Cycling in Japan is more about getting the groceries than getting fit. –Byron Kidd, tokyobybike.com
Anytime we travel or do something out of the ordinary, it gives us a special perspective on our daily lives. That was certainly the case when I traveled to Japan. A few things dawned on me that are working in Japan to create a robust walking and cycling culture. It’s not perfect, but I learned a lot there. Here are ten reasons why walking and cycling are thriving in Japan.
1. Everyone walks and cycles. It is a daily necessity, and expected. It’s the way people go shopping, and to work and school. It’s the way people access open space, get fresh air, exercise, and spend time outside together. Walking and cycling are routine, everyday habits. Errands and exercise flow together.
Seniors ride their bikes to Thai Chi practice in the park
2. Automobile drivers are disciplined, careful and attentive. Drivers expect to see people on streets and crossing at intersections, and are prepared to yield to slower traffic ahead and when turning. Drivers reliably use blinkers to communicate intentions. Driver education and training is extensive and the responsibility of driving is taken seriously and respected.
3. Communities are planned as villages, and are oriented around train stations. Businesses cluster around the train station, creating a village center. People live within a short walk or bike from the village center and walking and cycling are the easiest, cheapest, most convenient way of getting to where you want to go, and the best way to access shopping and services.
4. Japan’s train system is awesome. You really don’t need a car because it makes more sense to take the train. Trains are accurate, frequent, fast, smooth and safe. Quality transit makes good community planning a lot easier, and is a building block for healthy, efficient and sustainable transportation. You have freedom to read, relax, talk or meditate on the train.
5. Japan has the lowest car usage rate of any of the G8 countries. This means roads are smaller. Smaller roads necessitate lower speeds. Lower speeds for cars means calmer streets for walking, cycling. Reduced speed differentials increases safety and comfort. Smaller roads are easier to cross, cycle on, and navigate, and do business along, and it feels like healthier human habitat.
6. Compact, dense development makes destinations closer. Japan is more careful about space efficiency because space is precious. With denser building, more destinations are within easy reach by walking and cycling. Compact, dense development makes walking and cycling very useful, as well as super interesting. Cars are designed to be space efficient, as well, and the nimbleness of walking and cycling is prized.
7. Japan has a great cycling culture naturally. From school children to elderly, business people to homemakers, everybody cycles. It’s just normal. People cycle in their day clothes, and functional athletic gear, too. Whatever is fitting. Towns and businesses serve cyclists by making parking convenient and easy because it makes rational sense and people use bikes for everything.
8. People walk everywhere, and people are used to sharing space. Cycling benefits from a strong walking culture. It means drivers are accustomed to the presence of people on the streets, are on the lookout, and patient to share. Walking is the foundation of the transportation system in Japan, and it anchors the streets in a culture of sharing. People have priority.
9. Safety and security is high. Bicycles are usually parked with a simple lock immobilizing the rear tire. Streets are family space, and feel inhabited. Public spaces are clean, organized, cared for and well-tended. The architecture, design and the way things fit together is beautiful. There is a strong sense of social responsibility, order, respect and dignity in Japan. It feels neat and safe.
10. Walking and cycling is easy, convenient, and effective. The Japanese take advantage of the most basic forms of transportation by using them as organizing principles and practical tools for daily living, including making people healthier, happier and connected to the community where they live.