Japan's Cultural Nice Way Code

Byron Kidd
In 2013 Scottish Government launched a widely lambasted bicycle safety campaign called the Nice Way Code, the central premise of which was to promote bicycle safety by calling for mutual respect between cyclists and motorists. In September 2013 after wide criticism the campaign was scrapped.

The campaign was blasted for many faults including pandering to stereotypes, victim blaming, having no clear goals, and failing to coordinate with other road safety bodies and planning initiatives. The details of all the perceived faults of the campaign are too numerous to get into, but I'd like to know is it really too much for society to expect motorists and cyclists to show a little respect for each other?

In Tokyo one of the biggest, busiest and most populated metropolises in the world, cycling holds a respectable 16% modal share yet cycling infrastructure is severely lacking and cycling lanes barely exist. In addition to this cycling laws are poorly understood by the public and inconsistently enforced by the police. In short cycling should be a disaster in this city yet it thrives with none of the infrastructure of world leading European countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark.

I've written before about the ingredients that when mixed together create an environment where cycling thrives without planning and infrastructure. The compact neighbourhoods, the expense and inconvenience of private car ownership, the exceptional public transport, the lax enforcement of cycling laws, these all contribute to high cyclist numbers in Tokyo and around Japan.

But the biggest factor in making cycling work in Japan is the attitude of the Japanese people.

Historically in the tiny, overpopulated islands of Japan people have learnt how to share spaces. In many smaller Japanese homes a single room may be used for eating, sleeping, working and relaxing so the idea that a single space can have multiple uses is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. This ingrained notion of shared space translates to public spaces including parks, roads and sidewalks.

Drivers in Tokyo are used to sharing narrow roads with both cyclists and pedestrians as many smaller streets lack even sidewalks. In addition to this most drivers also cycle which means they drive around cyclists as they'd expect other motorists to drive around them. Cyclists are, of course, also pedestrians and thus when cycling on the sidewalks they generally show respect for fellow cyclists and pedestrians. Watching cars, cyclists and pedestrians interact in Japanese cities may appear to be complete anarchy, but it is a polite form of anarchy in which most people subconsciously strive not to have a negative impact on the people around them.

Without meaning to overgeneralise (and I am) it is the Japanese peoples attitude of mutual respect and flexibility when it comes to sharing spaces which makes cycling work here despite the lack of infrastructure. Imagine for a moment every Japanese person was suddenly a New Yorker, cycling would become extinct overnight!

So while Japan has no official Nice Way Code campaign, each individual has their own internal code of conduct, based on sharing the road and tolerance for each other, because you can't cycle in a city with 14 million others without exercising a little patience. This highlights a startling cultural difference, and teaches us that cycling initiatives that work well in one country will not necessarily be accepted in another.

When seeking ideas to improve conditions for cyclists in your area it is worth remembering that what works in one city or country may not necessarily work in another. Unfortunately in the case of the Nice Way Code the Japanese notion of "Wa", harmony and keeping the peace, did not translate well into the Scottish environment, its a shame.

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  1. I think one thing that sets Japan apart, especially from the UK perspective, is the higher quality of pedestrian infrastructure along main roads, including: pedestrian priority over sideroads and no parking of private vehicles on pedestrian sidewalks (pavements in UK parlance).

    While there may be no dedicated cycling infrastructure, because of the higher quality of pedestrian infrastructure you are very rarely left stranded by a busy junction with no safe way to proceed when cycling or walking. If you are cycling alongside a main road you are not required to stop at every sideroad and check for turning traffic. Crosswalks(pedestrian crossings) almost always cross the entire road in both directions in a single phase of the lights.

    The result is cycling on sidewalks is at a relatively low speed, but it is safe, stress free and continuous. I read with interest your blog about Tokyo police removing cycle crossings and trying to encourage cyclists into the motor traffic - this is a recipe for disaster, and they risk losing the 16% of their traffic capacity that chooses to cycle.

    1. " I read with interest your blog about Tokyo police removing cycle crossings and trying to encourage cyclists into the motor traffic - this is a recipe for disaster, and they risk losing the 16% of their traffic capacity that chooses to cycle."

      You need not worry. These were simply lines on the road meant to separate cyclists and pedestrians as they crossed a road. But nobody followed them; pedestrians walked in the cycle lane and cyclists rode in the pedestrian area. Police never enforced it even if there was a police box feet away. So in effect, this "change" has resulted in no change in the interaction between cyclists and pedestrians or the 16% modal share.

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