Tokyo’s Love Affair with Bicycles
Last Updated on February 27, 2020
The Next Stage of Urban Cycling
Living in Japan for nearly a year now, I am still perpetually amazed and impressed by the number of people who chose to commute by bike (see The Daily Commute). It’s a clean, convenient, and cost-effective means of getting around, and it has the potential of bringing genuine joy to the rider.
I’m certainly a fan. Biking to work, school, and social events had often been my preferred means of travel back in Montreal (despite the long winters), but here in Tokyo, they’ve managed to bring urban cycling to the next level!
Not Your Grandma’s Bicycle
For starters, there is the ever-remarkable mamachari (mama’s chariot), ridden by skillfully adept moms and dads (dad’s version is the papachari), as they navigate their little ones through the bustling streets and sidewalks.
Unlike back in Canada, the attached child-seats have a higher, more protective form, and there’s the possibility of having two affixed to the bike. Indeed, while the country as a whole is facing declining birthrates, I’m seeing babies all over the place here in Tokyo!
As it turns out, Tokyo is the only prefecture (of 47) where that number is going up. This is caused in part by the number of young adults who come to the metropolis for work. Something you’ll definitely see reflected in your morning bicycle commute.
Bring On the Assist
To help these dedicated parents on their quest to daycare and beyond, has been the evolution of the electronically assisted bicycle. The EV bike has made considerable strides here within the last decade, to the extent that a nationwide survey in 2016 found that 6 out of 10 every bicycles manufactured in the country are electric.
The extra boost comes in particularly handy for climbing the city’s many rolling hills. Moreso if you have a couple little ones attached. The (legally enforced) norm is to have the younger one in the front and the larger child sitting behind, although it’s not uncommon to see mom/dad also strapped with their infant in a baby harness as well (yes, I’ve seen mom’s cycling with 3 children with her on the bike as a result!).
Family cycling is a way of life here, and a convenient way to get the munchkins to daycare while avoiding the press of rush-hour on the Tokyo trains.
My First EV Bike
I have since joined the fold, purchasing my very first electrically assisted bicycle two weeks ago. I ultimately opted for a BESV, LENA CF1. The sleek design allowed for easy access and maneuverability for yours truly. BESV is a Taiwanese brand and at the higher end of the price spectrum, but after testing out a bunch (yet another convenient option at your local Tokyo bike shop), I had to accept the reality.
Many of the Japanese brands I tried seemed designed for a smaller body type, and if I chose to put a child-seat in the front (obligatory for children under 2 years of age), I would knock the back of the seat with my knees.
Either that, or somehow bike frog-like, which was less desirable. Of course, I could continue to work on my flexibility, but I also felt constricted if I needed to get my legs out quick. The BESV didn’t have that issue, although I had to pay more for the comfort. Since buying the bicycle, daycare trips and errands have been a breeze, and I’ve seen, smelled, and tasted more of my surrounding neighborhood. A definite win!
How They Roll in Tokyo
One of the surprising elements of getting around Tokyo by bike is that there aren’t designated cycling paths. This was initially very strange to me, as in Montreal you were strongly encouraged to opt for the bike path when available (and there were lots). The alternative in Canada was to take the road when bike paths weren’t available, and sidewalks were an absolute last resort (if the street became dangerous). Here in Tokyo however, the sidewalk is shared by both pedestrians and cyclists. It’s strange how this works, but somehow it does!
Indeed, there are some major walkways that have a highlighted side for cyclists, but otherwise pedestrians and cyclists seem to integrate (for the most part) harmoniously and without injury. I’m going to attribute this to the Japanese culture’s propensity for heightened awareness and respect for others. Truth be told, it still baffles me.
Making the Switch
They do drive on the left here, as in Great Britain and Australia. Despite our British heritage, Canada follows the American way (see The Truth of Comedy), and keeps to the right. It’s become pretty much ingrained within me, so it’s natural for me to keep to the right when on the road, sidewalk, or escalator.
As a result, there was a slight adjustment phase. I have since adapted as a pedestrian, but it took a little longer as a cyclist. Given the left-sided driving, you might justifiable presume that cyclists would also keep to the left, but that is surprisingly not the case. Cyclists seem to follow their own path, and will often switch sides and try to anticipate or accommodate to your direction. This also took some getting used to.
Finally, what Tokyo is lacking in bike path infrastructure, it makes up for in parking. There are really cool bike parking options that help commuters store their bikes if they need to board the train. Under or near the station are often bicycle parking structures (see image above) that work with a combination track and elevator. You simple roll your bike into the rack and an automated system takes care of the rest. Alternatively, there are green stretches or paths where cyclists line up their bikes before making it to the station.
The average walk to a train station for many Tokyo-ites is near 10 minutes, so bicycles efficiently cut down even on this travel time. At the station near my home for instance, cyclists roll up their bikes to a volunteer attendant (often a senior citizen) at the green space near the station and he/she takes care of lining them up meticulously. It really is a fantastic system.
The Joys of Riding
Aside from the parents delivering their children to daycare, there are the salary men and women off to work, the adolescents out to school or off to one on their many club activities, or finally the dedicated recreational cycling enthusiast. You’ll see your fair share of athletically garbed citizens out for their daily/weekly workout or exploration.
The streets of Tokyo are often pretty smooth and well-paved (as opposed to Montreal’s which are notorious). Even on tighter roads with only white lines painted for walkways, cars, bicycles, and humans can all decently share the space without much by way of incident. It’s nice to see and even nicer to experience!
The Way to Go
Indeed, the joys of cycling have often been written about and pontificated (see A Love Story), but it makes it no less true. There is a raw form of pleasure in getting around on a bicycle, and one that would greatly benefit our planet. Getting around on a bicycle might be the next best thing to walking when it comes to carbon reduction, but it also scores pretty high on enjoyment.
The humble bicycle helps you achieve your thousand and one daily tasks, while still getting your dose of exercise and outdoor satisfaction. Tokyo certainly does it well, but there is still a lot it and many other global cities can do to work on cutting down car traffic and increasing ridership. It’s good for us and the planet, and cities need to implementing a strategy that will win back the road space for people.