The Success of Everyday Cycling in Japan Defies Logic

Byron Kidd
Amsterdam does cycling infrastructure right, and we'd be fools not to learn from that experience. Denmark is no slouch in the cycling stakes either, so I've heard, you'd be crazy not to pick up some ideas from there. But as Velo-city 2014 gets underway in Adelaide this week I'd like to take the opportunity to remind everyone not to overlook Japan, a nation of 100 million cyclists and home to Tokyo the most bicycle dense mega-city in the world in which 16% of all trips made in a day are made by bicycle, and one whose cycling policy is completely illogical.

When you refer to cyclists in Japan you're referring to everyone as everyone rides a bicycle regardless of age, sex or income bracket. How can a country as densely populated as Japan, home to the worlds biggest auto makers, and most efficient public transport networks, possibly main such a healthy culture of everyday cyclists?

Sidewalk cycling. Even the police do it!
Japan's lack of cycling infrastructure is astonishing, Tokyo itself has just over 10km of cycling lanes despite the fact that 85% of its 13 million residents own a bicycle. As a result the majority of cyclists choose to cycle on the sidewalks (where they exist) a practise banned in cities around the world. The sidewalks that aren't teeming with cyclists darting around pedestrians are clogged with illegally parked bicycles. Due to lax education and enforcement of cycling laws by the authorities the Japanese have developed their own set of unwritten, culturally accepted, cycling rules many of which don't agree with those laid down by the law. On the surface it appears to be complete anarchy, an utterly hostile environment for cycling, yet everyone rides a bike without concern for their safety, everyone.

When investigating what makes cycling work in Japan there are a number of factors at play including the cost and inconvenience of owning a motor vehicle, the compact self sufficient suburbs where everything required for daily life is a short walk or ride away, and clean efficient public transport which renders private car ownership obsolete for the vast majority of city dwellers.

Cycling with an umbrella. Against the law, generally accepted practice
by Japanese cyclists.

But above all, the one factor that makes cycling work in Japan is the attitude of the Japanese people. Polite to a tee and possessing an almost psychotic desire to avoid confrontation Japanese pedestrians, cyclists and motorists respect each others right to the road and share the space with minimal fuss.

In late 2013 Scotland's road safety campaign labelled the "Nice Way Code" encouraged motorists and cyclists to simply "get along" and share the road. It was publicly lambasted by cycling safety experts and the campaign came to an early end as it seems good manners are too much to expect on Scottish roads. Surprisingly, it is an unwritten, unspoken, culturally accepted "Nice Way Code" that maintains order on what would otherwise be dangerously chaotic Japanese roads and sidewalks.

Japanese parents overturned a ban on cycling with two children.
While an extensive network of safe separated cycling infrastructure, one that will provide cyclists with the safety they deserve, is a major goal for any cycling friendly city to achieve it is worth noting that Japan supports tens of millions of everyday cyclists with third world cycling infrastructure, based on an unwritten set of rules that closely resemble a failed road safety campaign from Scotland.

What a disaster!

Cycling in Japan should not work, but it does, because the Japanese people have taken ownership of cycling and turned it into something that works for them as it has been neglected by the Japanese government for too long.

Japanese people cycle according to a set of culturally accepted rules they've honed themselves over time that sometimes run counter to the law. When new cycling laws are introduced that make cycling, and thus the lives of the Japanese people, more inconvenient the laws are largely ignored. Japanese cycle where they feel safe regardless of the law. Because Japanese officials don't understand cycling, and its importance in the daily lives of the Japanese people, because they don't provide the facilities and infrastructure to support their enormous population of cyclists, cyclists largely ignore officialdom and just get on with it.

Lack of cycling infrastructure in Japan sees sidewalks used for
walking, cycling and bicycle parking.
Almost everything about Japan's thriving cycling culture flies in the face of logic and therefore I encourage everyone attending Velo-city 2014 in Adelaide to learn from the expert speakers in attendance, but to also look beyond conventional wisdom and be open to the idea that there are many ways to reach the ultimate goal of becoming a thriving bicycle friendly city.

Cities are unique, their citizens and culture all different and what works to promote cycling in one city may fail in another. Therefore I believe it is important to gather ideas from cities all around the world, learning from those with experience and success, but also picking up new, sometimes disruptive ideas from emerging cycling cities, and those that do it just a little differently.

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  1. Well said...

