Bicycling in Japan

(This is mostly taken from my forum post on Japanese bicycle culture, though edited and expanded.)

Back in 1997-1998 during my year at Tohoku University, this is what I observed in and around Sendai in regards to bicycling and transportation:

In and around the downtown area, sidewalks were built wide enough to have separate lanes of travel for bicyclists and pedestrians. Bicyclists traveled about 5-8 miles per hour on heavy, but comfortable bicycles. Stations had parking for bicycles, for a fee, though as a cheap college student I simply locked mine someplace far away not to get ticketed.

In residential areas, the roads were typically very narrow. Typically, no sidewalks were present and houses had concrete walls built up to the edge of their property. Utility poles etc. were built up the edge of the street and there was no on-street parking in most places. Pedestrians and bicyclists traveled along the edge of the road and cars and buses had to pass them. Many roads had blind corners, and round mirrors were set up on poles. These are all conditions which required cars to slow down, naturally. A bicycle actually can travel about the same pace in such situations.

On busier thoroughfares, sidewalks were built, but often more narrow than in downtown. Bicyclists and pedestrians had to often politely pass each other there. I couldn't stay on the sidewalk, as it was just too slow for me.

In general, the roads were more narrow, buses, delivery vans and taxis sometimes obstructed the lanes, and due to the frequency and volume of traffic, people were generally more patient getting around. Not too many bicycles were on the road, but people were used to sudden stops, and the drivers seemed safer.

Getting a license was harder and required an actual course. You just don't pass a test. I'm not sure this made for better drivers necessarily.

A lot of people got around on scooters and smaller cars, because owning an large car is expensive.

Parking was rarely free, except at stores out in the suburbs. The car often loses its measure of convenience when shopping. Shops accommodated people carrying appliances home via the bus or train, by adding straps and handles to boxes for you.

Gas was expensive. Also, most highways (if not all) were expensive toll highways. Older cars required annual inspections, which I'm not sure has changed.

No school buses. Kids bike to their neighborhood schools, take the city bus, or train. Kids grow up with bicycling and public transportation.

Taxi use is common. They're expensive, but you can get around quickly town if you are short on time. If the weather is bad, you have a commute alternative.

The minimum driving age was 18, and not too many older people needed to drive. At the university, people drove, but I don't think many of them did. I saw more scooters and bicycles in the morning coming to school than cars. Anyway, the worst drivers (young and impulsive, old and confused) were off the road.

Talking on the cell phone and driving one-handed was made illegal back then. It still is. A headset is required to talk and drive.

Bicycling along highways probably was illegal, never checked. Out in the country, cycling seemed more dangerous, especially on major roads not expecting bicyclists. Of course, most people don't bike city-to-city, they take the train.

On my fast road bicycle, I road on the busier roads instead of the sidewalk. I got yelled at once from a tough-sounding guy one time waiting for the light on a busier street. But I rarely had trouble or got honked at, even in spandex. I rode without a helmet. I got in two accidents, both my fault. One was with sticking an umbrella in my front wheel spokes, the other was hitting a pedestrian crossing in front of me in a crosswalk.

The main difference in Japan and the U.S. is how the roads in the cities are built. Don't be surprised more people drive when you build wide roads, provide free parking along streets, instead of providing wide sidewalks with paths for bicyclists. And if roads are designed for 30+ mph traffic flow, don't expect people to want to bicycle on it. If there is no close place for people to bicycle to, then obviously people will take their car. Neighborhoods need to be zoned to include more restaurants and convenience stores.

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About eliasross

Blogging before the word "blog" was invented.
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6 Responses to Bicycling in Japan

  1. aaronb says:

    Do they allow you to take your bicycle on the train, or was it too crowded? When I lived in St Louis I'd bike to the Metro, get on and stand at the front with my bike, then take my stop and ride wherever I was going, although it was usually just to ride with no particular destination in mind. They even put bike racks on the city buses for convenience, but I only ever saw one bike ever and there are no bike lanes. Downtown streets have low speed limits, so it was feasible to ride all over the place down there. I now live in Oklahoma, which is NOT bike friendly at all. Yah, there are some "multipurpose trails," but no bike lanes and speed limits are typically 40mph or greater. The way everything is setup here, you almost have to drive. There are no neighborhood supermarkets or restaurants, only an occasional gas station. I really wish it was different. I'd really like to be able to ride my bike to more places instead of taking the car 😦

