The Unique Safety of Cycling in Tokyo

By Kosuke Miyata

[Photo by Kosuke Miyata]

On a typical bike ride through Tokyo, you will find mothers picking up children from kindergarten, kids going to the park on their own, retired people out playing Pokemon, teenagers leaving school, police officers on patrol, workers making deliveries, and lots of shoppers — all on bicycles.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy estimates that cycling mode share in Japan is around 16 percent, somewhere between the two percent in the U.S., and 25 percent in the Netherlands.[1] For a country of 130 million people, that 16 percent is a serious number of people on bikes and, for them, cycling is a normal, everyday means of transportation. According to Japan’s latest Nationwide Person-Trip Survey, most bike trips are under five kilometers (three miles). The Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute recently reported that people’s top reason for using their bicycle was shopping, followed by social activities, and then by commuting. Bicycle ownership is accessible in cost, with 65 percent of bicycles in Japan sold for no more than 30,000 yen (under $300). It is also accessible in physicality, with 60 percent of bikes being step-through cruisers, known as city cycles or mamachari (literally “mothers’ bikes”).

But for all this bike culture, and in sharp opposition to places with both smaller and larger mode shares like New York City or the Netherlands, protected bike lanes are virtually nonexistent in Tokyo and across Japan. What is introduced as cycling infrastructure are sharrows or shared paths on the sidewalk. Former New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan pointed out this lack of dedicated, protected infrastructure while visiting Japan in 2019, and as other global cities build more and more protected infrastructure, Tokyo’s lack of such infrastructure moved the city from 9th to 16th in the 2019 Copenhagenize Index.

Yet, despite the lack of infrastructure, cycling in Japan is fairly safe. An International Transport Forum discussion paper from 2018 shows that cyclist fatalities per 100 million kilometers cycled were around 0.8 in the Netherlands between 2011 to 2015.[2] Calculated in the same manner, the figures would be around 5.3 for the U.S. (2009),[3] and around 2.3 for Japan (2011–2015).[4] Risk for cyclists in Japan is right in the middle, just like its mode-share, even though the country has less infrastructure for cycling in its cities than either locale.

How, then, does cycling work in Tokyo? How did there come to be a cycling culture in this megacity, and how did it remain, in relative safety, without dedicated infrastructure? Blogger Byron Kidd (a.k.a. Tokyo By Bike) attributes it to the people themselves and a culture of patience called gaman. But there are many reasons. Public safety is facilitated by a culture of compliance. Laws are largely abided, and overall crime is low. Tokyo also has a good local railway network with compact, convenient neighborhoods around it, coupled with streets and alleys that are relatively calm, so driving is both less necessary and slower-paced than in other cities that are more car-centric. Bike parking facilities surround train stations and businesses, so shopping by bike makes sense, and cycling can be easily integrated into a multimodal commute. Biking is affordable, while it is relatively expensive to own a car, especially in urban areas. Nearly all arterial streets are built with only cars in mind, but sidewalk cycling is allowed on most of them. And the sheer number of cyclists in Tokyo means that pretty much everyone is used to the presence of people on bikes.

After reaching a road fatality peak in 1970 due to rapid motorization, Japan has reduced road fatalities mainly by means of law enforcement and the installation of sidewalks and traffic lights. Sidewalk cycling was made legal in 1970, and in the same year, another law made it municipalities’ obligation to “make efforts” to build cycling infrastructure. In this moment was a chance for the Japanese to have progressed abreast with the Dutch, but little dedicated cycling infrastructure has been built here since then, while sidewalk cycling has become the norm.

Japan’s cycling culture, developed as a spontaneous byproduct of many things that were not planned or designed for, both preceded full-scale motorization and survived it. It is mysterious, and it has worked. The urge could be to leave well enough alone, but all is not ideal. Despite a 16 percent mode share and the known societal benefits of cycling, cyclists are often treated more as a problem than a solution by the news media, the police, and the government, both nationally and locally. And hundreds of people on bikes still lose their lives each year.

Despite its cycling culture, and despite infrastructure that reduces car use, both of which help keep the traffic fatality rate low, Tokyo has been lapped in bicycle infrastructure development by Vision Zero cities around the world. In April 2019, a cyclist was killed in a sharrow on an arterial street in Tokyo.[5] In the same month, a stunt person was killed in Kyoto while performing a “Scared Straight” show, which schools across the country employ to teach kids what not to do when cycling. The few painted bike lanes that exist often serve as parking lanes, and government officials advocate vehicular cycling like it is a complete solution. The ideas are vintage at best, reckless at worst.

In June, the Cycling Embassy of Japan released the 2019 Tokyo Cycling Infrastructure Award. The ranking is evidence of how little the city has built. Even the top five cycling streets in Tokyo are far from ideal in terms of design, continuity, and connection. Still, these spaces show the potential for a city with even more people of all ages and abilities on bikes, without sidewalk cycling and constant derision of cyclists. When it is clear how people should use a space, behavior can be orderly, and street life diverse and vibrant. Tokyo needs high-quality, protected bike infrastructure, and more car-free and traffic-calmed streets. Other cities around the world have proven this for us. For decades, Japan has relied on its cycling culture to keep cyclists safe. That is no longer enough.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2019.]

Kosuke Miyata is a Tokyo-based cyclist, and a member of the Cycling Embassy of Japan, an advocacy group that aims to make every city across the country a better place for cycling and walking. He advocates for freedom and diversity of travel, as well as streets that flourish with fewer cars zipping by. He can be found on Twitter @BikeNextToYou.

CITATIONS

[1] Mason, et al., “A Global High Shift Cycling Scenario.”

[2] Castro, et al., “Exposure-Adjusted Road Fatality Rates for Cycling and Walking in European Countries.”

[3] Pucher, et al., “Walking and Cycling in the United States, 2001–2009: Evidence From the National Household Travel Surveys”; Population Reference Bureau, “2009 World Population Data Sheet”; NHTSA, “Bicyclists and Other Cyclists: CrashStats.”

[4] International Transport Forum’s Road Safety Annual Reports for 2014, 2016 and 2017; Population estimates by the Statistics Bureau of Japan; T. Owaki, “A calculation method of the bicycle’s vehicle-km in Japan.” (Owaki estimates daily distance cycled per capita in Japan at 0.75 kilometers, based
on 2000 Population Census and 2005 Nationwide Person-Trip
Survey.)

[5] The National Police Agency found in 2018 that 15 percent of people killed cycling in Japan were fatally struck by a passing car.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for walking, bicycling, and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.