The Varied Designs of Tokyo's Bicycle Lanes

Byron Kidd
Cycling lanes and infrastructure is popping up all over Tokyo at an alarming rate. It's surprising and encouraging to see such a commitment to implementing bicycle lanes around the city, but unfortunately the lanes being developed are poorly designed and opportunities (not to mention money) are being wasted on what otherwise could be some of the best cycling infrastructure in the world.

Below is a round up of some of the cycling lanes you'll find around Tokyo.

Tokyo Bay

Separated Bicycle Lane,  Odaiba,Tokyo, Japan

The jewel in the crown of Tokyo's cycling infrastructure undoubtedly has to be the islands of Tokyo bay. Currently under redevelopment to host the 2020 Olympic Games Tokyo Governor, Masuzoe Yoichi has pledged to make the area more friendly to cyclists by including cycling infrastructure in the redevelopment plans right from the start. But will this opportunity be wasted on bad design?

The new lanes, at sidewalk level are smooth and a pleasure to ride until one notices they're bidirectional making them much too narrow to be practical. Rather than making cycling safer and more pleasurable cycling these lanes will be a stressful and even dangerous experience if used by cyclists travelling in both directions.

Separated Bicycle Lane,  Odaiba,Tokyo, Japan

According to a source close to the minister responsible for transport at the 2020 Olympic Games the lanes currently in place are temporary and the final design for Tokyo's cycling lanes has yet to be finalised, but as they are an almost exact match for the new permanent bicycle lanes on the newly redeveloped Shintora Doori near Toranamon Hills it is easy to image that these are the lanes we will be stuck with.

Shintora Dori

Separated Bicycle Lane, Tokyo, Japan

It seems the Tokyo Metropolitan Governments policy towards cycling infrastructure it to take advantage of redevelopment projects to widen sidewalks and implement sidewalk level bicycle lanes.  The redevelopment in Toranamon, including the new Toranamon Hills complex gave officials the perfect opportunity to place bicycle lanes either side of Shintora Dori.

Separated Bicycle Lane, Tokyo, Japan

The planning for this redevelopment goes back decades, but it appears bicycle lanes were a late addition to the plans. Like the lanes on the islands of Tokyo Bay these lanes are sidewalk level, separated from the road by barriers, and from pedestrians by both barriers and gardens. These lanes too are bidirectional once again making them too narrow to be practical meaning if they're crowded, slow and perceived as dangerous people will choose to cycle on the much wider sidewalks as they do now.

Separated Bicycle Lane, Tokyo, Japan

While gardens between cyclists and pedestrians are a wonderful idea, providing both separation and a splash of colour and life to an otherwise concrete wasteland, they currently do little to keep pedestrians out of the cycle lanes. The lanes also disappear meters before pedestrian crossings and magically appear meters after meaning pedestrians and cyclists mix uncontrolled at intersections.

Sidewalk Cycling Lane, Tokyo, Japan

Even more alarming is that these lanes have been open just months and already sections have been removed to allow motorists easier access to parking.

If this is the future of cycling infrastructure in Tokyo you'll find me out on the roads.

Yamate Dori

Sidewalk Cycling Lane, Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo's inner ring road Yamate Dori is another redevelopment project which as been underway for decades and the sidewalk level bicycle lanes on either side of the road are of a different (possibly much older) design than those of Tokyo Bay and Shitora Dori.

Sidewalk Cycling Lane, Tokyo, Japan

Separated from the road by barriers and lush green gardens, these lanes feature no centre line or directional markings making them appear wider than lanes elsewhere in the city. Pedestrians and cyclists are not separated by a physical barrier, rather the pavement stones of the pedestrian and cycling areas are of a slightly different colour and the barrier is marked with a stripe of white paint.   Needless to say the bicycle lane is often filled with pedestrians and cyclists commonly cycle in the pedestrian areas.

Sidewalk Cycling Lane, Tokyo, JapanAs areas of Yamate Dori have no on street parking motorists often choose to take advantage of the wide sidewalks for a quick parking stop, making the environment dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists alike.

