TOKYO – THE WORLD CITY OF PUBLIC CYCLING
Chapter 3: Bicycle infrastructure – Tokyo’s unconventional path
Traffic calming measures
International bicycle advocates and academics typically associate rigid implementation of various road safety and traffic calming measures in residential and commercial areas with potentially high levels of public cycling. It has been argued that the number of city-dwellers who voice interest in taking up public cycling is positively correlated with subjective perception and objective levels of personal traffic safety; in particular, reducing speed limits has been viewed as one of the most effective traffic calming measures that is likely to nudge more commuters towards cycling.
While it could rightly be argued that Tokyo’s rigorous implementation of restrictive speed limits, such as the standard speed limit of 40 km/h on main roads, has largely led to declining casualty rates among cyclists over the past few decades, these cyclists’ safety improvements can not entirely explain the megacity’s present public cycling popularity.
Across Tokyo’s Special Wards four-lane main roads have a speed limit of 40 km/h, reducing the risk for public cyclists.
Faster than driving: a busy main road in the Chiyoda ward (left photo). Just a normal, acceptable and mostly safe(!) way of cycling on Tokyo’s roads; an older Tokyoite displays his biking skills on a one-way road in the Taitō ward (right photo).
After all, bikes were already regarded as one of the key transportation modes by the time any substantial traffic calming policies were put in place; while in the late 1970s the proportion of Tokyoites choosing to cycle to work reached almost today’s levels, according to an academic paper written by Brühl and Katakura, substantial traffic calming measures were only implemented in the 1980s and 1990s. Again, these traffic safety measures can not be directly linked to the current public cycling popularity levels in Tokyo, albeit their positive impact on cyclists’ safety is indeed undeniable (there is no well-documented evidence proving that Tokyo’s traffic measures are less rigid than those enacted in Copenhagen or Amsterdam – the most talked-about public cycling cities in the world).
Bicycle lanes ….. or the lack thereof
Provision of sufficient bicycle infrastructure is another core pillar of international public cycling advocacy groups. Most importantly, the development of an extended network of segregated bike lanes and the availability of bike parking space are believed to play a crucial role in encouraging large numbers of urban commuters to switch to cycling and turning cities around the world into public cycling hubs.
By promoting bicycle-specific infrastructure as the critical structural pre-condition for achieving greater public cycling levels (and improved objective safety standards for cyclists), bicycle advocates have in the past decade succeeded in persuading various local governments around the world to invest into constructing extensive networks of segregated bicycle lanes. By the same token, more urban space has been designated for bike parking areas. In short, among local governments investing in bicycle infrastructure is now viewed as a critical factor and key driver for substantially boosting bicycle commuting shares in their municipalities.
In contrast, Tokyo appears to have achieved high public cycling popularity levels without much bicycle infrastructure investment. As for bicycle lanes, for instance, in the early 2010s Tokyo’s metropolitan area provided only one-tenth of New York City’s and one-twentieth of London’s on-street bicycle lanes and off-street bike paths (measured per capita) – according to a report by John Pucher, who views the provision of designated bicycle lanes as the hallmark of public cycling.
These comparative figures clearly demonstrate that Tokyo has so far resisted the temptation to build bicycle lanes on a large scale. And yet the share of bicycle commuters in Tokyo is, by far, greater than that of these two other top-tier World Cities, i.e., London and New York City (see the graph in the chapter ‘Public cycling in a top-tier World City’). To be clear, Tokyo’s bicycle commuting rate of 13.5% strongly suggests that this megacity has evolved into the World City of public cycling despite lacking any substantial network of bicycle lanes within its entire metropolitan area.
Social harmony and attentive behaviour on full display. In Tokyo much of public cycling happens on pedestrian/cyclists-shared pavements.
There are a few exceptions to the norm, though. In an attempt to make Tokyo “more suitable for the twenty-first century”, more than ten years ago its three central wards made a commitment to increase their relatively low public cycling levels by constructing more off-road bicycle lanes.
As part of an ambitious Eco-City plan, for instance, these local governments created separated bicycle lanes linked with the newly developed upmarket high-rise condominiums – which have been built largely on reclaimed land around Tokyo’s bay. The lavishly wide and clearly segregated bicycle lane on the east side of the Imperial Palace, in the Chiyoda ward, has also been part of this ambitious and prestigious plan. Yet despite these well-intentioned financial investments in showcase bicycle infrastructure, in the past decade bicycle commuting shares have slightly dropped in these three wards, demonstrating the lowest rates among Tokyo’s 23 Special Wards.
Lavish bicycle lane in an inner-city district that is known for having the lowest bicycle commuting rates of all 23 Special Wards. By and large, there is little demand for public cycling on this 1.5km-long off-street bicycle lane along the Imperial Palace in the central Chiyoda ward.
