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Tokyo: Public Cycling Soft Power

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Chapter 4:  Public Cycling in Tokyo and its Soft Power Effects

Inspiration for High-Density Megacities

Tokyo has clearly succeeded in integrating bicycles into its urban transport system. So far, however, international public cycling advocacy groups have largely dismissed the inspiring achievement of this megacity. While, for instance, John Pucher and his co-authors argued in the book ‘City Cycling’ that high density of traffic, long trip distances, level of noise and air pollution are responsible for stubbornly low popularity levels of public cycling in megacities, Tokyo’s exceptionally high share of bicycle commuters challenges the notion that urban settings of very large cities per se deter city-dwellers from taking up public cycling. Undoubtedly, Tokyo deserves more credit for achieving and preserving one of the most impressive, yet thoroughly ignored, public cycling cultures in a modern high-density megacity.

Tokyo’s astonishingly frictionless co-existence of cyclists, pedestrians and motorized vehicles, which is palpable in the entire city, is refreshingly different from the generally propagated physical segregation of all three traffic participants.

After all, the city’s minimalistic public cycling approach could inspire the creation of alternative bike policies and sustainable urban planning strategies which would be applicable to rather modern city districts with extremely sparse urban space; that is, densely populated cities – which encounter difficulties in providing space-required networks of bicycle lanes (due to their already largely established urban design) – could be provided with valuable information on how to accommodate public cyclists in their own high-density urban districts. And the very fact that Tokyo’s public cycling culture has emerged despite the absence of any substantial network of segregated bicycle lanes could put this top-tier World City in a formidable position to become an attractive public cycling test case for cash-trapped cities, too.


Tokyo could inspire other modern large cities to create urban space for public cyclists in their high-density city landscapes.


A selection of popular bike types for different societal groups in Tokyo: for young male professionals, middle-aged male finance managers, male retirees and young women with small kids.

Yet despite Tokyo’s evident prospects of shaping public cycling cultures of other cities around the world, the increasingly influential bicycle research community has, by and large, ignored Tokyo’s impressive success, implying that its public cycling culture is unworthy of any serious investigation. Instead, international academics and bicycle advocates continue to disproportionately focus on celebrating and endorsing the few selected public cycling cities, which are predominantly located in Central European countries.

Due to their differing socio-political circumstances, gentrification levels and urban planning objectives, however, these European public cycling cities – such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Barcelona, to name a few – are no suitable models for other developed and emerging cities around the world. In Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for instance, the highest bike popularity levels are monitored in their central areas (this is true of most European public cycling cities), which were largely built in the 18th and 19th century, respectively; that is, these urban areas were designed prior to the seismic urban transformation triggered by various transport innovations, making these older urban areas vastly unsuitable models for many potential public cycling cities. This is a crucial aspect that typically fails to be addressed.

A comprehensive bicycle assessment of Tokyo would therefore be more valuable to any modern city that aspires to increase its public cycling popularity levels. And given that the world is turning its sight in the easterly direction, Tokyo, the World City of public cycling, could embolden municipalities as well as international bicycle advocacy groups to explore other approaches (in the 21st century the widely used one-size-fits-all European-style approach of the bicyclism movement appears somewhat outdated) (see previous chapter).


As a result of an accelerating gentrification in some parts of the inner-city districts of Berlin, Germany, over the past two decades, the older compact city areas in this European metropolis have become public cycling hubs.

Metropolises around the world should also be encouraged to place more importance on identifying potential urban-structural settings within their cities in which public cycling could most likely flourish. Undertaking assessments of bicycle-compatibility of selected urban areas should hence become a key feature of any local bicycle policy before designing bicycle lanes and attempting to turn municipalities into public cycling hubs. Far too often, the misapprehension of local urban circumstances and the disregard for differences in societal composition between both cities and city-districts lead to unrealistic expectations, flawed predictions and financial constraints (for more information on the compatibility factor, please read the report on ‘The inspirational sporting clout of prime World Cities’).

The 2020 Olympic City and its Soft Power Effect

It is fair to say that Tokyo will almost surely never be able to reach the levels of bicycle popularity observed in the primary public cycling cities, such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, for instance. Given that its urban spatial structure resembles a rather modern city, however, Tokyo could be well-positioned to transcend its public cycling culture beyond its city boundaries. To achieve this objective, the megacity could make better use of its more influential clout as a top-tier World City.

Over the years Tokyo’s metropolitan government has been increasingly concerned about the city’s future status as a first-class World City. The city’s fears have been confirmed by the widely popularized city rankings, according to which Tokyo’s city profile seems to be relying too heavily on its strong finance and banking sector, putting this World City at risk of becoming one-dimensional in the increasingly fierce inter-city competition.

