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.

Wellington’s annual plan: tackle climate change through transport choice

Annual Plan

WCC is consulting on its 2017/2018 Annual Plan.

We say:

  • Reduce fossil fuel emissions by increasing cycling mode share
  • Reduce car trips by not subsidising on street parking
  • Don’t over consult on cycling projects
  • Move rapidly to a cycle friendly city through trial projects
  • Gather data about the use and impact of cycle facilities
  • Reduce traffic speeds
  • New housing developments should provide for active and public transport

You can read our full submission here

CAW May meeting

Police biking on crossing
Should we have cops on bikes, like they do in Japan?

How time flies. The May meeting is already upon us, and happening this Tuesday 2 May. By the book this should have been our AGM meeting but with all that is happening we weren’t organised in time. So here’s the official notice that our AGM will be held at our 6 June meeting.

But plenty of other exciting things to talk about for Tuesday’s meeting

  • Updates from the various WCC cycling projects working groups (Kilbernie, Miramar, Evans Bay, Thorndon Quay, CBD quick fixes)
  • Update on the Island Bay community re-engagement (Love the Bay)
  • Updates from monthly meeting with WCC cycling team (work in progress, e.g. Hutt Road, issues)
  • Things to discuss at our next meetings with NZTA, WCC etc
  • Thumbs up, thumbs down

Everyone welcome

Tuesday 2 May, 1800-1930, Sustainability Trust, Forresters Lane (off Tory St)

CAW April meetup

IMG_6972aSm
Mayor Justin Lester addresses CAN Do 2017

Come along to our CAW meeting this Tuesday 4th April. Be part of the discussion on how to get more people biking in Wellington, more often. Things to talk about:

  • Highlights from the CAN Do national conference
  • Progress with WCC cycling projects including the Hutt Road
  • Pressing concerns
  • Rebranding ourselves
  • Thumbs up, thumbs down

6-7:30pm, Sustainability Trust, Forresters Lane off Tory St

Cobham Drive – have your say on Wellington’s eastern gateway

Cobham-Drive-separated-paths
A proposed layout from WCC’s project page

Is there a project that could definitively say that cycling has arrived in Wellington? Wellington City Council has opened consultation on the Cobham Drive project, and this could be a chance for a cycling and walking facility that creates a positive image for active transport, in the same way that Auckland’s Lightpath/Te Ara-i-Whiti and Taranaki’s Te Rewarewa Bridge have done.

Light path at night
Te Ara-i-Whiti
Te Rewa Rewa bridge on coastal walkway
Te Rewarewa Bridge

Why is Cobham Drive an important cycling project? First, it’s a key link between the eastern suburbs and the city. Secondly, it’s a project that requires few compromises with parking and businesses. But it’s also an opportunity to do more than just create cycling and walking paths. It’s in a stunning geographic location, with a view up Evans Bay to Mount Victoria and the northern ranges. It’s what many people travel along from the Airport on their first visit to Wellington. It’ll be visible from Mt Victoria, where most first time visitors to the city are taken. We’ve got the opportunity here to create a statement: Wellington is an active place.

Wellington Sculpture trust have already enhanced this stretch with the Meridian Energy Wind Sculpture Walk, so many people associate Wellington with the iconic Zephyrometer that they see bending low over SH1 after their charmingly energetic airport landing into a slight northerly breeze (known outside Wellington as a “gale”).

The big gap in the current plan is the lack of a safe crossing of Cobham Drive, for example to the Sports Centre.  We should be challenging WCC to include this in the project.

Apart from that the proposals are good but not perfect, and some of the detail needs to be clarified.

