Cycling as a Transport Alternative for Japan's Elderly Motorists

Byron Kidd
Fatal traffic accidents in Japan have fallen to one third the figure of 30 years ago, despite this over the past 10 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in traffic accidents caused by elderly drivers in Japan with a recent report indicating that drivers over 75 cause twice as many fatalities as younger drivers. According to the latest study approved by cabinet motorists over the age of 75 cause 8.2 fatal accidents per 100,000 licensed motorists in 2018 which is approximately 2.4 times the rate of motorists under the age of 74.

This is a disturbing figure, but not a surprising one for anyone who keeps an eye on the news. Increasingly we are hearing reports of fatal accidents involving elderly drivers who "mistook the accelerator pedal for the brake", who "did not notice the pedestrians" or whose car "just kept accelerating".

With the average life expectancy for Japanese women reaching 87 years and 81 years for men, a demographic train wreck being visible for decades, yet despite this, the Japanese government is caught unprepared. It is only now that the very predictable problems of a shrinking and aging population including a shrinking labor force, increasing health care costs, a failed national pension system, and lack of affordable aged care are manifesting themselves that our equally aged politicians are waking from their slumber.

We all age differently. Cycling is a valid transportation option for millions of elderly people around Japan. With bicycles specifically designed for the elderly, infrastructure built with them in mind and more flexible laws allowing alternative pedal-powered vehicles on our streets we can keep people mobile without an over-reliance on motor vehicles.

In order to resolve the problems caused by elderly drivers, the government is "urging society" to come up with measures to prevent accidents. Before I accuse our geriatric cabinet ministers of passing the ball (they're passing the ball) they have been forthcoming with suggestions of their own such as automatic braking systems in cars, self-driving vehicles and more strict license requirements .. so let us investigate each of these...

As we all know there is no problem that can't be solved without technology *cough* and thus the Japanese government is looking to autonomous vehicles and automatic braking systems to reduce the rate of fatal traffic accidents caused by the elderly. Yes, the Japanese government proposed that in an economy where prices are rising and wages have remained stagnant that the elderly who (according to a report rejected by Finance Minister Asao Taro) require retirement savings in excess of 30 million yen to survive on a government pension scheme they've been paying into for decades, go out and purchase brand new motor vehicles.

Perfect! And when they arrive home from this exhausting shopping spree they can slip into a robe and slippers before enjoying cake and a pipe in their drawing rooms. Yes, cake, let them eat cake.

While autonomous vehicles do promise a decrease in fatalities I'm always astounded at the government's automatic assertion that any problem with automobiles can obviously be solved by more automobiles. It's the American gun debate over here!

Stricter licensing measures have been proposed for elderly drivers, including a cognitive test and limiting elderly motorists to certain types of vehicles, such as those with automatic braking systems. Wait, what? Stricter licensing requirements are just more expensive motor vehicles in disguise? Oh, OK. I was worried I'd have to do more research for this paragraph, but it looks like I'm in the clear. Thanks Japanese government!

This is not a traffic problem, it's not a vehicle problem, its a societal problem that spans transport, aged care, health, urban design, and the provision of services,  which can not be solved by looking at it from a transport perspective alone. One solution will not present itself, we need to chip away at the problem with a number of different approaches until it disappears and it would be easier to know where to start if we had a study analyzing how the elderly use their vehicles and their attitudes towards public transport.

Bicycles are already in heavy everyday use in Japan, shifting elderly motorists to bicycles should be a no-brainer but needs a firm commitment from authorities to ensure convenience and safety, two of the biggest concerns of the elderly.
Have officials considered: Busses, trains, accessibility, more frequent stops? A slower pace and less pressure for elderly public transport users? Cheaper taxi's, ride-hailing services and payment methods that are not too difficult to understand? Grocery and meal deliveries? Opportunities to shop and socialize closer to home? Walkable streets, wide smooth pavement for wheelchairs, frames and shopping carts? Wider distribution of medical clinics rather than centralizing facilities in large hospitals.

There is a lot of thinking to be done about how the elderly interact with their neighborhood, their city, and its services to reduce their unnecessary reliance on motor vehicles. Despite having my own opinions, and given this is "Tokyo by Bike", I'd like to advocate a few ideas around cycling.

Improved cycling infrastructure

We all age differently but the number of elderly cyclists cruising around the suburbs of Tokyo is surprising and that number could be increased and sustained with the proper investment in cycling infrastructure. Elderly cyclists need to feel safe, this means clearly marked, wide, smooth bicycle lanes separated from traffic and free from parked bicycles and pedestrians. Elderly cyclists need to feel comfortable cycling at lower speeds in such lanes, and not threatened or intimidated by younger, faster, cyclists around them.

More of this, please. Maybe a little wider and with more consideration of how pedestrians, bicycle, and motorists interact at intersections. We're not far from getting it right.

But there is more to it than bicycle lanes, the elderly need easily accessible and convenient bicycle parking close to the businesses and services they visit often. Often bicycle parking is an afterthought (if thought of at all) in an out of the way place, on uneven or even steep ground. Parking areas are often disorganized chaos making it difficult for an elderly person to effectively park their bicycle. If bicycle parking is not designed with the elderly in mind, the elderly will not cycle.

Better organized than most of Tokyo's bicycle parking, this parking lot is still too narrow and crowded for an elderly person to use effectively.

Remember the aim is to get the elderly out of motor vehicles and on to alternative means of transport, if none of those means of transport are as convenient as the car, the elderly will not willingly give up driving.

