Editor’s note: I traveled to Tokyo recently with colleagues from New York City to present at the first Tokyo Cycling Summit, an event convened to consider urban transportation, including bicycling infrastructure and bike share, as that city looks toward hosting the 2020 Olympics. My thanks to the Japan Cycling Association for inviting and hosting me. This is part of a series of posts that chronicles my visit.
I’m here to tell you that what you’ve heard about transportation in Tokyo is true. And much of it will snap your head around if you’re a New Yorker. So let me share a few of my favorite highlights, reflective of this city’s singular vibrancy and culture, from my recent trip there.
1. Taxis and Lace: Many cab drivers wear white gloves. And dazzlingly white lace slipcovers cloak the headrests and sometimes the rear seat. No need to reach for that door handle either; the passenger door is opened automatically from inside the taxi by the driver. It’s a little spooky on first encounter.
2. Tidy Trains: The subways and trains are legendary not only for running on time, but for cars and stations that are immaculate. I discovered a worker vacuum cleaning the stairs leading to the platform at a subway station one evening. Vacuum cleaning! Platforms are free of litter. Peeking over the edge reveals tracks devoid of detritus, as well. New York City subway rodents, so brawny and brazen a bunch, would quickly wither from starvation in Tokyo.
3. XL Pedestrian Crossing: Tokyo boasts one of the world’s busiest pedestrian intersections across from Shibuya Station in a popular shopping district. The sheer human energy reflected in the crossing, which is known as a scramble (video here), became familiar to many through Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation. Automobile traffic simultaneously comes to a halt for a minute, allowing pedestrians from all sides to spill into the circle and cross in any direction. Starbuck’s is the most popular viewing spot.
4. Moms with Kids on Bikes: Then there are the bikes, of which there are reported 1.5 for every citizen. They are parked everywhere. Pedaling is the obvious transportation choice for a dense and populous urban center, and this is reflected in the fact that 14 percent of trips are by bike (versus less than 2 percent in New York City).
But, and this is a really big but when it comes to transportation planning for the future, people are accustomed to riding on the sidewalks, and this is legal. Although introduced as a temporary measure in the 1970s, until bike lanes could be installed on streets, cycling alongside pedestrians has prevailed to the present. (Technically there are some restrictions, but as the The Japan Times recently observed “you’re not allowed on the sidewalk, except when you are.”)
Thus moms pedaling upright bicycles (these are known as mamacharis) equipped with carrier seats for children and baskets for groceries among walkers are a prevalent sight. Few cyclists share space with cars in the streets. But as popularity of bicycle commuting grows and the rate of pedestrian injuries climbs, introduction of more on-street bike lanes was among key focuses of the Cycling Summit.
5. Bike Locks Optional: A check on the locks used to secure bicycles in the streets often reveals little more than an integrated “café” model, which is basically a handcuff for the back wheel (above), or a light cable. Discovering a Cannondale road bike bundled in a spaghetti-thin combination lock on a busy Tokyo street almost induced palpitations in this observer. But the message is pretty clear: bicycle theft, while not unheard of in Tokyo, is rare, so people don’t sweat bar locks or heavy chains.
6. Automated Bicycle Parking: While on the subject of bicycle parking, maybe you’ve seen Tokyo’s automated, subterranean parking system in action on YouTube? The video went viral for good reason. Watch the little snippet that I shot here on a post rush-hour Monday morning on a plaza in the business district near Shinagawa Station:
The bike owner guides the front wheel onto a rail, swipes a card at the kiosk and snap! her bike is whisked into storage, to be retrieved later from the mechanized underground system. (I can’t help but envision Tom Cruise duking it out down there with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol gusto.) The facility comprises 5 covered kiosks, each accommodating 200 bicycles. The rent: $18 per month.
I haven’t been this mesmerized by bicycle parking since I discovered the massive underground lot with climate control, security and piped-in music beneath the public library in Amsterdam. The system seen here, still rare and costly, tantalizes where space-saving solutions are concerned, notably for urban centers where new development is booming.
Still, as I exited Tokyo Station on a limited layover for sightseeing before catching another space-age train to Narita airport, this thought automatically popped into my head (because that’s how spoiled I’ve become by Citi Bike): Where’s the nearest bike share station? For now, bike share exists only in the form of small, private kiosks. These are basically sets of identical rental bikes, some with electric-assist, that one checks out and returns to a single kiosk.
Introduction of a bike share system like that of New York City or Paris, was also among key topics discussed at the Cycling Summit, as Tokyo contemplates the future of an already remarkable transportation system.
Credits: Mamachari photo. Others, velojoy.