  • The cycling and walking paths need to be physically and visually different, to discourage people from using the wrong path for their mode. Auckland learned this lesson on Beach Rd, where a section that looked like a footpath was used by pedestrians despite “no cycling” signs. The sections that look like roadway don’t have this problem.
Beach Road cycle path
Beach Road, Auckland – it’s clear that it’s a cycleway, and people don’t walk on it
  • The connections at the ends need work – it’s not clear how people biking the Mount Victoria Tunnel will connect to the cycleway, and the path comes to an abrupt halt at Miramar Cutting (although the connections to Miramar are the subject of a separate project). There’s no detail on the proposed signalised crossing of Evans Bay Parade for people biking north to the CBD.
  • The proposed 3m width for the cycle path should be a minimum. Where possible it should be 4m or more, to provide for comfortable passing without conflict with oncoming cyclists.
  • It would be good to have some features that break the wind, which (very occasionally) crosses the path.
  • The current plans include some parking east of the Troy St roundabout. This is unnecessary: people can watch planes from a parking place on Calibar Rd, and Evans Bay Marina is better for launching boats. If this parking is retained, the cycle path should be on the seaward side of it, to avoid conflict with vehicles entering the park.
  • There should be parking provision at Evans Bay Marina for, for example, wheelchair users, and families that want to bike the route but aren’t able to bike to it.
  • The shoreline is currently made up of concrete debris from a power station that was demolished in 1941. It’s time to clean this up, and make the shoreline attractive. Indeed the design of the path should draw users attention to the seascape, rather than to the busy SH1 that runs on the southern side.
  • It needs a good name. It’s part of Great Harbour Way/ Te Aranui o Pōneke of course, but it should have a specific name. The name “seaway” has been proposed, but there are a lot of paths beside the sea. Perhaps a name like “Te Ara Ūnga”, the path of the landing place, would (with permission of the relevant iwi) reference the idea of a gateway, and the proximity to Wellington airport.

Above all it needs a “wow” factor – that will attract the attention of people coming from Weta Workshops and the Airport, or looking across from Mt Victoria, and have people saying “I want to bike that”.

Here’s your chance to get a good outcome, by making a submission by 4 April. You can “have your say” online, or make a paper based submission.

 

Kruising Te Ara Kapiti

cyclists and expressway
Te Ara Kapiti, aka “Kapiti Cycle Route”

On 24 February the Wellington region’s newest cycling path opened, at a cost of around $600 million, twice the UCP budget. Well, that cost includes the accompanying expressway, but it’s still quite a nice cycle route.

First step was to find it. We got the train to Paekakariki, and rode north on the rolling Te Ara Whareroa through QE 2 Park. I didn’t see any signage directing us to the next stage north, but fortunately we’d had local advice, and knew to go east on Poplar Ave to the start of the Kapiti Cycle Route, the cycling (and walking and horse riding) route alongside the expressway. This seems an odd name – there’s already a well established Kapiti Coastal Cycling Route, so why not go for something easily distinguishable? For the rest of this post I’ll refer to the route beside the expressway as “Te Ara Kapiti”.

Once you’re on Te Ara Kapiti, there’s generally good signage. The southern part to Waikanae is sealed, although there is some loose chip to watch out for, and bits which need touching up. North of Waikanae, the surface is reasonably smooth gravel. The path is generally 2.5-3m wide.

Rongomau bridge
Rongomau cycling/walking overbridge

The Rongomau overbridge crosses the expressway to the old SH1 and the Paraparaumu shopping centre, but we headed north. You pass through nicely landscaped wetlands, almost expecting to see some rice paddies and Vietnamese farmers. There are concrete and wooden seats every so often, some with the concrete surroundings only just drying.

wetland
Wetlands

Although the cycle route is nice for cruising, I expect dedicated roadies will want to keep to the expressway, which is of course legal. At the overbridge across Kapiti Road, cyclists are advised to exit on the off ramp, presumably on the reasoning that it’s safer to do this cross the off ramp exit. However this involves crossing Kapiti Road at the lights, conflicting with left turning traffic, then climbing back onto the expressway on the on ramp. Personally, I’d stick to the expressway.

Kapiti Rd intersection
Signage on the expressway directs roadies down the shoulder, and into potential conflict with traffic turning left onto Kapiti Rd

There’s a bit of a climb up to the turnoff to the Makarini St footbridge in Paraparaumu, I gather because there wasn’t enough room for a level bypass route.

nice view of expressway from seat
Strategically placed seats provide an opportunity to admire the expressway

North of the Waikanae River there’s a short deviation to avoid Wahi Tapu, then the route rejoins the expressway at an imposing concrete bluff.

abandoned Tandem
The riders of this tandem were looking for a cycle friendly Kapiti route around 1986, but gave up waiting…

Although the route signs are to Otaki, the cycle route comes to an abrupt end at Pekapeka, fortunately within easy reach of the cafe at Harrison’s garden centre. However there’s still work going on here, and it’s not yet clear how a cyclist heading north would get back onto SH1, and there doesn’t seem to be any signage directing a southbound cyclist onto the Te Ara Kapiti.

signage to Otaki
Signs rather hopefully direct you to Otaki, but there isn’t yet a good cycle route beyond Pekapeka

Similarly, at the southern end the work to connect cyclists heading south on SH1 onto Poplar ave and Te Ara Whareroa doesn’t seem to have been completed.