Improved bicycle design

Remember in the early 2000s when the Tokyo Metropolitan Police department tried to ban parents from carrying two children on their bicycles? The ban failed when officials realized the practice was essential to the smooth running of millions of lives around the city and instead implemented strict guidelines on the design of bicycles for carrying children. Compare a child carrying mamachari from the 2000s to those you see today which have been specifically designed for the task with electric assist, low centers of gravity, safer child seats with side impact protection.

Until officials stepped in, the cycling industry was happy to sell cheap, dangerous, bicycles and accessories for carrying children. After the intervention, an entirely new and lucrative bicycle market opened up. It's crazy that bicycle manufacturers did not see this market and act before being forced to by legislation and it is crazy they do not see a growing market for bicycles targeted towards the elderly.

Japanese bicycles underwent a transformation when laws governing the designing of bicycles for transporting children were introduced in the early 2000's.

While I am not suggesting legislation limiting elderly cyclists to bicycles of a particular design, given Japan's current aging demographic, there is a market out there for bicycles specifically designed for the elderly. Again with low centers of gravity, high stability, luggage carrying capacity and of course electric assist.

"Cake!" I hear you say, "Now you are asking the elderly to eat cake, electric bicycles aren't cheap you hypocrite!"

Yes, electric assist bicycles are not cheap but they're a LOT cheaper than automobiles and a government subsidy or a discount coupon on a new bicycle purchase when an elderly motorist gives up their license could make this much more affordable.

Electric bicycles have already transformed transport for elderly people, imagine effort is applied to their design making a range of bicycles and tricycles designed specifically for elderly riders, making them safer and more practical allowing the elderly to maintain their independence until much later in life. That not only transforms bicycle design, but it transforms lives.

Bicycle taxi services

OK so the official study has yet to be done, but let me take a guess. Most elderly residents don't venture too far from home, they're going shopping, visiting the doctors, going to lunch with friends. If they do need to cover longer distances they may be less reliant on an automobile if they can conveniently reach the nearest station or bus stop (and their destination from the closest bus stop or station).

In logistics there exists a problem called the "last mile problem", how to get goods from distribution hubs to customers. In this area, there has been an increase in the usage of bicycles. What we see in in the case of the elderly and their transport needs is a reverse last mile problem, that of getting customers to goods instead. Why not employ bicycles for this too?

Cycling Without Age has been offering the elderly bicycle outings in 42 countries serving 114,000 passengers since its launch in Copenhagen in 2012. Employing electric assist tricycles with space for two passengers up front Cycling With Age has been improving the lives of the elderly by giving them a social outing and reconnecting them with the joy of cycling in their younger years. There is no reason why a similar service (backed by government funding) could not be implemented in Tokyo to transport the elderly around their neighborhood, to and fro between shops, restaurants, cafes, doctors appointments, and train stations etc.

Cycling Without Age offers free bicycle rides for nursing home residents. Bicycles such as these could be used as taxi's for the elderly but only if our roads were designed to accommodate them. Is our government that committed to the elderly or will they choose the easy option of taking their drivers licenses without providing viable transport alternatives?

Unfortunately, Japanese roads and sidewalks are not designed for such wide bicycles, but with redesigned bicycles and better infrastructure, Tokyo could not only solve the last mile problem but also make lives more convenient for the elderly and reducing traffic fatalities in the process.

A final benefit of a "bicycle taxi" service similar to Cycling Without Age is that a friendly familiar guide provides the elderly with not only mobility but a moment of much needed human contact and companionship, the mental health benefits of which may be unmeasurable.

Alternative Pedal Assist Vehicles

In an event of impeccable timing, just as I had finished writing this article I received an email from a 74-year-old Hogyo resident who holds no illusions that the day is fast approaching when he will be unable to renew his drivers license. Afraid of losing his independence and the ability to easily go places with his wife he is already researching viable alternatives of which he has found many, but the legality of these vehicles on Japanese roads is questionable to the narrow registration and licensing system.

One such alternative he has discovered is the EvoVelo Mo a hybrid human/solar-powered electric vehicle. Classified as a pedal-electric vehicle in the EU this vehicle is both road and bicycle lane legal and requires no registration or license. Technically it is no different than an electric assist tandem bicycle except its packaged differently. Despite impressive safety features including a maximum pedal assisted speed of 45km/h this vehicle is fully enclosed with a front crash crumple zone, side impact protection, hydraulic disc brakes, and seat belts a vehicle such as this still requires registration and licensing in Japan.

The Evovelo Mo, nothing here that you would not see on an electric assist tandem bicycle, except that it is packaged as a vehicle keeping passengers protected from the weather and providing ample cargo space. Will Japanese road laws ever be able to keep up with the pace of innovation?

As Japan's population ages authorities should consider alternative vehicles suitable for the elderly, alternative licensing and registration requirements for those vehicles, and amendments to existing laws to allow varying types of vehicles on our roads. The EU is already way ahead in this regard giving Japanese authorities the opportunity to learn from their research to speed up the use of alternative vehicles here in Japan.

A knee jerk reaction to an increase in accidents by elderly motorists would be to ban them from driving after a certain age, but this is discriminatory and without viable transport, alternatives would seriously affect the physical and mental health of millions of elderly residents for whom these trips may represent the only social contact they have. Therefore I'd like to encourage officials to examine a multitude of possible solutions because as you can see from my completely unresearched ramblings here that there are numerous alternatives available to keep the elderly mobile and engaged with the community which does not rely on the use of motor vehicles.

Let's commit to keeping the elderly mobile and active in their communities without the need for motor vehicles.

Research shows that cycling is good for people, communities, and cities and any investment in cycling goes beyond improving transport to transforming the lives of all citizens (including those who do not cycle!), physical and mental health, the environment and economy, a mayor would be crazy to NOT invest in cycling, the returns are immeasurable.

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