Regardless of these newly constructed bicycle lanes much of public cycling in Tokyo continues to be occurring on narrow residential roads or on pavements (which are peacefully shared with pedestrians). Although painted dividing lines occasionally mark wider pavements, both cyclists and pedestrians generally ignore this rather metaphorical separation. Due to rising numbers of bike fatalities during the post-Second World War period (a result of constantly rising motorization levels), this co-existence of cyclists and pedestrians was enacted into a law in 1970, allowing cyclists to ride on pavements. In the following decades, traffic-related bike casualties’ rates had steadily declined, reaching the lowest number of 34 fatalities in 2012, according to the Japanese Bicycle Promotion Institute and the Metropolitan Police Department.
While international bicycle advocates generally associate the paucity of segregated bicycle lanes and the existence of shared pavements with poor cyclists’ safety, Tokyo’s relatively low fatality rates among public cyclists could help to challenge this conventional view. According to the latest available figures from various national statistics departments and the Metropolitan Police Department, Tokyo’s cyclists’ casualty rate per 100.000 inhabitants is at 0.27, which is, in fact, slightly lower than the rate in Denmark (0.47), and considerably lower than in the Netherlands (1.20). (On this note, it needs to be said that Denmark and the Netherlands are the two most admired and marketed public cycling countries, whose extensive networks of bicycle lanes have been associated with the highest standards of safety for cyclists).
To be fair, the casualty rates gathered for the two European countries include casualties in rural areas, too. At the same time the percentage of bicycle commuters seems to be slightly lower in Tokyo, compared to Denmark and the Netherlands. For these reasons, it is probable that the gap in bike casualty ratio between these countries and Tokyo would narrow or level off, if analyzed per 100.000 public cyclists or per travelled distances (unfortunately, no comparative data sets are available). Nonetheless, Tokyo’s excellent cyclists’ safety record, reflected in its low casualty ratio, could imply that the traditional way of imposing the development of segregated bicycle lanes will need to be viewed more critically.
Fatalities among young kids are extremely rare in Tokyo, as they are permitted to cycle on pavements at all times.
Neither pedestrians nor cyclists pay much attention to the well-intentioned bicycle lanes highlighted on pavements, which are predominantly observed in the Shinjuku ward and Taitō ward. Instead, public cyclists tend to use these marked lanes as bicycle parking areas.
On the whole, Tokyo’s public cycling culture has been faring impressively well, despite lacking the worldwide much-touted networks of bicycle lanes. And it is far from certain that the benefits of constructing an expansive network of separated bicycle lanes in Tokyo would actually outweigh the costs associated with such an urban design shaping infrastructure project. Given Japan’s gloomily high levels of public debt, the financial aspects would certainly need to be considered in any future decision-making process (the national government debt has ballooned to 245% of its gross domestic product, according to latest IMF’s figure). Moreover, an extended network of segregated bicycle lanes criss-crossing Tokyo’s urban space would irrevocably change the city’s street character, putting an end to the much-appreciated chaotic order of Tokyo’s streets. With a rigid separation of cyclists, pedestrians and motorized vehicles Tokyo could literally be robbed of its soul.
Provision of bike parking facilities
Among bicycle advocacy groups the unequivocal view prevails that provision of bicycle parking space, among other factors, plays a critical role in encouraging city-dwellers to choose public cycling over other transportation modes. In 2012 John Pucher and his colleagues reported that in Tokyo the provision of more than 800,000 bike parking lots – with much of these designated bike-parking areas being located at major train stations – has over the years persuaded the megacity’s commuters to switch to public cycling.
Yet contrary to this claim, older reports rather imply that public cycling popularity levels in Tokyo had already reached high levels by the time local governments decided to provide bike-parking facilities on a large scale. In the mid-1980s Brühl and Katakura, for instance, indicated in their academic paper that in the late 1970s bicycle commuting accounted for 12% of all transportation options – currently, the rate is at 13.5% – and that the demand for parking space around Tokyo’s train stations noticeably outstripped the limited space near commercial sites, leading to loads of randomly-parked bikes and causing a phenomenon called ‘bicycle pollution’.
Given this public nuisance, local governments eventually fell obliged to initiate major infrastructure programs, consisting of the expansion of designated bicycle parking zones and construction of spacious bike storage facilities at railway stations. In addition, Tokyo’s extremely sparse physical space and its ballooning costs of urban land have over the years spurred innovation in space-efficient storage, resulting in innovative underground-bike-parking-areas and multistory bicycle complexes. At various major train stations bicycle parking facilities comprise of several sites, thereby allowing space for hundreds of bicycles to be securely parked. Staff workers – whose role is to support customers and to monitor payment stickers – typically guard these large parking areas.
