Forget maps and phrasebooks. The most important survival skill in Tokyo is the ability to dodge cyclists flying along the pavement on their beloved bicycles. Tokyo has long been a city for cyclists. From salarymen to baby-juggling housewives, residents frequently shun punctual but packed trains in favour of the freedom of cycling.
But the passion for bicycles is hitting new heights thanks to bicycle rental initiatives combined with a creative project set to transform the capital into the template of a modern cycling metropolis.
Signs of Tokyo’s bicycle boom include the emergence of “cycling chic” fashion labels, magazines devoted to two wheels and the renewal of old bicycle brands.
The nation’s biking love affair is likely to be cemented further by the launch in March of Japan’s first Parisian-style bicycle-sharing rental scheme operated by Vélib’ in Toyama city. Sanyo also recently unveiled an innovative new solar powered electric bicycle rental scheme that is now operating from two stations in the capital.
And Tokyo’s two-wheeled revolution is not slowing down: on Monday evening, around 60 bicycle lovers gathered in a bright white Aoyama showroom to launch a new initiative that aims to make cycling as forward-thinking as it is fashionable.
The meeting was organised by X2 Tokyo, an urban collective of 10 influential bicycle aficionados – among them designers, art directors, moviemakers and editors – sponsored by tyre company Bridgestone.
The group announced plans to commission four creatives – artist Maywa Denki, architecture duo Assistant, design engineer Motohide Hatanaka of Takram and dancer Chie Ito – to produce imaginative proposals relating to Tokyo cycling.
The four will hold a series of public “cycle lab” workshops throughout the summer, with their resulting creations unveiled in October during a Tokyo Design Week exhibition.
A new website devoted to Tokyo cycling – including interviews and interactive maps – was also launched this week by X2 Tokyo, as an extension of a design magazine it produced last year called Jitensha (”bicycle” in Japanese).
“Our goal is to make Tokyo a stylish bicycle city,” Takanori Hayashi, X2 Tokyo director, tells Monocle. ”We want to transform the popularity of cycling into a fundamental movement, not just a temporary trend.” But the infrastructure of the city has yet to catch up with its affection for two-wheeled travel, according to Megumi Matsubara of Assistant.
“A bicycle is like a washing machine for the senses. Living in a busy city like Tokyo, you are exposed to a huge amount of information flow. Cycling helps you wash away the unnecessary dirt and refresh your mind.
“But bicycle lanes in the city are not improved yet and bicycles are not allowed on public transport, which limits their use.”
And so with its creative workshops to solar powered bicycles, 2010 seems destined to become a landmark year for Tokyo’s cycling population – which means that pedestrians on Tokyo’s pavements will have even more bikes to dodge.
Danielle Demetriou is a Monocle correspondent based in Tokyo