Raumati end
The connection to the old SH1 at Raumati is still to come

Interestingly, the expressway project has created two cycle routes, Te Ara Kapiti, and also a high quality road with minimal traffic: the old SH1, which will be a good cycling option between Pekapeka and Raumati. There’s still significant traffic on it, but I suspect that will decrease as drivers adopt new habits, and have their GPS’s updated (at the time of writing, Google Maps did not show the expressway).

SH1
“Now, THAT’s what I call a cycle path” – old SH1 north of Waikanae

Overall, it’s great that NZTA have included a cycling and walking route in a major roading project. However the real question for Wellingtonians is: why is it so difficult to get an equivalent route from, for example, the Hutt Valley to the Wellington CBD?  Watch this space…

Stop Press: Cycle Action Kapiti are holding a ride  on Saturday 18 March to press for action on the Pekapeka-Otaki cycle route. It’ll be a good chance to sample the northern bit of Te Ara Kapiti, and the weather forecast is good!

CAW meeting 7 March 2017

displays from Thorndon Quay consultation
22% of vehicles on Thorndon Quay are bikes. Time for separated bike lanes?

At CAW’s regular March monthly meeting we discussed:

  • Cycle projects in the rail corridor. Leah Murphy is project managing a Kiwirail/NZTA investigation into cycle projects in the rail corridor.  4 corridors are being looked at in Wellington: Silverstream – Upper Hutt, Ngauranga – Petone, Petone – Melling,  Lower Hutt beltway to Seaview. Busy train lines means construction problems. Nationally, incidents at rail crossings are going up. Design Guidelines are about to be released. More risk assessment based. Do mazes work? At busy crossings, automatic gates (eg at Tawa) are favoured. National feedback needed. Cycle tracks need to be 3-5m from rail line. Kiwirail sees space as property and is required to make a profit from it. Perth WA an example of successful use of rail corridor.
  • Update on Island Bay community re-engagement.
    • Community engagement processes like this can be expected to encounter issues.
    • It is not straight forward and therefore good to keep getting positive support from the CAW team
    • This includes giving the message that the syndicate is very much focused on the process, and that the process has worked well so far if you look at the workshops
    • Challenge is to get the wider community engaged so looking for opportunities to get more people involved in the workshops
    • Other channels are also being used, e.g. Love the Bay website
  • Thorndon Quay. Useful workshop held 6 Mar.  Raises lots of questions: bus lane in middle? Two way vs one way? Etc. Is there potential to make Thorndon Quay a pleasant tree lined boulevard? Opportunity for CAW, as opposed to individuals, comment?
  • Cobham Drive. Drop in Workshops scheduled for 7,15 March. Concept drawings look good. Shoulder retained. People want overbridge to Aotea Centre, although currently out of scope. Should aim for Three Cs: Comfort, connect, convenient.
  • Consulations overall: Restart of cycleway planning will need a lot of input from CAW. Have a checklist for what we want from projects? Recruit from FB. Survey ?
  • CAN Do 2017 25/26 March – on track – why not register to become part of cycling history?
  • Rants / raves

CAW March meeting

cyclists and expressway
People on bikes check out the Kapiti Cycle Route

That time of the month again. Here’s what’s on the agenda:

  • Rants / raves
  • Update on Island Bay community re-engagement
  • Upcoming consultations (Thorndon Quay etc)
  • Upcoming events (CAN Do etc)
  • Guest speaker
  • And more

6-7:30 pm Tuesday 7 March, Sustainability Trust, Forresters Ln, Te Aro, Wellington 6011, New Zealand

CAW February meeting report

Go by Bike day
CAW stand at Go By Bike Day

We kicked off the year by discussing:

  • Plans for Go By Bike Day – which attracted a record 1350 people on bikes. Imagine the traffic chaos if those people had chosen to commute by car!
  • CAW structure. Maybe a committee and paid membership are no longer the way to go in an age of social media and crowdfunding campaigns. Lots of active people on our FaceBook group; need to recruit them for projects, such as representing CAW at consultation workshops.
  • Ron Beernink reported back on WCC progress.
    • Poles due to be removed from Hutt Rd Cycle path in February, and entrance crossings to be improved in March. Since this is the first actual Urban Cycleways project to be implemented in Wellington, there’ll be a ministerial “sod turning”.
    • Open day consultation on Thorndon Quay planned for March.
    • Workshop on Eastern Suburbs routes also in March.
  • Ron and Hutt cycle people also met with NZTA. The “Melly to Welly” cycle route from Melling to Wellington CBD is planned for completion 2019/2020. The 600m prototype cycle path from Ngauranga north looks good. There are also plans for accommodating bikes on the Petone to Grenada link.
  • Aotearoa Bike Challenge is on – if you haven’t already done so, form or join a group. Join the CAN group if you don’t belong to a company.
  • CAN Do 2017, the national cycle advocacy workshop is to be in Wellington 25/26 March. The planning group is making good progress, if you want to help, contact Alastair.
  • Go Home by Bike – Te Papa is organising this for 15 February. And no, you don’t need to leave your bike at work for the whole week after Go By Bike Day….
  • Bike Auckland have released their Bike Blueprint for Auckland bike routes in 2020 – could we do the same for Wellington?
  • Kapiti Expressway has an open day 18 Feb. You can try out the shared path on your bike.
  • The proposed development at Shelly Bay will have implications for cycling – more traffic between Miramar Cutting and Shelly Bay.
  • ReBicycle has given out 46 bikes to help get refugees mobile. There’ll be a fixup event 11 February.
  • Wellington Zoo has put in good bike racks.

