How is cycling infrastructure shaping up for the Tokyo Olympics?

Byron Kidd
Six years have passed since Tokyo was announced as the host fo the 2020 Olympic games, as someone with a keen interest in urban development I was excited about all potential change and new developments the Olympics could bring to Tokyo, particularly in the area of transport and cycling infrastructure. So, how are things shaping up?

Much of my excitement for the future of cycling infrastructure beginning with the announcement in 2013 was the general acceptance in that, while the legacy did not last, the 2012 games in London boosted awareness of utilitarian cycling (cycling as transport rather than as a sport) and led to improvements in cycling infrastructure. Sadly much of the London Olympic cycling infrastructure has disappeared or fallen into disrepair and the Cycle Superhighways pale in comparison to Dutch or Danish cycling infrastructure, but despite this the Olympics did raise the awareness of cycling in London, and while the interest waned cycling still maintained a higher profile than it would have if the Olympics had not been held in London.

Surely Tokyo, with its constant development and reconstruction, would capitalize on the Olympics and present "the city for the future" to the world in 2020 as it did in 1964 when the Tokyo Olympics coincided with the unveiling of the highspeed bullet train, recently developed raised freeways, new 5 star hotels, and the monorail connecting Haneda Airport to the city centre.  But oddly Japan is a paradox, simultaneously buzzing with activity yet moving at a glacial pace.

For transport nerds such as myself, one of the key developments in Tokyo before the 1964 Olympic Games were elevated multi-lane freeways. To prove to the world Tokyo was a world-class city someone had the enlightened idea of building monstrous elevated freeways over what could have been some of the cities most beautiful waterways. One such freeway passes over the historic Nihombashi Bridge, which has linked tow two sides of the Nihombashi river since the 17th century, obscuring a classic view of Mt Fuji captured by artists for centuries. Sadly in the 1960's natural beauty and conservation of historic sites was nowhere near as important as dick waving contests with other countries over how many metric craploads of concrete they could pour over the landscape.

With the global realization that freeways do more to increase traffic congestion rather than alleviate it and the private vehicle is not the saviour of big city transport I had secretly hoped that Tokyo would provide a strikingly progressive example to the world and focusing on cycling and cycling infrastructure for the 2020 games with as much enthusiasm as they had focused on freeways before 1964. To be honest I dreamed of Tokyo taking a page from Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bak's playbook and begin tearing down expressways all over the city returning the waterways to their natural beauty and providing quiet, therapeutic public spaces.

The restored Cheonggyecheon river in central Seoul.

In 2003 Lee initiated a project to remove 11km of the elevated freeway from above the Cheonggyecheon river in central Seoul, creating a thriving public space filled with nature for citizens and tourists alike, in what has since been lauded as an outstanding success in urban renewal and beautification. Since the completion of this project, traffic entering downtown, Seoul has been reduced by 2.3% coupled with an increase in buses and subway usage. Invasive species have been eradicated from the stream's ecosystem, and the stream cools the surrounding inner-city areas an average of 3.6 degrees since restoration. This single project has revitalized this area of Seoul and should be an example to cities around the world.

Imagine the message Tokyo could have sent to the world: "In 1964 we believed freeways were the future of transport but over the intervening years we have realized we were wrong, which is why for the 2020 Olympics we have returned those areas to their natural beauty and invested in the future of transport, a citywide network of cycling infrastructure which compliments our clean convenient and safe public transport network. Not only have we improved mobility, reduced congestion, air and noise pollution but, we've improved the lives of our citizens with the creation of green public spaces teeming with wildlife by returning Tokyo's rivers to their natural beauty."

It sounds like a pipedream, but that is exactly what was achieved in Seoul. Imagine that message backed by the publicity of the Olympics. Imagine other cities around the world following suit. Sadly, we learned last week that Tokyo will "solve" its Olympic transportation woes with variable freeway rates during the games which will see tolls rise as much as 1000 yen during the Olympics, ensuring spectators pay more and those unable to afford the toll to take their congestion from the freeways to the streets. Nice one Tokyo.

While my dreams may have been a little too grand I still had hope that the 2020 Olympic Games, billed as the "compact" Olympics with all events would be held within a short distance of the Olympic village, could at least improve cycling infrastructure within the radius of the proposed compact games. With the vast number of Olympic events planned to take place in The Tokyo Bay area, an area notoriously underserved by public transport, improving the cycling and walking infrastructure and encouraging cycling was an absolute no brainer particularly given the abundance of space and wide avenues on these new islands drawn from the sea. But it appears this has never been seriously considered, and the "compact" games promise has since been broken due to rampant financial mismanagement which is the only thing thing that was certain going into this thing.


So what has changed for cycling in Tokyo in the 6 years since Tokyo was selected to host the 2020 Olympics? I'm searching for a way to say something other than "nothing much", but actually ... nothing much has changed at all.

