What Tokyo's Cycling Infrastructure Can Learn From Rail

Byron Kidd
Tokyo is a paradox in that cyclist numbers are outrageously huge yet quality cycling lanes are few and far between.

It all comes down to how the Japanese public use bicycles which I’ve covered before, but to summarize most Japanese use their bicycles for short trips around their neighbourhoods where almost all daily conveniences can be found within a kilometre or two of their local station. In addition to this many use their bicycles to cycle to the station where they park and take a train to their final destination.

Suburban Tokyo streets are naturally calmed as they’re often so narrow it’s difficult for two cars to pass, few are straight, blind corners abound and sidewalks are uncommon meaning the road space is shared between pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles. Under these road conditions and with strict liability laws, which hold the larger party financially responsible for accidents, motorists tend to drive cautiously once they deviate from the main roads.

So while cities around the world are fighting for bicycle lanes cycling continues to grow in suburban Tokyo where nobody gives cycling infrastructure a second thought.

Cycling in the suburbs of Tokyo is a wonderfully relaxed, stress-free affair, but I can’t help but feel that while bicycle usage is HUGE bicycle utilization lags behind.

By this, I mean that sure 14% or all journeys made in Tokyo per day are made by bicycle, but those journeys represent but a fraction of the total possible journeys which could be realized by bicycle with a little planning and cycling infrastructure.

Longer journeys such as heading into the city for some shopping, commuting to work, or visiting a centrally located museum, art gallery, cafe or park for a family picnic are almost exclusively taken by train. Sure the first leg to the station may be by bicycle, but while the destination may be less than 5 or 6km distant why stop cycling at the station, why not go all the way?

The reason most residents of Tokyo do not cycle longer distances is that the main roads and arteries are decidedly unfriendly so while a 1.5km journey on a traffic calmed suburban street is pleasant, a 4km journey on a hostile road or narrow crowded sidewalk shared with pedestrians is an unnecessarily stressful experience one would rather avoid.

Citizens of Tokyo are already accustomed to walking. When visiting a far-flung shopping district or going to work for example people logically take a train to the closest station and walk to their final destination. If they make a trip during the day they simply repeat the process as almost anywhere in Tokyo is reachable by train followed by a short walk.

Using this already ingrained behaviour to their advantage Japanese urban planners should focus on providing a network of bicycle lanes, not on every street, but that replicate Tokyo’s famously efficient and convenient rail network.

Imagine a network of safe, separated bicycle lanes connecting the naturally traffic calmed suburbs to a secure bicycle parking facility located near Tokyo’s many major train stations. Imagine those major centrally located train stations, in turn, are linked together by a network of bicycle lanes. Given this, coupled with the Japanese people’s acceptance that there are few direct door to door journeys and that walking is a natural part of any trip, you begin to understand that Tokyo does not need bicycle lanes on every street. What Tokyo needs is a carefully planned network of bicycle lanes that link up the suburbs with major city stations which are themselves connected to other stations around the city.

While cyclists in the suburbs demand the right to be able to park immediately outside the store they are visiting this is an unreasonable and unsustainable in a busy downtown pedestrian district such as Shibuya or Ginza given the staggering number of people sharing such a limited space. But if parking facilities were conveniently located I believe the Japanese practice of “walking the last mile” would translate easily from the current public transport situation to a cycling context.

With such a “rail-like” cycling network of separated cycling lanes cycling longer distances would be considered far safer, more comfortable and convenient than the existing situation and the bicycle would grow from being an easy way to get around the local neighbourhood to a city-wide transport revolution.

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  1. Hi there! I am wondering if trailers for kids are legal or accepted in Japan? WE just moved here and brought our Burley Chariort trailer as well as our Burley Kazoo Trailercycle. I actually feel that my kids are safer inside the chariot riding on the road here in Yokosuka than they would be on the back, front or MIDDLE (!) of my bike, not to forget there's the option of wearing an infant in a front Ergo carrier while sharing sidewalks with pedestrians.

    Thanks so much! This blog is super informative and interesting.

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