How fast do EBikes go?

 

eBike ride: oriental parade
eBike riders obey the speed limit on Oriental Bay

Electric assist bikes (eBikes) are a great way to get into biking if you’re not confident about your physical abilities, or if, like me, riding a standard bike up Wellington’s hills has become frustrating. But some people are worried about how fast eBikes go, and feel that they will pose a danger to riders of standard bikes. So how much faster are eBikes than standard bikes? The answer seems to be “not much”.

First, what does the published research say? The German Naturalistic Cycling Study (2017) found that eBike riders averaged only 2km/hr faster than people on standard bikes. Langford, Chen and Cherry (2015) found that eBikes averaged faster on roads (21km/hr vs 17km/hr) but slower on shared paths (18km/hr vs 20km/hr). Note that this was in the US, where eBikes are allowed to have more powerful motors. This study demonstrates that while eBike riders potentially have more speed, in places like shared paths they may choose not to use it. They also found that people had similar safety behaviours, whether they were riding eBikes or standard bikes.

Next, I decided to see what happens in NZ. I spent a few hours on Wellington commuter routes, timing eBikes and standard bikes over about 100m, generally using lighting poles as markers. I found that eBikes averaged 26km/hr, standard bikes 23.4 km/hr, a difference of 2.6km/hr. This was a small study (9 eBikes, 55 standard bikes) with a crude method for measuring speed, but seemed to indicate that eBikes fell in the same range of speeds that standard bikes do. The fastest bike was a standard bike, and the slowest an eBike.

It would be good to get a bigger sample, but I was getting tired waiting for the occasional eBike – although they’re becoming more common, I still had to wait a while between eBikes, and sometimes I’d fail to recognise them in time.

So I turned to Strava, where keen people with GPS smartphones can record their activity when biking, running, and even hand cycling. Strava has an Activity Search which although a bit erratic in its searching, allowed me to compare ordinary bike rides (“rides”) with “E-Bike rides” that had been recorded in NZ. Strava gives a lot of data about each ride (I was tempted to compare the total calorie intake of eBike and standard riders!), but I used the average speed and the maximum speed, and searched for rides recorded in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. I used 132 eBike rides, and 145 standard bike rides.

On average, eBikes had an average speed 2km/hr slower than standard bikes (20.7km/hr vs 22.7km/hr). The average maximum speed for a ride was pretty similar: 49.3km/hr for eBikes, 49.6km/hr for standard bikes. This makes sense: if you’re going fast downhill, it doesn’t matter if you’re on an eBike or a standard bike – gravity is doing the work.

There some caveats to the Strava data. People who record their rides on Strava are interested in performance, and probably go faster than “ordinary” riders. Some people mis-labelled their rides (in one case, an “eBike ride” was actually using a BloKart), though I think I was able to weed these out. My sense was that the eBike rides tended to be more utility oriented than the standard bike rides, which tended to be recreational sport rides. This could explain why this study shows eBikes averaging slower speeds than standard bikes. There was probably a broader range of individual riders among the standard riders than the eBike riders.

So what can we conclude about eBike speeds, and whether they are a threat to people riding standard bikes, or walking on shared paths? eBikes are “designed to be primarily propelled by the muscular energy of the rider” so in theory people using them should behave similarly to people on standard bikes, and the research seems to show this. In fact we have a range of types of bikes and riders, that tend to travel at different speeds. A lycra clad rider on a dropped handlebar bike training for the Taupo Cycling challenge will travel at a different speed than someone heading down to the dairy on their upright city bike. It looks like eBikes are just another kind of bike, and their speeds fall into the same general range as other bikes.