Cycling infrastructure, primarily in the form of cycling lanes and on road markings, is appearing around the city, but not at an accelerated pace one would imagine the Olympics would bring.

As has historically been the case the infrastructure that is being rolled out around the city is terribly inconsistent, disconnected and conveys no other message than "unplanned". It's obvious that the city has no plan for cycling lanes, there is no overarching cycling architecture, no vision, no consistent design and construction guidelines. We live with a hodgepodge of randomly occurring, disconnected cycling lanes all with their own different set of rules.

Cycle around Tokyo and you'll experience on-street bicycle lanes most of which are unprotected from traffic, but the occasional protected lane is appearing. These lanes may go with the flow of traffic, they may go against it, they may be multi-lane with direction markings on just one side of the road, who knows what the next lane will look like? Your guess is as good as mine. Sidewalk lanes are even more inconsistent with sections reserved for cycling, sometimes separated by a barrier, sometimes not. Sidewalk bicycle lanes may be a different colour, they may be separated from pedestrians by a painted line, low barrier or plants, they may have direction indicators, or they may not, so keep your wits about you when cycling or simply ignore the markings as the bulk of cyclists and pedestrians do.

The only consistent thing regarding Tokyo's cycle lanes is that when they meet an intersection, driveway or bus stop they disappear only to re-appear a few meters ahead. This clearly demonstrates that nobody within the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has seriously studied cycling infrastructure or that nobody in Government has been given the power to re-engineer street design to truly integrate cycling and elevate it to the same status as cars and trucks.  Cycling infrastructure in Tokyo is an afterthought, nobody has even bothered to do the relatively simple homework to discover how bicycles and vehicles should interact at intersections.


The thing is, Tokyo does not have to do its homework, it just has to look over the shoulder of the Netherlands or Denmark, those guys have done their cycling infrastructure homework and are getting straight A's. Tokyo doesn't have to copy their homework either, it's in the public domain, and besides, they're friendly and willing to help if you ask as are literally thousands of transport consultants.

In order to improve the cycling situation in Tokyo cycling has to be incorporated into transport policy with cyclists treated with the same importance as motorists. To achieve that level of potential for change the people in decision-making positions (the people who take taxies or are chauffeured to work every day) need to be educated as to the importance of cycling for the everyday citizens, along with the economic, environmental and health benefits associated with cycling. You know what? You can forget all those words except "economic benefits" because they're the only words your local lawmaker heard.

The homework has been done, studies show that local businesses thrive in areas where there are high cyclist and pedestrian numbers. A parking spot outside your business delivers one customer, a bicycle lane provides a constant stream of potential customers. But of more significant impact are the health-related economic benefits achieved by a cycling focused society. Again the homework has been done in the Netherlands where it has been concluded that the economic impact of health benefits related to cycling corresponds to more than 3% of Dutch gross domestic product!

So while a few million may seem expensive for what many consider mistakenly consider a frivolous pastime, the proven positive economic impact is felt on a national scale. A city-wide network of carefully planned cycling lanes will pay for itself many times over in social security savings alone.

Once the politician's attention has been snared with the lure of proven economic benefits they must be convinced to incorporate cycling into the national transport plan. If our leaders can commit they must then be educated as to the correct design and integration of cycling infrastructure. World class cycling infrastructure cannot simply be "bolted on" to the existing street design, streets need to be overhauled, completely redesigned from the ground up with cyclists given the same (if not more) importance than motorists. You know, the kind of upheaval, disruption and potential loss of the "motorists vote" that typically terrifies politicians into inaction.

Sadly politicians have no idea the important role that cycling plays in the lives of millions of Tokyo's residents. They see a lot of bicycles parked on the sidewalk, they see the problems of cyclists mingling with pedestrians and cars, they see cycling as a problem that needs to be solved, a menace to be stopped, rather than a vitally important part of the cities transport infrastructure that contributes to the quality of life of Tokyo's residents in ways they can not imagine.

If managed correctly cycling could revolutionise transport in this great metropolis, why are we the only ones to see this?

Tokyo concentrated campaign of education, not directed towards the public, but at those in decision-making positions. It's only with their understanding and buy-in that the great potential of cycling in Tokyo will be realized. It will take more than the fleeting weeks of the Olympics to bring about the changes required to improve quality of life in this city, it takes education, determination and commitment. Does Tokyo have what it takes?

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  1. On my daily commute from Hatagaya to Roppongi Itchome there's not a single bicycle lane, and I see lots of other cyclists taking the same route. These are all very wide roads where it is possible to build bike lanes, but city is doing nothing. The leftmost lane on these roads is always occupied by taxi cabs and delivery trucks with "emergency lights" turned on when there's no emergency at all, they are just taking all this space illegally. Meanwhile cyclists have to risk their lives daily on the roads.

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