  2. I think you are missing a major factor in why cycling in Japan is so big - they HAVE the infrastructure. Unlike NA, their streets are typically very narrow, which restricts both vehicle volumes and speed. As a result, a good majority of streets are cycle tracks in their own right, without the need for dedicated infrastructure (which they wouldn't have room for anyways). It's not the culture, it the design of the cities themselves!

    1. As I noted in the article there are many factors which make cycling work in Japan including the design of the cities themselves, and the high cost of private motor vehicle ownership which have been covered elsewhere on this blog. But the point of this post was to make readers consider the non tangible things that contribute to high cycling numbers in Japan and one of those is the attitude of the people.

      Imagine a city with millions of cyclists, sharing narrow roads with cars, taxis, delivery vehicles and pedestrians, sharing even narrower sidewalks more densely packed pedestrians, that's Tokyo. If the Japanese weren't the way they are there would be absolute carnage and chaos on the streets, but on the contrary while to the outside observer it appears chaotic it actually runs quite smoothly.

      I didn't mention in the article that the majority of Japanese motorists are cyclists themselves and therefore can identify with cyclists and have a better idea of how to drive around cyclists. Most drivers will treat cyclists as they'd like to be treated themselves, this empathy is something motorists who do not cycle certainly lack.

      As you rightly point out that once off larger roads many (but far from all) of Japan's streets are narrow making them ideal for cycling, which helps account for high usage of bicycles in the suburbs while commuting routes into the city are usually 2 or or 4 lane roads with no cycling infrastructure contributing to lower bicycle commuter numbers in Japan.

      Generally once a road becomes 2 lanes wide Japanese cyclists will tend to cycle on the sidewalk and as I mentioned earlier if the Japanese cyclists weren't the way they are there would be absolute carnage and chaos.

      When it comes to creating great cycling cities I believe that social engineering is of equal importance as civil engineering.

  3. 'Woonerf': a Dutch concept of a street where cars cannot dominate in practice or by law. This is the reality of all local streets in Japan, because the law is punitive against drivers, and the streets are lain out narrow and non-Euclidian, these force cars and bicycles to slow down for the most part. That's the good news, and good news for local cycling slower than 15km/h.

    Bad news is that though the road carnage is much lower than in N. America it is much higher than in the Netherlands, so 'damning with faint praise'. There is also a high hit and run rate, because the laws are punitive. The police investigation rate may be better than N. America, but the Japanese police rely on confession rather than investigation, so if the driver took off...

    More bad news is that navigating these streets in any manner is a right pain: blind corners with walls built to the property lines, few sidewalks, two-way streets fit where one-way would be elsewhere... So any ambitious cyclist is forced onto the 'stroads'* with everyone else who wants to get anywhere: cyclist, driver or pedestrian. As Japanese 'stroads' are as bad as elsewhere, cyclists feel forced off them by cars, having them in turn harass pedestrians on the sidewalks. There is vanishingly little bicycle infrastructure on the 'stroads' that would get you anywhere.

    The decent places to ride in Japanese cities are limited to: puttering around your Medieval warren, or blasting down the river-leveé paths if you are fortunate enough for that to be your direction of travel.


  4. Interesting perspective, but I think you misunderstand the objections to the NiceWay Code. Although the campaign *claimed* that it was about everyone just getting along and being nice to each other, the actual adverts pandered to the stereotypes of cyclists as red-light running scofflaws, and blamed pedestrians for looking at their phones - and ended with a newspaper advert that suggested cyclists shouldn't give the finger to motorists. Far from promoting the sort of politeness and mutual courtesy you describe in Japan it seemed designed to promote tension between all road users. That was why people rose up in arms against it.

    1. I believe that the underlying premise of the Nice Way Code was "Lets all get along" and there is nothing wrong with that but as you accurately point out the plan was very poorly executed, pandered to stereotypes and caused more tension between motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

      Even if the Nice Way Code was executed more cleanly I still don't believe it would have met with success as the only way for motorists to identify with cyclists if for them to be cyclists for a while. A few days on a bicycle is much more likely to change their behaviour than a poster that saying "Play Nice".

  5. Hi. Do you have any stats to show bicycle accident rates by country? I am wondering how you concluded that cycling is a success in Japan, in terms of safety.

  6. Kyoto is a great city for cycling around. You can cycle along the Kamo river across the whole of Kyoto without hindrance from traffic lights or cars and the scenery is phenomenal.

    Even the problem of bicycle parking has been eased with the introduction of new bicycle parks.

