in the event of a bicycle accident.

With private cycling insurance, a legal place to park, and if possible a place to freshen up before work a defiant bicycle commuter has counter arguments to the most common employer concerns when it comes to cycling to work. But at the end of the day if a company demands an employee refrain from cycling the employee has few options and will reluctantly comply, even if only for a few months until the whole thing blows over.

Interestingly employers had little to say about bike to work bans in the weeks after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 when eager to please employees shunned the disrupted public transport systems and chose to cycle to work.  Also, in an anomaly of unfathomable proportions, the very same employers that claim a lack of facilities as a reason to ban bicycle commuting go out of their way to provide smoking lounges for their employees.

Fixed gear bicycle commuters in Tokyo, JapanWhile the outlook remains bleak for Japan's bicycle commuters, a handful of forward thinking companies have devised internal policies to support bicycle commuting. Most require bicycle commuters to be privately insured and rather than providing commuter passes, cyclists are paid for the kilometres they ride, while others received a lump sum based on the estimated number of rainy days per year to ensure their travel costs are adequately covered in inclement weather.

In most cases employers that embrace bicycle commuting discover the cost of supporting bicycle commuters is much less than providing the same employees with commuter passes and that their employees are healthier, resulting in fewer days off work due to ill health, and more productive as they arrive to work in a positive state of mind full of energy.

Cycling to work has tangible benefits for employers, employees and ironically insurance companies, the very ones ultimately responsible for the bike to work ban. But until government regulations, or insurance policies adapt to accommodate bicycle commuters millions of Japanese will be prevented from cycling to work and employees who do cycle will forever have to do so in secret under the fear of discovery.

This nonsensical bike to work ban must not be tolerated, nor should Japanese workers accept this type of interference in their private lives.

Don't stand for it.

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For more stories, news and information about cycling in Tokyo and around Japan follow @tokyobybike on twitter.

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  1. Someday I'm going to have to get a "real" job here in Japan, but for now at least, working at Yokosuka Naval Base I don't have to put up with this nonsense...

  2. Terrible, but not surprising. Yesterday, I was talking with a cyclist I know who told me his company had banned commuting by bike to the office in Tokyo- ostensibly for parking reasons. Which he suspects is true, because facilities outside of Tokyo allow cycling but require cyclist to have insurance which this guy's company helps arrange.

    I have been here since the late 80's, and I really notice much fewer scooter type vehicles on the road. I am not sure why they disappeared but I suspect drivers did not like them. As a cyclist, I did not care for them either- they were hazards. Unfortunately drivers do not like cyclists either, so I suspect this type of pressure will continue.

    1. I wonder if the company's stance would change if your friend could arrange legal parking for his bicycle in Tokyo in addition to private insurance?

      I've not been paying attention but now that you mention it there really are much fewer 50cc scooters on the roads compared to 10 or 15 years ago. I wonder what has caused them to disappear? They used to be driven mainly by students and younger people. My guess is that in these hard economic times people just don't have the money to buy and run them.

    2. I think it may have something to do with parking enforcement. Reforms in 2006 made it easier for all parking rules to be enforced in Japan, including stopping these scooters from parking illegally on footways, etc. But I hear that there was little effort to create appropriate legal places for scooters (and even a big effort would still leave scooter parking much less convenient than when they could park anywhere). Hence a key reason for their convenience (ease of parking) disappeared.

    3. Scooters have disappeared since there was a crack down on parking. You used to be able to park anywhere but you can't anymore without getting a ticket.

      As a car driver (and motor cyclist & cyclist) I find bicycle riders way more annoying than people on scooters.

    4. "I wonder if the company's stance would change if your friend could arrange legal parking for his bicycle in Tokyo in addition to private insurance?"

      Byron, I asked Ken about his company's policy and basically it is the same policy used for people who want to drive in.

      For example, out in Tochigi, many people drive to work. They are given subsidies and coverage for fuel, insurance, etc. and park free at the plant. Cyclists are given the same consideration with regards to insurance and parking.

      In Tokyo, no one is permitted to drive because the parking is too expensive. Evidently, if an individual wants to personally take on the expense of parking and insurance, the company does not care. I assume their official ban on driving excuses them from liability of any sort- same for cyclists.

      That's what I understand. Not sure if that matches others experiences.

  3. This to me simply sounds incredible. There would be outcry if companies banned their employees from cycling - what better way to stick two fingers up to the environment and to caring about your workforce! Thanks for reporting.

    1. I believe back in the days when Japanese companies offered lifetime employment, employees accepted more strict company control in return for well paid, secure employment with retirement benefits. Those days are long gone but companies still feel they can make rediculous demands to their employees. It's a bit of a stereotype, but Japanese people do not like to make trouble and will do their best to avoid confrontation so rather than challenging their employers they simply cave in to their demands.

      While it is easy to direct our anger at employers, they are simply playing by the rules laid down by the government and their insurance companies. Ultimately if companies are required by law to provide travel insurance to their employees then insurance policies must change to cover cycling.

      Sadly there is no uproar here in Japan, which is why I'd like this article to make it to the mainstream press so this dirty little secret becomes widely known and the situation changes so that bicycle commuters can do so freely.

      Please do share this article around and help us make some noise around this issue!

    2. Thanks for this interesting write-up of all the different perspectives on this topic.

      I'd like to put a focus on this issue in my bicycle-traffic-in-Japan-related research. Would you happen to have sources for the data you provided here (especially the number of bicycles and bicycle insurances in Japan)?

      I hope to be able to publish something in the near future (~early 2014) and will make sure to keep you posted!

    3. Bicycle insurance policies have been in the news recently so I pulled those figures from a number of recent articles including :

      Bike insurance products diversifying in Japan

      Bike insurance increases in product variety

      Information about specific cycling insurance policies, including annual payments and total payouts, can be obtained by calling insurance providers directly.

      I had a feeling you'd ask, so kept those URL's around.

  4. So I guess they can still bike to take the train but not all the way to the office?

    1. Its true many people do cycle from their homes to the station before taking a train to work. Technically this is not allowed by the insurance policy either, and should also be banned by companies if they wish to remain consistent. But as this is impossible to police it goes ignored. The system is full of holes and should be redesigned taking into account all transport options.

  5. avoid all that shit, just dont get insurance and be carful when riding.

  6. "...despite this few employee insurance policies include cycling insurance"
    So which are the few that do include cycling insurance and who are the said insurance companies? Let's try and support them.
    "a handful of forward thinking companies have devised internal policies to support bicycle commuting"
    Who are these companies? Let's try and support them as well.

    I think that once people know there are alternatives to this state of affairs, it makes it easier to make positive change.

  7. I have heard similar stories from friends using motorbikes or scooters to commute to work. It seems companies also prefer the safety of public transport than losing some (partially paid, I guess) days worth of employees' work to some accident on the daily commute.
    This would also explain why companies don't simply insure their workers also for bicycle accidents if they choose to commute that way and it is so cheap as the article suggests.

  8. For what it is worth, Panasonic insurance would cover me cycling to work. But for a few onerous provisos.

  9. Another problem is that rail and subway transit in Japan is not bike-friendly. You have to put a bike into a "Bike Bag" or a bike case to take it aboard the JR. In the US, which is usually behind the rest of the world, you can make arrangements to take your bike on Amtrak, and here in Los Angeles Metro Rail, Metrolink and Metro buses do not require any prior arrangement to take your bike aboard, it's first come first serve for all bike amenities.

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