Japanese cities are amongst the largest and most populated in the world, but most residential neighbourhoods have their own unique small town feel. In terms of services, Japanese neighbourhoods are largely self contained. Residents have to cycle no more than 5 to 10 minutes to reach supermarkets, kindergartens, schools, doctors, dentists, in fact most necessities for everyday living are just a short ride away. Without the need to travel excessive distances for daily life’s basics, a bicycle makes perfect sense.
Japanese cities are crisscrossed with a fast clean and efficient train and subway system, not to mention and reliable cheap bus services. So efficient is the public transport system that it is often faster and more convenient to take the train than to travel by car. While bicycle commuters did increase after the March 11 earthquake crippled Tokyo's rail system, few people are willing to cycle more than one or two stations from their home. Many use their bicycles to compliment public transport, cycling from their home to the station.
Owning a car in Tokyo is inconvenient and expensive. Before purchasing a car the buyer is required to provide proof they have secured an appropriate parking spot. As most city dwellers have no garage hiring a parking space can be an expensive exercise, and that parking space may be many minutes walk from home. For people working in the city, commuting to work by car is not an option as some inner city parking spaces can cost more per month than a small apartment in the suburbs. Throw insurance and maintenance costs in with all that and riding a bicycle makes a lot of sense.
Forget expensive road, hybrid and mountain bikes, the majority of Japanese ride mama-chari, they're the family station wagon of Japan. Mama-chari cheap, and come equipped with dynamo lights, horseshoe locks and sturdy rear wheel kickstands right out of the box. While baskets on the front and racks on the back are standard the options for carrying cargo and children with the addition of accessories are limitless. Carrying two (or more) children by bicycle is not an uncommon sight. Although heavy and somewhat clunky the mama-chari is perfectly suited to the Japanese city environment, and to the tasks that millions use them for in daily life.
Japanese cycling laws are largely unenforced until such time that there is an accident. This makes for an incredibly free and liberating cycling experience. I attribute a lot of the popularity of the bicycle in Japan to the ability to cycle wherever and however you like. Confident in traffic? Ride on the road. Have child passengers? Stick to the sidewalk. Roads congested? Jump on the sidewalk and vice versa. As long as you are riding safely and with respect for others it doesn't matter how many of Japan's cycling laws (or as I like to call them "guidelines") you're breaking, just don't get into an accident.
Japan has terrible bicycle infrastructure yet millions of people cycle every single day. Most suburban Japanese streets often do not have a sidewalks so pedestrians, bicycles and car are comfortable sharing the same space. Bicycle lanes are practically non existent, when there is often not enough space for even a sidewalk, how can we expect bicycle lanes? Finding a (legal) place to park is often quite difficult, so parking illegally with everyone else is the accepted norm. Despite this few people are calling for improved cycling infrastructure, and cycling is booming.
A big factor in making cycling work in Japan is the Japanese people themselves. For the most part incredibly patient and polite they're tolerant of the people around them. You can't live in a city with 12.9 million others without exercising some degree of tolerance and patience. Pedestrians, cyclists and cars often share the same space and that can not work unless a drivers and cyclists are prepared to travel at walking pace until a pedestrian can get out of their way.
Japanese people also have what is termed the "gaman spirit", which loosely translated is the "just get on with it" along with a "shoganai", or " what are you going to do?" attitude. So when it comes to cycling to the station in the dead of winter just get on with it, because what else can you do?
There are many factors that go into making cycling the best form of local transport in Japanese cities. Partly infrastructure, partly urban design and partly the police turning a blind eye to cycling offences when no damage is being done. But I believe it is the attitude of the Japanese people, the politeness they display to each other on the road that really makes a difference.
Cycling in Japan really is a polite form of anarchy. People ignoring the rules, cycling and parking wherever they like, yet doing their best to impact as little on others as they can. Can we replicate this success overseas?