What We Can All Learn From Japan’s Amazing Cycling Culture
The Japanese have developed a practical attitude when it comes to cycling — they even share pavement.
The Japanese, as a nation of 120 million people packed into the floodplains of a largely mountainous country, are a practical people. If there’s a minor inconvenience that can be solved by technology, then they’ve usually solved it. So there are vending machines on mountain tops, and hotel mirrors that leave a perfect oblong clear in front of the sink so you can shave, even if the rest of the mirror is steamed up.
This spirit extends to cycling. If everyone who lived in the Japanese mega-cities drove, there would be permanent gridlock of Doctor Who proportions. So, a practical attitude has developed. The first cyclist I spotted in Tokyo was an impeccably dressed grandmother, pootling along on the pavement, as is overwhelmingly allowed. She weaved in and out of the pedestrian traffic, the designated on-pavement cycle path being merely an opening point for negotiation. Road crossings have designated cycle lanes, alongside those for pedestrians.
She was riding one of Japan’s mamachari, or granny bikes. A solid, practical, generally single-speed city bike, they’re easy to ride, but unlikely to win you any races to the lights. Often found with front basket, a rear rack and frequently adorned with some form of child seating, mamachari are ubiquitous across Japan.
Everybody rides them, not just glamorous old ladies – parents, students, salarymen, teens on their way to school. Some even have special attachments for umbrellas. My favourite love letter to this kind of bike can be found in the anime Tatami Galaxy, when, after the hero’s expensive road bike has been stolen by Kyoto’s over-zealous bike police, he attempts a road race on his heavy old steed, much to the derision of his university cycle club. It takes him days.
This distinction between a mamachari-owning urban bimbler and “proper cyclist” doesn’t exist to the same extent in the UK. In Japan, most treat their bicycle as an extension of their legs, a sensible and logical way of getting from A to B. Most are used for local journeys: for getting to the shops, or to school, or to work. Few ride on the road, unless the footfall (or the signage) deems it absolutely necessary. Bikes are parked everywhere: outside homes, shops, and business. Occasionally, as in the case of Kyoto (those bike police are real, and your bike could end up in the pound), you’ll find them in official bike parks and stands, but mostly they’re left wherever the owners please.
To a Londoner, all this takes a bit of getting used to. Mamachari have built-in locks on their back wheels, but they all seem eminently nick-able. But inexpensive and legion, bikes aren’t under the same threat of pilfering as they are here.
Cycling on shared pavements, to someone used to battling aggressive city traffic, is similarly counterintuitive. But you quickly adapt. The infrastructure is there, and, crucially, there’s a decent hierarchy: drivers are respectful of cyclists and pedestrians, and despite the occasional irritation, it’s light years ahead of what two and non-wheeled types have to tolerate in Britain.
Could any of this work in the UK? Here, those not willing to mix it with motor traffic have to contend with a hotchpotch of shared-use paths strewn, as this Guardian Witness assignment indicates, with trees, lamp posts, and “cyclists dismount” signs, and the wrath of people unhappy with their riding on the pavement.
In Japan, the minority of cyclists use the roads, as they are legally able to do. But most prefer the safety of the sidewalks, and the culture and the infrastructure has developed to accommodate them.
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