Cycling in Japan

When I visited Japan at the end of last year, I cycled from the outskirts of Tokyo to Shibuya, taking a route which covered about 50 km. At the end of this ride I noticed that my arms were quite sore. It wasn’t that I had covered a distance greater than I had done on plenty of other occasions, it was that I hadn’t been required to stop anything like as frequently as I would have when travelling the same sort of distance in the UK. My body wasn’t used to riding that kind of distance without the dozens of short stops required in the UK, stops required by having to pretend you’re driving a car when riding a bike. In Japan I didn’t have to pretend to be a driver or a pedestrian, I could at pick and choose which to be like depending on the circumstances. Whilst it was no substitute for the Dutch approach of properly providing for cyclists, the experience was leaps and bounds ahead of the UK cycling experience.

In Japan, cycling on the roads is still legal, but almost all pavements alongside main roads are shared use. ‘Shared use’ is a term which will understandably make some of you wince, but in Japan it works surprisingly well. Unlike in the UK, pedestrians in Japan aren’t treated as second class citizens; crossroads and junctions routinely have crossings across each arm which are not split up into little steps, and where a pavement meets a side road entrance, the pavement continues across the road via a zebra marking rather than giving way to the minor road. Because of these kinds of differences, pretending to be a pedestrian when you ride a bike in Japan is a generally positive experience when compared to the UK, where the experience is typically dire because pedestrian provision is consistently poor. 

Conflict between pedestrians and cyclists was not as bad as you might expect, although part of this might be due to the greater value placed on politeness and respect for the law within Japanese culture. Wherever the amount of foot traffic becomes too great for sharing to work, there is always the option of pretending to be a driver. Compared to my experience of cycling amongst motor vehicles in the UK, Japan was much better. Lower speed limits and a general respect for them amongst drivers combined with road design less forgiving of speeding and the lack of ‘green waves’ for motorised traffic at junctions meant that drivers became resigned to frequent stops and slow progress if they chose to drive within the city. Despite these comparatively favourable conditions, in Japan, much like the UK, cycling on the roads is generally the preserve of the young, the fit and the brave. The difference is that at least in Japan the rest of the population have been given a viable alternative. I saw thousands of people on bikes whilst in Japan, but probably less than twenty cycling on the road, generally those who cycle as sport.

This might sound familiar to some readers; it is effectively a dual network approach where cycle-sport enthusiasts are catered for by the main carriageway and the shared-use pavements cater for ‘the rest of us.’ However, unlike in the UK where the dual network approach has been a compete failure, in Japan they have made this approach work quite well. Their better road design, more appropriate speed limits, and a culture of respect on the roads are not enough to tempt most people from the shared-use pavements to mixing it up with motor vehicles, regardless of experience. This is where the UK ‘dual network’ approach falls down; it is seen as a mere training facility, from which users will eventually ‘graduate’ onto the carriageway. Such facilities are an afterthought, often with atrocious design and even lower standards of maintenance. In Japan the off-road provision is not thought of as a ‘training facility’ designed as an afterthought. Because it caters to the majority of cyclists, it is treated as the major infrastructure provision for cyclists, and in Tokyo has allowed 14% of journeys to work to be made by bicycle. 

When I returned to the UK, being forced to mix with motor traffic again, I briefly remembered what it was like to be a new cyclist. After three weeks in the comparatively safe environment of Japan, when cycling again in the UK I was much more aware of the proximity, speed and volume of motor traffic that I no longer had any choice about mixing with. For about a week, I experienced what most of my non-cycling friends and family experience whenever they try to cycle on British roads, and I understand why before long their bikes always end up back in the shed. Cycling amongst lots of motor vehicles will never be for them.