Japan

Making cycling something that everyone can relate to and do.

 

Motorway

Would you like more lanes with your motorway, madam?

It is no secret that this blog has at times been openly critical of some aspects of the way cycling advocacy is approached. Nonetheless, the intent of this blog has always been about wanting to engage in a meaningful conversation. To present different views and interpretations that may not be appreciated or understood fully, yet. While no one likes to be criticised, including myself, I feel that it may be helpful to spell out that it is never my intention to make it a personal issue. For me, it has always only ever been about looking for the most effective ways of getting more people using bikes for short utility trips. And for what it’s worth, I am trying harder these days to be better at using criticisms that I receive, as an opportunity to strengthen my argument.

And I believe that my views do actually reflect the views of some people, and have in fact, lifted the level of conversation and understanding. That has to be one of the real values of the internet; the democratisation of ideas. I also believe that organisations will be better off if they are open to differing viewpoints – echo chambers and all that. Reasoned, critical voices need to be encouraged. As well as being critical, I believe that I have offered authentic and well argued alternatives. And on that matter, if you do support the ideas being presented on this site, or if you are mildly curious, why don’t you try approaching your local advocacy group and let them know.

One aspect of advocacy that I have been critical of has been around the nature of the relationship between advocacy groups and the national transport agency. It is a sensible and pragmatic approach to get a bike lane attached to a new motorway when it is being built. Of course, cycling needs all the help it can get. So while I am pleased to see the latest Auckland motorway project being given the thumbs down by the advocates, the potential for the relationship to be compromised should be a concern. Financial and political autonomy would be the dream scenario. Cycling for the people, by the people.

This leads me to another aspect of advocacy in which my thinking diverges critically from what is currently on offer and to which I have tried to offer clear and reasoned arguments for an alternative approach. NZTA and advocacy groups seem intent on selling cycling to enthusiastic sports and recreational cyclists; to convert these cyclists into everyday commuters. I have argued repeatedly that this strategy is of limited value. Or at the very least, it ignores a whole swathe of the population who will never ride like that. The growth market in cycling is in riding a bicycle; a comfortable, slow bicycle, for short, utility type trips. Like they do in Japan. Riding a bike is achievable to a whole lot of people if we think of the bicycle as replacing walking, not driving.

I accept that this is a slightly different goal than what we are currently being presented with. The goal that I believe we should be striving for is an inclusive and more specific one. It will make cycling available to young and old, male and female. Not just more cycling, but more people using bicycles for short, utility trips. It is a goal that will require our attention being focused on making our cities less car friendly. That’s a big target and will need to be broken down into smaller, manageable goals. I just find it hard to accept that it is wise to be relying on an organisation that loves cars that much, as the best source of advice on making cycling a real thing for everyone.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

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Riding a bicycle in Japan looks like this

I have commented before on this site that capturing images of people riding bicycles in Japan is akin to shooting fish in a barrell. Bicycles are an integral part of daily life in Japan. All members of society are represented. There’s the 80+ year old gentleman riding to his chess club at the local community centre, the school students travelling to and from school, the young children hanging out in the afternoon, the mums transporting their young child and groceries home, the stylish teenage girls socialising at a restaurant, the elderly women doing the shopping.

The bicycles are similar in style – practical, comfortable, easy to ride. Apart from extensive bicycle parking provision, infrastructure for riding bicycles is largely absent. People on bicycles seem to be treated as fast moving pedestrians. In many cases I watched people on bicycles following desire lines. It was not unusual to see people riding contra-flow. Unfortunately, like everywhere else in the world, the car is the dominant urban force in Japan. But despite this, it is quite remarkable that city streets are relatively congestion free and people on bicycles are ever present.

I also noted that some of the tourism focused cities in Japan offer bicycle rentals. I captured one of those experiences and turned it into a short video. You can check it out, here.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat. As easy as walking, but faster.

Get involved via: Twitter, FacebookFlickrVine or Instagram.

Made in Japan: slow, everyday cycling

 

Riding a bike in Japan - a normal, everyday activity.

Everything looks pretty normal to me.

Well that was interesting. My camera has just had a really good workout. In Auckland, it’s pretty well under-utilised when it comes to photographing bicycles. I typically have to resort to bribing the #ninjaprincess to present an image of what a #wheeledpedestrian could look like. So, it was a real thrill to be photographing bicycles that were being ridden. Being ridden slowly. Being ridden by young and old. Boys and girls. Bicycles that had mud guards and chain guards. Shopping in baskets, children in baskets. No lycra, no helmets. Just ordinary people moving ordinarily. Capturing images of #wheeledpedestrian cycling in Japan was as easy as the proverbial ‘shooting fish in a barrel’.