These lanes not only disappear at pedestrian crossings, forcing pedestrians and cyclists to mix, but also completely disappear at bus stops, and at random driveways, including those of gas stations and convenience stores.  The stop/start nature of these lanes, the fact they're too narrow to be bidirectional, and the lack of separation make cycling these lanes little different than cycling on the sidewalk.

Given the abundance of space, and seeming commitment to implement bicycle infrastructure on Yamate Dori from the beginning it is a shame more thought wasn't put into the design. This certainly was a wasted opportunity to bring world class infrastructure to Tokyo.

Suido Doro

Cycling Sharrows, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo's Route 20 runs from the western suburbs of Tokyo into Shinjuku, it is notoriously busy, and dangerous, added to which it is overshadowed by an expressway for much of its length which traps pollution and noise on street level. It is most certainly not a pleasant cycling experience.

Fortunately running alongside Route 20 is Suido Doro a long, straight, flat section of road that offers a much better cycling experience. In an effort to lure commuter cyclists off Route 20 in peak traffic times the Tokyo Metropolitan Government painted bicycle lanes either side of Sudo Doro.

A valiant effort, but as we all know painted lanes offer cyclists little protection and actually make cycling more dangerous when they're littered with parked vehicles as the lanes of Suido Doro often are.

Narrow Sharrows, Yamate Dori, Tokyo, Japan

These lanes also inexplicably suddenly end just a few hundred meters before the cycling infrastructure of Yamate Dori leaving cyclists the option of continuing on the unpainted road surface or heading onto the insanely narrow sidewalks.

While the implementation leaves much to be desired, Tokyo needs more cycling infrastructure from the suburbs to the city if it wants to encourage bicycle commuting.

Asakusa Dori

Separated Cycling Lane, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Stretching from Ueno to almost to Asakusa is a surprising new bicycle lane development.  Separated from the road by a fence, and from pedestrians by delightful gardens and planter boxes this lane is a pleasure to ride, but suffers from the same failings of all sidewalk level lanes in Tokyo. The lane disappears at intersections forcing pedestrians and cyclists to mix, and due to a lack of education the planters do little to keep pedestrians out of the bicycle lane.

Separated Cycling Lane, Tokyo, Japan

While there are no directional markings on these lanes, the very nature of Japanese sidewalk cycling means that these lanes will be used bidirectionally.

While not perfect these lanes are most welcome in Asakusa which is a popular tourist district and one which has a cheap bicycle hire scheme.

Shinjuku Dori

Tokyo Sidewalk Cycling Lane

A line painted down the middle of a sidewalk does not magically create a bicycle lane. Not only is this lane too narrow, it is dotted with telegraph poles, littered with recycling crates on garbage day, and in places is blocked by phone boxes.

It is better we don't think of these as bicycle lanes, but more of a reminder for cyclists to stick to the roadside of the sidewalk.

Bicycle Lane Odaiba Tokyo

In conclusion, it is encouraging that efforts are being made around the city to implement cycling infrastructure in Tokyo, yet the designs are less than ideal. The fact an effort is being made is truly wonderful, but without good design and coordination between all the responsible municipalities the opportunities to implement world class cycling infrastructure will disappear.

I don't want to be negative in the face of the poor cycling infrastructure in Tokyo, on the contrary I am excited that efforts are being made to accommodate cyclists around the city and that cycling is on the Governors agenda. But I'd like to encourage our officials to look abroad at what works in other cities around the world, to go on fact finding tours, gather information and implement stellar cycling infrastructure in Tokyo. I truly believe that if cycling infrastructure is implemented correctly Tokyo will rapidly become one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world.

Don't let us don't Governor Masuzoe!

This article was reviewed for accuracy August 2022.

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  1. Great report. The Tokyo "Powers that be" need to be willing to see automobiles as a problem and accept the fact that automobiles in the city are dangerous, the roads and parking they require are tremendously wasteful - and they are for the most part, unnecessary. Until they do, we can expect more of these half-assed, ちゅと はんぱ attempts. They have to be willing to take lanes away from auto traffic and give the space to cyclists and pedestrians. The right kind of lanes - wide, safe, protected lanes on the street, will encourage more people to use a bicycle as transportation - and that should be the goal. In NYC, they were actually able to do exactly this without slowing down traffic flow at all.

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