The land of the rising eBike: cycling in Japan

bikes, Yoyogi Park
Sakura cycling in Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

I recently spent three weeks in Japan, chasing cherry blossom (Sakura) on a Japan Rail Pass. But I also tried out cycling; renting and borrowing bikes in several towns and cities. What did I find out, and are there lessons for cycling in Wellington?

eBikes

As in other parts of the world, electric assist bikes (eBikes) are ubiquitous in Japan. eBikes comprise 53% of Japan’s bicycle production, although there are indications that the growth is flattening. Most have a Panasonic motor system, that I haven’t seen in NZ: crank drive, with a relatively compact battery.

Standard family transport is an electric assist cargo bike, with child carriers front and rear. At a suburban rail station, I saw a family roll up: Dad pedaling, Mum perched behind, and child in a seat. Dad jumped off and ran for the train, while Mum took over pedaling to drop the kid off at daycare.

mother and child on eBike
Family transport

I’m still not sure how Japanese eBike users charge their bikes. Many bikes are left on the streets overnight, but they seem to be left with batteries on, and not connected to a charger. Maybe they have two batteries and rotate them around.

Footpath cycling

bike/pedestrian sharing
Separated cycle path, Tokyo
Mall cycling, Takamatsu
Cycling in a shopping mall, Takamatsu
No footpath cycling sign
But you can’t ride your bike everywhere

Whenever footpath cycling is mentioned, it’s stated “that’s what they do in Japan”. Well, yes and no. Footpath cycling is illegal in Japan unless signs specifically allow it. However in the 1970’s oil crisis, it seems that police made a policy decision not to prosecute footpath cycling. In 2011 the Police said they would encourage people between 13 and 70 to ride on the road rather than the footpath, but it still seems that people of all ages cycle on the footpath, including the police themselves.

Police biking on crossing
These police have just cycled down the footpath in the background

According to a paper presented at VeloCity 2014, Japanese authorities are concerned about the risks of footpath cycling, particularly to the increasing numbers of elderly pedestrians. So they are creating more cycle paths and designated shared paths, and encouraging cyclists to use them. I saw signs of this investment. One example was Yamaguchi, a provincial capital about the same size as Wellington, where major intersections had underpasses for cyclists and pedestrians – just what Wellington needs on Cobham Drive.

Yamaguchi
Underpass entrance, Yamaguchi
Underpass, Takamatsu
Underpass in Takamatsu

Does the Japanese footpath cycling regime work? As an (elderly!) pedestrian I had a couple of times that a cyclist whooshed past in a way that startled me, but I didn’t see any crashes. When I did cycle, it was often very useful to use footpaths as an alternative the busy multilane city streets.

bike lane, Tokyo
Tokyo style sharrows
Kanazawa
Two way cycle path, Kanazawa

However, Japanese cycling style is very different from NZ. Very few footpath cyclists look like they’re training for the Tour de France – typically they’re Lycra-free leisurely commuters. Although Japanese will ignore laws, such as the one that prohibits riding with an umbrella, there’s a very strong ethos of obeying custom. Japanese pedestrians, cyclists and drivers will never go through a red light, even if there are no other vehicles around. And traffic light sequences are long – while you’ve got a lot of time to amble across a pedestrian crossing, you might have to wait several minutes for your phase to come up. Another reason footpath cycling works is that Japanese streets generally don’t have a lot of vehicle entrances, unlike NZ where every house has a driveway and the risk of a motor vehicle crossing the footpath.

We need to be careful about translating the Japanese experience of footpath cycling to the NZ environment.

Bike parking

Whenever we used bikes, we were warned to be careful where we parked them. Areas around businesses often have signs prohibiting bike parking. Bikes are frequently removed, and there’s a substantial cost to recover them. At the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto the only legal bike parking cost $3 and was half a kilometer from the temple.

Naoshima
Art project bike parking, Naoshima

Railway stations had huge bike parks – I suspect a hazard is failing to find your bike when you return!

Bikes on public transport

Given the ubiquity of both public transport and cycling, I was surprised that there doesn’t seem to be more use of bikes on public transport. At the weekend, we saw a number of recreational cyclists at Tokyo station with touring bikes packed in bags, heading off for a ride – an hours ride on a Shinkansen high speed train can put you hundreds of kilometers from the metropolis.

Nara - how to pack (rinko) your bike for train
Rinko instructions, Nara Station

It seems you can take a bike on a train if it is “Rinko”ed – bagged with wheels removed. You can also get pedals that pop off, making the Rinko process easier. Mini Velos, bikes with small wheels but standard frames, are common in Japan, I think because they’re easier to store and transport.

Yamaguchi
Mini Velo in Yamaguchi

Public bike hire

Many places have some sort of public bike hire, and they seemed to be well used. There’s generally some instructions in English.

Kanazawa
Working out Kanazawa’s bike system

We used one in Kanazawa that worked well (after a bit of geographic confusion that had us riding north from the railway station rather than south). After registering at the automatic machine we punched in a code to unlock our bikes, which we dropped at a rack close to the Castle. After walking around we picked up bikes from another rack, and rode back to the station.

Kenroku-en gardens, Kanazawa
Riding back from the castle, Kanazawa

Takamatsu had a slightly bureaucratic system where we needed our passports, and the requirement to give an address was a bit awkward as our accommodation that night was on Japan’s one remaining train sleeper service. But once we’d got our registration cards a helpful attendant set up our bikes and guided us to a natty bike escalator that took us up to street level.

Bike escalator, Takamatsu
Bike escalator, Takamatsu

It’s also fairly easy to rent bikes, generally near railway stations. There are outfits running bike tours – we did a half day with Tokyo Miracle Cycling Tour which took us around alleyways and gardens in central Tokyo, avoiding the worst of the multilane highways. Kyoto Cycle Touring Project rented us bikes and sold us a map that helped navigate the city, using the cycle path along the Kamogawa River, and the sakura lined Philosopher’s Path. Our hotel in Yamaguchi had a fleet of complimentary bikes in the foyer for guests.

Tokyo Miracle bike tour
On the Tokyo Miracle Bike Tour
KCTPmap
Part of the useful Kyoto Cycle Touring Project map

What can we learn from Japan about cycling?

Japan shows us that you can have a very high mode share of cycling (20% in Tokyo), with everyday cycling dominating over lycra. It also shows that eBikes and public bike schemes have the capacity to be successful. But we also saw the results of the pressure – the need for large scale bike parking, and a bit less freedom to park where you want. Footpath cycling is a mixed blessing – even the well behaved Japanese cycling population includes the odd larrikin. However the sensible Japanese response seems to be to build more cycle paths, rather than force bikes onto the road. Perhaps that should be our priority rather than worrying too much about footpath cycling.

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