Its status as the World City of public cycling could thus help Tokyo to diversify its city profile. For instance, this high-density megacity could create a vision of its own future by fostering a distinctive public cycling identity (in a globalised world locality matters more than ever). By highlighting its healthy and environmentally friendly public cycling achievements, Tokyo could eventually embrace its public cycling World City status as its potential marketing asset. After all, for decades bicycle popularity levels have remained fairly high in this megacity – a city that is very different from the aggressively publicised European public cycling cities with regard to population size, urban design and the quality of public transport network.


Tokyo could put more effort into creating a Green City image by highlighting the environmentally-friendly transportation mode.

Yet Tokyo’s rather inward looking approach to the world as well as its waning status as a World City with ‘global appeal’ – in its comprehensive index the Economist Intelligence Unit 2012 identified this aspect as one of the city’s key weaknesses – could perhaps hamper its efforts to foster such a new city identity (the MORI Global Power City Index has identified the city’s environmental standards as another weakness of this top-tier World City).

For many years now the Japanese Government has been initiating some noteworthy campaigns in attempt to increase Japan’s and Tokyo’s appeal to the outside world and to boost its capacity to inspire and influence people beyond its country’s borders. Yet the government remains vague about the resulting ‘soft power’ effect of its strategies, casting doubt over whether its financial investment has translated into greater influence and more positive perception of Tokyo in the world. For instance, cost-intensive TV shows on Japan’s main public broadcaster NHK World – such as Cool Japan, J-Tech or Tokyo Eye, among others, which apply this concept of ‘soft power’ on grand scale – have thus far had rather modest cultural impact on the world, indicating limited global influence of its televised programs (for more information on potential soft power effects and the World City sportification, please read the report on ‘The sporting clout of prime World Cities’).

Despite Tokyo’s evident ‘soft power’ limitations, its status as the host city of the 2020 Olympic Games provides this top-tier World City with a great one-off opportunity to foster a long-lasting and globally recognisable public cycling city identity. And for better or for worse, Olympic cities always capture worldwide attention for relatively long periods of time. For this reason, Tokyo should become more proactive in incorporating its distinctive city character into this eternal Olympic city brand.

In the emerging era of future-city-living the concepts of ‘Healthy Cities’ and ‘Green Cities’ have recently become increasingly appealing to local governments. As public cycling is associated with increased urban mobility, reduced pollution and improved physical health of city-dwellers, this sustainable mode of transportation deserves to be considered one of the key components of Tokyo’s potential Olympic City legacy. Given its striking success at integrating public cycling into its city’s life, Tokyo 2020 could potentially create a long-lasting healthy and green legacy of global dimension and become an inspirational representative of ‘Healthy Cities’ and ‘Green Cities’.


On Sunday mornings the 2-km long eastern section of the Uchibori Dori – the name of the road encircling the Imperial Palace – gets closed to motorized traffic, enabling local recreational cyclists to enjoy the full width of this six-lane main road.

After all, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has been promoting Green Games since the Sydney Olympics in 2000; and as of late it has integrated an environmental pillar into its Olympic movement (the other two official pillars are sport and culture). And a long-lasting healthy and green Olympic City legacy that addresses the IOC’s global responsibility could eventually become one of the key defining features of hosting Olympic Games.

At present, however, the notion of an Olympic legacy mostly reflects the aspects of host-city-benefits, thus limiting the opportunity of creating of a long-term, multi-faceted and global legacy. To overcome this one-dimensional perception of Olympic Cities, the future Olympic legacy concept would need to be broadened by, for instance, initiating a formation of pioneering Olympic host cities – that is, valuable, progressive and inspirational concepts of future Olympic host cities could be embraced and improved by potential Olympic City candidates and non-Olympic cities alike.


Linking the city’s young generation with public cycling would be a core theme in an attempt to successfully promote a potential 2020 Olympic bicycle movement.

Given the emerging global trend towards establishing ‘Healthy Cities’ and ‘Green Cities’, Tokyo – the 2020 Olympic City – could thus be at the forefront of a likely global socio-cultural movement by symbolizing the notion of human body and sustainable transportation unity in its novel public cycling city identity; after all, creating healthy urban environments for its residents has become an increasingly important aspect for any city in the world that aspires to become a high-profile ‘Future City’. Thanks to its impressive public cycling culture, Tokyo could potentially serve as source of inspiration for other cities by shaping the view of what future urban living could look like in this century. Yet if the Tokyo seriously aspires to leave such a green and healthy legacy, it would speedily need to revise its city profile in order to initiate a powerful and cohesive public cycling vision in the built-up to the 2020 Olympic Games.

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This report was first published in March 2014; updated in July 2016.

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