Tokyo's Bicycle Navigation Marks - What do they mean?

Byron Kidd

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been actively increasing the number of bicycle navigation marks and lines at intersections around the city, but what do they mean? Do they change cycling rules in any meaningful fashion? Do they keep cyclists safe? Or are they just more government sponsored graffiti?

Bicycle Navigation Marks (Sharrows), Tokyo, Japan

I'm sure you're aware already that these bicycle markings are nothing more than stencilled graffiti with little to no actual meaning, the need for which is made even more confusing by the official explanation of how they tie into sidewalk and road cycling. 

In short the official explanation of these markings does nothing more than highlight that bicycles are considered unwelcome impostors on both the sidewalks and roads of Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government's own explanation of these marks defines them "markings which show the area and direction in which a bicycle should travel" and that bicycles should "travel in the direction the arrows are pointing". (Because you may have forgotten how arrows work, right?).

But most the most telling statements regarding these markings are: 

"Bicycle navigation marks/ bicycle navigation lines are not stipulated by law, and they do not signify the designation of a new traffic system." 


"These marks do not indicate right of way for bicycles nor do they imply other legal protections for cyclists." 

Which is basically an admission from the Government that motorists are not bound to recognize or honour these markings and that they do indeed offer no additional safety benefits to cyclists who are already familiar with the concepts of "left", "right", and the direction of arrows.

Cycling these lanes does not give cyclists a right to space on the road, bicycles are still a guest in the motorists domain. Cyclists are encouraged to obey all the laws of the road but not worthy of the the same courtesy from motorists.  You can be struck while cycling within these markings, and have no legal standing because by the Tokyo Metropolitans own documentation they have absolutely no legal status, and thus no merit for cyclists.

Not surprisingly the entire explanation of these markings centres on the obligations of the cyclists, there is not a single word about the obligation of motorists to observe these markings at all. In fact officials make it clear that when cycling on these markings that it is the obligation of the cyclists to check behind them when overtaking cars parked on the markings. This is a blatant admission from the government that: 

    • Motorists have no obligation to pay attention to the vehicles in front of them.
    • It is perfectly OK for motorists to park on top of these markings.

Of course, the conversation becomes even more complicated when you mix in sidewalk cycling. Just look at the following text lifted from an official website:

"Cycling on a pedestrian sidewalk is never the norm. Pedestrians have the right of way, and bicycles should travel slowly and keep to the side near the road. Even on roads that have bicycle navigation marks, a bicycle can travel on a pedestrian sidewalk" 

The site then goes on to list situations when sidewalk cycling is acceptable including when "travelling on the sidewalk is unavoidable for safety reasons". 

If the alternative is cycling on the road over painted arrows motorists can freely ignore I'd say sidewalk cycling us unavoidable for safety reasons for the majority of the Japanese public.

Jut remember its never the norm, forget what you see on the streets everyday, OK? We good?

Until the Tolko Metropolitan Government makes a decision on where cyclists belong, and provides the necessary infrastructure to support that decision, the majority of Japanese will cycle on the sidewalk regardless of what some chauffeured Japanese officials may say. Sidewalk cycling certainly IS the norm and it is not going away until Japanese cyclists have safe alternatives and these painted arrows are certainly not that.

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