Again, while present pay-as-you-park bike storage facilities are fairly popular with Tokyoites, their provision have barely encouraged more commuters to take up public cycling; after all, the proportion of bicycle commuters has not changed substantially, if at all, over the past decades.
In Tokyo there are various pay-as-you-use bicycle parking options around train stations: on-pavement bicycle parking racks, multi-storey bike parks, bicycle parking grounds underneath elevated expressways or railways and underground bike parking zones.
Tokyoites display a fairly relaxed attitude towards traffic policies and purpose-built road structures.
Over the past two decades more restrictions on bicycle parking have been put in place by the local governments. Not everyone cares about it (near Morishita train station in the Kōtō ward)
Fines for expired parking tags. A bicycle park attendant is doing his duty at a pay-as-you-park bicycle parking area near the Higashi-Shinjuku train station in the Shinjuku ward.
Tokyo’s unconventional path – with little love for bicyclism
There is no evidence suggesting that Tokyo’s public cycling culture has emerged as a result of the provision of bicycle infrastructure or rigid road safety measures – the key preconditions for achieving greater bike popularity levels, according to international bicycle advocacy groups. As explained above, Tokyo’s bicycle commuting shares had already reached high levels by the time such car-restrictive policies were enforced. Also, the provision of Tokyo’s bicycle parking areas has merely been a political reaction to the vast numbers of randomly-parked bicycles, rather than a proactive attempt to broaden the appeal of public cycling.
But most importantly, no network of bicycle lanes exists in Tokyo; that is, its urban setting accommodates large numbers of public cyclists, despite the fact that no substantial modifications to its street and pavement design have been made in the past decades (most Tokyoites cycle on shared pavements).
Again, it needs to be pointed out that Tokyo’s urban spatial structure has laid the foundation for the city’s impressive popularisation of public cycling. Tokyo’s physical network of one-way streets and narrow alleyways, in particular, have produced a structural condition for traffic calming and street connectivity, thereby enabling ordinary cyclists to ride on relatively calm neighbourhood streets.
All these aspects could possibly explain why the metropolitan government has not initiated any city-wide construction of an extensive network of segregated bicycle lanes. Tokyo’s reactive rather than proactive approach to public cycling clearly resembles the supply-and-demand economic model; that is, over the years high bicycle popularity levels (demand) have convinced local governments to increase the capacity of bicycle infrastructure (supply). In other words, as the current infrastructure seems to match the actual bike popularity levels, no further supply is required.
Up to two secured bike-child seats are frequently attached to bicycles. It is a convenient, inexpensive and common way of bringing small children around the neighbourhood. Family roles, though, are clearly defined in the Japanese society; that is, it appears to be the mothers’ responsibility to transport children on bikes.
A bicycle has become an important transportation mode in various industries.
A practical way of assisting a young teenager with intellectual disability
Acculturation in progress. Many Caucasian expatriates residing in Tokyo go native by emulating the city’s public cycling culture.
International bicycle advocacy groups, on the other hand, are in favour of the proactive approach: they try to nudge cities around the world into designing bicycle infrastructure – in particular, on- and off-road bicycle lanes. Yet in many cases reliable predictions regarding potential demand for public cycling among local commuters remain scant and the crucial aspect of gentrification typically fails to be incorporated into the public cycling equation.
In all, Tokyo should start taking pride in its notable public cycling culture, which has emerged despite lacking any substantial bicycle infrastructure. Hence, this World City of public cycling could surely serve as a good example of how the prevailing one-fits-all-approach cultivated by international bicycle advocacies could be overcome. After all, Tokyo’s policymakers have taken a more cautious approach towards this global bicycle infrastructure craze observed in other cities around the world, which could easily lead to costly demand-and-supply imbalances.
To be clear, however, bicycle lanes can, to some degree, be effective at improving cyclists’ safety. But it needs to be pointed out that over-simplicity (e.g., phrases such as “design bicycle lanes and people will eventually use it”) of this rather complex subject and the dominance of the one-size-fits-all bicycle policy approach could turn this serious conversation about ‘Future Cities’ or ‘Green Cities’ into dogmatism.
Unfortunately, the academic world has not been very helpful in offering a more balanced perspective on this topic. Rather, for many years the overwhelmingly large number of scholarly manuscripts has been designed to minimise the risk of any falsifiability that could potentially challenge the key elements of bicyclism – a politically-charged ideological bike movement that has been gaining influence over urban policymakers. Many articles also cross the obligatory objectivity line – the essence of scientific work – by openly displaying their obsessive anti-car mania tendencies. This is, indeed, a very disturbing trend.
In Japan the cuteness-factor is a must when wanting to change cyclists’ behaviour through public campaigns.
Rain-protecting clothing is not fashionable in Tokyo. The handy umbrella does the job.
In Tokyo cycling is not permitted in many gardens and parks.
This report was first published in March 2014; updated in July 2016.
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