Reinventing the wheel | The Japan Times

As the annual Spring Road Safety Campaign gets underway this weekend, we examine what the government is doing to improve conditions for cyclists in Tokyo

On Jan. 24, a full-page advert appeared in the Tokyo edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun for a petition on behalf of the capital’s cyclists. “Join the new governor in making Tokyo a bicycle city,” read the headline for the ad, which reeled off a series of suggested improvements: more extensive cycling lanes, better parking facilities and the creation of a public bike-sharing scheme akin to the ones used in London and Paris.

Shigeki Kobayashi, president of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group and one of the petition’s organizers, admits that they pinched the idea from London, where a similar campaign took place during the 2012 mayoral election. Tokyo’s own gubernatorial election campaign had kicked off the day before the advert was published, and the effect was instantaneous.

“I listened to a lot of the hustings later in the day,” Kobayashi says. “Suddenly, all the candidates had started talking about cycling.”

Although the petition itself ended up collecting an unspectacular tally of 6,481 signatures, it seemed to achieve its desired result. Five of the six leading candidates in the election pledged their support for the campaign’s goals (right-winger Toshio Tamogami was the only holdout). And on Feb. 19, newly appointed Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe — a big fan of European-style urban redevelopment — announced that Tokyo would be extending the amount of new bike paths that it planned to create by 2020 to 120 km.

For cyclists, the mean streets of the capital started to look a bit more welcoming. But who rides in the streets anyway?

While it boasts a pedaling population that puts most western metropolises to shame — around 14 percent of all journeys in Tokyo are made by bicycle, compared to 2 percent in London and 1 percent in New York — the city’s cycling culture has evolved in a peculiar fashion. Bicycle commuters may be on the rise, but the archetypal urban cyclist in Tokyo isn’t a Lycra-clad road warrior weaving through traffic; it’s a housewife lumbering along the sidewalk on a mamachari (literally, mom’s bike), laden with shopping and — more often than not — a couple of kids perched in seats above the front and back wheels.

There are nearly twice as many bicycles for every car in Tokyo, sure, but the majority of them barely venture onto the roads. They don’t have to — it’s still legal to ride on the sidewalks.

Back in the 1960s, Japan was confronted by a problem familiar to many industrialized nations: Rising car ownership was making the streets downright hazardous for cyclists. It was a common problem at the time.

The same phenomenon led the cycling rate in the Netherlands, now widely regarded as a paradise for bicycles, to drop from 85 percent to around 20 percent between the 1950s and early 1970s.

But while other countries chose to put their motorists first, Japan opted for a compromise. In 1970, the traffic laws were amended to allow cyclists to ride alongside pedestrians on the sidewalks. It was only meant to be a temporary measure, while proper infrastructure was created, but more than four decades later the rule is still essentially intact.

In its current form, the law permits children under 13 and elderly people to ride on the sidewalk as a matter of course. Adults can do so when sidewalks are explicitly designated for shared use, but also when road conditions — parked cars, construction work, narrow streets, heavy traffic and so on — make it “unavoidable” to use them. Or in other words, you’re not allowed to ride on the sidewalk, except when you are.

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