Making Room for Bicycles on the Road


Bicycles being ridden on sidewalks are an everyday sight in Japan. But now the government is trying to get bicyclists to ride on the street instead. Kobayashi Shigeki, head of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, looks at the challenges facing government agencies as they seek to change what has become a deep-rooted custom in Japan.

Bicycles are vehicles; as such, they are to be ridden on streets and operated in compliance with the rules of the road. This was the thrust of a directive that the National Policy Agency issued last October to local governments and police forces throughout Japan. This policy, aimed at restoring proper order to the regulation of traffic, was conveyed to the public via the media, but there were also many media reports on public dissatisfaction with the directive because it runs counter to the common assumption among Japanese today that bicycles belong on the sidewalk. And some officials from the NPA and prefectural police forces confused matters further with remarks to the effect that bicyclists would be allowed to continue riding on sidewalks.

The Error of Allowing Bikes on Sidewalks

The current situation for bicycles can be traced back to 1970, when Japan revised its Road Traffic Act to allow bicycles to be ridden on sidewalks even though they were classified as vehicles. At the time, the rapid increase in automobiles was resulting in frequent traffic accidents; this made it a crucial task to make automobile travel smoother and safer by removing hindrances from the road. Bicycles were not the only thing that was cleared out of the way: The streetcar lines that took up the middle of some roads were eliminated one by one, sidewalks were placed along some major thoroughfares, and other wheeled vehicles that were considered impediments to car traffic, such as trailers, carts, and horse-drawn carriages, were banished from the roadways.

Unlike other non-auto vehicles, however, bicycles continued to be widely used, serving as a means of personal transportation even after they lost their place on the roads; to this day they account for more than a tenth of all trips. This is because bicyclists were allowed to ride on the sidewalks, where they were safe. In this respect the situation in Japan differs from that of many European countries, where bicycles fell out of use. In France, for example, the rate of bicycle use has fallen to 4% as a share of trips, and in Britain it is a mere 1%. Once a society has turned its back on bicycles as a form of transportation it is not easy to revive them—even when the state throws its weight behind a strategy toward that end. In that light, it might seem that Japan merits praise for its ad hoc policy of allowing bicycles on sidewalks.

But the error of Japan’s policy of crowding narrow sidewalks with pedestrians and cyclists is clear if we look at the contrasting example of Germany, where the government responded to the rise of motorization with the wise approach of promptly securing road space for cyclists. The result has been that bicycles in Germany have continued to account for around 10% of total traffic. There are also lessons to be drawn from the case of Norway, which during the same period established a law permitting bicycles to be ridden on sidewalks, as in Japan. Even when the country later created bike lanes on roads, half of the cyclists remained on the sidewalks.(*1) This shows how hard it is to correct a mistaken habit once it has taken root.

The sidewalks that were intended originally for the safe use of pedestrians ended up becoming the domain of bicycles in Japan after the 1970 revision in the law, leading to the occurrence of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians at a frequency unseen in other industrialized nations. Immediately after the law was revised, this problem was noted; and in 1978 signs indicating which specific sidewalks allowed bicycle traffic were established and cyclists were required to travel at low speeds. Unfortunately, by that time Japanese people had already become accustomed to the idea that bicycles belong on sidewalks.

As a result of the tacit acceptance of bicycles on sidewalks, people mistakenly believe that sidewalks are where bicycles belong, and this misunderstanding has spawned more collisions with pedestrians. Seeking to improve pedestrian safety, the authorities took to marking bike lanes on sidewalks, but this has only exacerbated the misconception.

There has been a clear increase in the number of cyclists in Japan’s major urban areas. This reflects the increased awareness of the need to cut out wasteful expenditures, which has occurred against the backdrop of the collapse of the bubble economy, increased environmental and health awareness, and the impact of deflation and the 2008 financial crisis. The increase in cyclists is also connected to the growing number of those who bike to work, due in part to concerns raised by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami about the fragility of the urban transport system.

Gearing the Roads Up for Bikes

The rising number of cyclists has led to a relative increase in accidents, leading in particular to more collisions with pedestrians. Recognizing that the Road Traffic Act was in practice failing to live up to its nominal objective of safeguarding the most vulnerable on the road, the National Police Agency issued the directive mentioned earlier, and sought to prepare roads able to accommodate cyclists. In the view of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, which is responsible for Japan’s roads, the policies the police implemented to promote the custom of riding bicycles on sidewalks had the effect of discouraging efforts to create bike lanes on streets. But now, thanks to a consensus finally emerging between the NPA and the ministry, the conditions are in place to begin adapting the traffic infrastructure to accommodate bicycles.

Both the NPA and the ministry are drawing up specific guidelines for creating a safe, bike-friendly environment. This is an objective that needs to be achieved promptly; failure to do so would represent a breach of the fundamental responsibility of the democratic state to safeguard the weak. The only barrier to bringing this change at the current stage is the lack of awareness and understanding among the Japanese public. But this barrier can eventually be overcome. Now that Japan has one of the world’s “grayest” populations, there is a need to free the elderly from the need to drive so as to avoid the increased risk of car accidents due to declining reflexes. Also, although today’s strong yen has dampened the increase in the price of crude oil somewhat, it is trading at a level that is 5–10 times what it was in the mid-twentieth century. Higher prices for oil mean higher prices for gasoline, and this raising the need among residents for non-automobile options in personal mobility.

Facilitating the road transport related lifestyles that suit the present age will require ensuring that neighborhoods are pedestrian friendly, that cyclists are allotted spaces to travel safely (particularly at intersections), and that drivers behave prudently and observe rules and regulations in return for enjoying automotive convenience. Now that the principle has been raised of bicycles traveling on streets, I hope that Japanese society will be able to make progress in the direction of putting in place a traffic infrastructure that allows bicycles to display their full potential as a means of transportation.

(Originally written in Japanese on February 13, 2012.)

(*1) ^ Data from “Noruuē jitensha seisaku chōsa hōkokusho” (Report on a Survey of Bicycle Policies in Norway) by Motoda Yoshitaka, a professor at Iwate Prefectural University, July 1, 2010.