  7. Agree with the principle that there may be things other countries can learn from Japan about cycling. Not so sure the cultural difference is the main driver of the difference though. Cycling in the UK, where I live, is atrophied despite a popular culture and road layout not completely dissimilar to Japan. Put people together on shared use, which is quite common, and people do share. Round me this extends to the nominally pedestrian-only footways too. Not much bowing, but lots of "sorry"s, "thank you"s and smiling.

    So I'm Just wondering if the difference is institutional rather than cultural - it takes fewer dissenting NIMBY (not in my back yard) voices to throw a spanner into the works in the UK because the beaurocracy doesn't filter consensually, or turn a blind eye (how can it with all that on-street CCTV). One of the Nice Way Code ads was pulled because 5 people objected to the depiction of a woman cycling without a helmet, That particular one was one of the best demonstrations of sharing the road in the series. She was given a large amount of room by an overtaking motorist and they exchanged friendly looks. As you say, sounds good on paper, and happens fairly often in practice, in my experience. But no, 5 people objected. Subsequently thousands signed a petition that it should actually be OK to show helmetless bike riders, but to no avail. Now all bike riders on UK TV have to be shown wearing a helmet. Round me most of the utility cyclists don't. UK is world champion at making a rod for its own back.

    While I agree that "A few days on a bicycle is much more likely to change their behaviour than a poster", there isn't really much incentive for that to happen. There are too few blind eyes being turned to minor cycling infractions, and too many to severe damage by motor vehicles. Maybe the UK could do with an AKB48 promoting cycling. Of course items like the 自転車協会 BAA ad featuring them wouldn't be allowed, because of the lack of helmets being worn.

    UK Anonymous

  8. I'm Japanese, living in Tokyo, and I'm afraid your report excessively idealizes Japan's cycling environment. Your comment, "everyone rides a bike without concern for their safety, everyone," is astonishing for a Japanese. The reality is no one rides a bike without concern for their safety here. As a result of the lack of bike infrastructure, cyclists are forced to ride alongside heavy traffic or on sidewalks, where cyclists riding in both directions and pedestrians are mixed. And, I don't know such a thing as "an unwritten set of rules." There are many cyclists who ride in a wrong direction on roadways, which is of course very dangerous to other cyclists; there are many motorists who suddenly turn in front of cyclists; there are many pedestrians who complain about cyclists riding aggressively on sidewalks.

    I think the large share of bicycles in Japan is mainly due to lax law enforcement and cheap (brand-new) bikes, which by no means guarantee comfortable cycling. I had lived in Groningen, the Netherlands, for five years, and strongly feel that infrastructure does matter.

    1. Interesting to hear a Japanese's take on it. I'm no expert, I have been to Japan thrice but never lived there and my experience of cycling is limited to a rental bike for 3 hours in Sapporo.

      That being said, I think the Japanese way to cycling, chaotic as it may be, has much in its favor. Most Japanese sidewalks (where they exist) are wide, very wide, with less invasive curb cuts, so they in effect act like "multi-purpose paths". This has a few advantages:

      1- It means that Japanese cyclists essentially have protected bike paths wherever there are sidewalks. Once we consider the sidewalks as multi-purpose baths, Japan probably has the most extensive protected bike path system in the world... that just happen to be shared with pedestrians.

      2- Maybe it's because of the expectation that cyclists and pedestrians will both be on the sidewalk, but most sidewalks I've seen in Japan were exceptionally wide compared to North America. Not only are they about 3 meters wide in general, but the cities respect the sidewalk. In NA, a 3-meter wide sidewalk will quickly get a tree right in the middle of it, or utility poles, or parking meters, which means the effective width of the sidewalk is much reduced. All the sidewalks I saw in Japan pushed trees, poles and parking meters right next to the curb, saving as much space as possible to pedestrians and cyclists, a possible effect of cyclists riding on sidewalks, needing more space to pass than pedestrians. That's positive for pedestrians who have more space than they would otherwise have.

      3- Sharing sidewalks mean cyclists have to slow down, encouraging everyday cycling rather than lycra-wearing sport cycling.

      I don't think cyclists and pedestrians absolutely need to be separated. Even in my home North American suburb, on one of the main streets, we had a regular North American sidewalk on one side of the street and a multi-purpose path in asphalt on the other. From experience, I can tell you that most pedestrians would use the multi-purpose path shared with cyclists over the pedestrian-only sidewalk on the other side of the street.

      Maybe Japan needs to embrace this model and adapt its rules of the road according to how people currently use them. Something like that cyclists should keep closer to the curb when on the sidewalk, to avoid surprises when people exit buildings or turn corners. Make riding on sidewalks more formal and codified rather than tolerating practices that go against the law.

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