  2. genman says:

    I wrote about my experience back in 1997-98. No, I never did try to take my bicycle on the train. I had it boxed and shipped from the airport to my dorm, then from the 7-11 across the street back to the airport.Had I wanted to take my bicycle on the train… Well, from my experience then and the many times I went back, there are often places to store luggage between cars, and in overhead bins, but not a lot of storage for a full sized bicycle in box.My wife (who's Japanese) bought a book on traveling with a bicycle on Japanese trains. Apparently, it is done, and folding bicycles can be used. Or certain (train) cars have racks for them. She just got these books and I haven't really looked into it.As to the specific rules, I suppose a conductor would get mad if your luggage was too large. As a foreigner, I tended to ask for forgiveness, not permission.What I've found is, even if you're in Oklahoma, if you join a bicycle club — which I'm certain would exist — you probably will learn about how to make the most of your situation. Assuming they have some sort of advocacy purpose, you could also use their leverage to make a difference where you live. Or at least feel good about trying.

  3. aaronb says:

    I'm not really sure that's an advocacy group, but we do have a bike to work day. Silly thing is that most people have to drive to the rally points, and since there's not really a "downtown" here, after the ride to the capitol most people ride back to their cars and then drive to work. I ride where I can when I can, and I guess that's good enough for me.

  4. stu42j says:

    When I was in Tokyo a few weeks ago, I saw several pretty serious cyclists (nice bikes and spandex) riding around Kasai Rinkai Park (as well as some kind of Jamaican festival??). Seeing the bicycle "parking lots" was pretty interesting. Around here you rarely see a bike rack with more than two bikes in it.I also noticed that mosts of the bikes people would ride around the city were one of only about four different models. It would sure be hard to make sure you took home the right bike! Many of them were branded by American car makers like "Jeep Cherokee" which seemed odd to me.

  5. AndyM says:

    aaronb you can take your bike on trains in Japan as long as they are in a bag of some sorts, on the shinakansen (bullet trains) you're supposed to pay ¥600 I think, it's a long time since I did that, and they didn't charge me anyway. On trains in Tokyo I don't know if you can take a bike during the peak morning and evening times but I'd seriously wonder why you'd want or need to.genman Sendai is a bit of an exception as regards its street layout etc. most are nowhere near as good, sadly.Cycling on roads in Japan is pretty safe once you get used to the fact they can't judge a bike's speed you occasionally get an idiot but most are OK. Cycling in Tokyo is fun as most times a bike's average speed is higher than a cars. Sometimes the police get a bit officious and tell you that you should be on the pavement (sidewalk), but once they see my average speed they agree that I should be on the road. Being on the road is actually safer than on the pavement because of the many entrances/exits also you don't have to deal with pedestrians and the mamacharis (slow heavy shopping bikes that many people use to get around on).Being from the UK I didn't need to take a test to drive a car just some traffic sign recognition an eye test and a translation of my UK driving license. So from my perspective owning a running a car in Japan is cheap compared to the UK although the speeds are much lower and takes some getting used to (as the penalty points on my license show!)Living in the countryside or outside a major city, public transportation is patchy to say the least, rail links between towns is good it's just the bus services don't really exist inside the smaller towns. Also in smaller towns school buses do indeed exist many times being run by the schools especially the nursery schools! They often come in some pretty weird animal shapes! I'll take some photos when I see one.As you may guess I live in Japan and cycle most days to and from work, with longer rides at the weekend. Currently I live in Fukushima Prefecture, but I'm moving back to Tokyo next month.Sorry for the long winded post I hope it was of some use.

  6. genman says:

    Thanks Andy for the corrections.I seem to vaguely recall that Japanese would travel overseas to get their driver's license, rather than pay the money for domestic driver's education. But anyway, good to know that my U.S. license is transferable.I've never seen a Japanese school bus myself, but Google Image search shows a few. Not in animal shapes, though. Please post one, I'd like to see it.My wife bought a book on bicycling in Japan and taking bicycles on trains, and I suppose bicycling in Japan is in our future.

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