Danger: Beware of Bicycles!

Relocating to Tokyo I find myself “car-less” for the first time in 60 years. Living in a city that has a world-class network of clean, safe and reliable trains and subways, and in a neighborhood that provides easy access to transportation, shopping, entertainment, education, medical care services and other needs within short walking distance, owning a car is neither required or desirable.

Therefore, walking with a purpose, to get somewhere (as opposed to leisure or health walking) is a way of life in Tokyo. Indeed Tokyoites seem in a constant state of motion. With everyone intent on getting somewhere, generally quickly, I often marvel that people never seem to collide.

In any major city I visited in the world, I had found that despite intriguing cultural differences that varied radically from place to place, walking generally remained the same wherever I went. I enjoy walking and gave little thought that walking in Tokyo would require any significant cultural understanding or adaptation.

Of course with Japan being one of the world’s most orderly societies, one quickly learns to observe certain manners, in the case of walking, not walking and smoking, drinking or eating. So I felt comfortable walking in my new neighborhood until I encountered another form of popular Tokyo transit––the bicycle.

But before I go on about why this topic is worthy of a blog post, let me provide some important data about bicycles in Japan generally and Tokyo’s astonishing number of everyday cyclists specifically. 

According to a 2017 OECD study, in Japan, a nation of 127 million people, there is one bicycle for every 1.5 people. However, not only is Japan one of the biggest bicycle countries in the world, the bicycle occupies a unique place in Japan’s transport ecosystem. Whereas in many other countries where the bicycle is popular as a leisure and sporting activity, in Japan “the bicycle is an essential form of everyday transport used by millions of people from all walks of life.”

The same study estimates that there are about 8.4 million bicycles in Tokyo and that the main purposes of cycling is shopping in their neighborhood and short-term commuting as an access mode to railway stations. It confirms my personal observation and experience since arriving in Tokyo that cycling is a primary mode of daily short distant travel.

So, what does this have to do with walking and my blog title?  First although I see bicycle riding designations on the roadways in my neighborhood, I rarely see anyone on a bicycle using them.  As far as I can tell, everyone is riding on the sidewalks.

In Japan traffic sticks to the left but bicycles and pedestrian traffic on the sidewalks is chaotic with people wanting to walk and ride their bikes on the right as well as the left. There doesn’t seem to be any social convention of who has the right of way, who moves left or right, or even to signal a cyclist’s approach from the rear of a walker.

The result is that Toma and I have had a number of bicycle encounters and near-miss accidents on neighborhood sidewalks in the short time we have been resident in Tokyo. Frankly, cyclists and pedestrians sharing the sidewalk is a serious problem and the fear of being victim struck from behind by a bicycle I didn’t even known was there is a real concern.

A recent report in The Japan Times noted that between 2014 and 2018, according to the National Police Agency, there was an alarming number of bicycle-pedestrian accidents, the majority involving either children or the elderly including a high profile accident in which a 67-year-old woman was killed by a cyclist. Clearly walkers and riders on the sidewalks are a proven dangerous mix and police reports state that nearly 100 percent of cycle-pedestrian collisions are the cyclist’s fault.

Beyond taking precautions to protect myself and Toma as we take our daily walks, I decided to learn about bicycle laws in Japan as we have shipped our two Cannondale bikes here.

I discovered that there is a large and complicated set of Tokyo laws covering bicycle registration and legal cycle operating requirements.  And much of what I learned appeared to be inconsistent with the behavior of bicyclists I have observed and experienced.

In general, the cycling laws and regulations are apparently both poorly understood by the cycling public and rarely enforced by the police except if there happens to be an accident.  Given that, I am not surprised to see that they are ignored on a regular basis.

Tokyo bicycles must be registered with local authorities and must have a working front lamp and rear reflector. Once registered and road-ready, the cycling laws seek to prevent “cycling dangerously” and prohibit riding tandem on a single-seater bike; calling, texting and other phone use; holding an umbrella; wearing earphones; riding without a light at night, riding side-by-side; and cycling under the influence.  Except for children under 13 there is no helmet requirement.

What about riding on sidewalks?  Like other things in Japan, it’s complicated.  On one hand, its prohibited; on the other hand it’s permitted. The result is organized chaos.

Originally, the Road Traffic Act barred bicycles from sidewalks.  The law was revised in a step to successfully reduce accidents involving bicycles and automotive vehicles.  Unfortunately, allowing bicycles to use sidewalks has increased the number of accidents between bicycles and pedestrians.

Obviously, given the confusion and lax enforcement, cyclists take their chances with the law, ignore many of the rules, and fail to abide by any rational convention to stay left and yield to pedestrians.

Sadly, walking on sidewalks in Tokyo is not always safe!

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Hi, I’m Paul Myer. Thank you for visiting my website. I hope you enjoy my writing and photography. If you want to stay connected, please subscribe to receive posts via email.

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