We are told that separated cycle paths are essential to get people out riding bikes and until this infrastructure thing is sorted, a cyclised city will remain a pipe dream. Or it’s sometimes presented as a chicken versus egg conundrum. No infrastructure means no cyclists. No cyclists means no infrastructure. I am not entirely happy with this way of looking at the problem and the solutions that are proposed as a consequence of this interpretation.

If it’s the absence of the separated cycle paths that stop people cycling, why do people ride bicycles in Japan? Why is Japan different? And is there anything we could learn from Japan?

Let it be said that Japan is no Netherlands when it comes to catering for people on bicycles. Even though there are plenty of people on bicycles, cars still dominate. Motorists possess the typical arrogance of space. They drive too fast. Just like in any other city in the world. But for a country with such a high population density, it seemed relatively free of traffic congestion. That can probably be explained by the the fact that Japan has a phenomenal transport network. These Vine videos here, here and here, will give you an insight to what I am trying to describe. It’s all about moving people. Lots of people. Quickly, conveniently.

Commuters are provided with a range of excellent transport options. And typically, the car is not the first or best choice. For many, the local train station is a short walk or bicycle ride away. Park n Ride. There are plenty of shops handy; distances that are highly achievable on a comfortable bike with capacity to carry stuff. Density done well, anyone?

In Japan, people on bicycles tend to mix with pedestrians but they also ride on the roads, next to cars. Footpaths are sometimes widened to ‘accommodate’ both. This seems to work fine because of the slow speeds at which the people on bikes travel. Long haul commuters and fast moving cyclists that tend to be the norm in less developed cycling cultures, are conspicuous by their absence. The few faster ones that I saw were forced to default to that dreaded vehicular style of cycling that has limited appeal.

Streets are typically narrow and speeds are typically slower. Though in some cases, it still felt too fast for me. But I watched high school students in these situations and they did not appear to be overly concerned. My favourite sight was children’s bicycles parked outside a private piano school. Mothers confident enough to let their children move about on bicycles independently? Long may it last.

Dream on

However, the biggest contributing factor to the existence of people on bicycles in Japan has to be the total absence of on-road parking. Cars are parked everywhere. Above ground, below ground, on every available space. But not on the road. Zero tolerance. Cars will get towed. I didn’t see that happen so it would suggest that this law is taken seriously. This absence of cars parked on the road made me realise two things – not only do cars take up so much space when they are stored on the road, they also take away something – visibility and hence, safety. So I guess if transport authorities in Japan did decide to provide specific infrastructure for cycling, the space is already there. Getting parked cars off the street; freeing up that space, has to be the biggest barrier to cyclising our cities.

What I am trying to argue here is just a repetition of what I have been trying to convey throughout this blog. There is a whole swathe of the population that is currently being ignored. There is #wheeledpedestrian cycling waiting to be done right now. No special equipment or preparation needed. A young adult I spoke to in Japan said she received no special training to learn to ride a bicycle when she was at school. We aren’t quite there yet, but please, let’s not overcomplicate it. Normal is good. Let’s redefine cycling. Broaden its appeal. Treat it like a transport tool, not a sports tool. Our cities don’t need more cyclists, they need more people doing short utility trips on bikes. Make it look more appealing to a wider audience. Let’s call that ‘promotion’.

Even without specific cycling infrastructure, people in Japan ride bikes. And being that I am into redefining, can we also broaden the definition of separated cycle paths? I think turning residential roads from ‘rat runs’ into a slow speed zones, for residents and bicycles only, would fulfill the role of separation. This needs to be given priority. That’s an inclusive goal; in that it would benefit all residents, and especially children. Instead, our streets are a place to be feared, it would seem. Watching or hearing cars zoom up and down your street has to be a compelling reason why people choose to drive rather than ride. “It just doesn’t feel safe”. Let’s call that ‘policy’.

So, instead of seeing the status quo as a conundrum that loops endlessly, how about we employ all three strategies equally – infrastructure, policy and promotion. A stool is at its strongest with three legs on the ground. Anyway, it’s good to be back. I bet you missed me too. 😉

You can see my photos of cycling in Japan here.

‘Cycling’ is sport and recreation. ‘Riding a bicycle’ is everyday activity. No sweat.

Get involved via: Twitter, FacebookFlickrVine or Instagram.