Bikes to Get a Bigger Share of Tokyo?


Last month I was in Chicago for a short vacation to visit my parents. During my week there, I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between Chicago and my new hometown, Tokyo.

Each has its charms, of course. The abundance of trees, impressive architecture, ample elbow room, and plenty of stores stocking size-12 shoes and 34-inch-long pants were among the joys that Chicago had to offer me.

A bit less joyful, though, was the city’s transportation system. The lumbering CTA “L” trains were as antiquated as ever (even the latest train models are the spitting image of the old ones) and few streets were without their cracks and potholes. My general impression was that most of the vehicles on the roads and rails (and more than a few of the passengers) were a bit too bulky for their own good.

One transportation bright spot, though—was the city’s new Divvy bike-sharing system, unveiled just a few months before I touched down at O’Hare.

In Chicago, around 4,000 Divvy bikes are available at 400 “stations” sprinkled around the city. A person can join the system for just $75 a year, which allows an unlimited number of 30-minute trips on any one of the bikes. (There are “overtime fees” if a particular trip exceeds 30 minutes). Tourists or occasional users can also purchase a 24-hour pass, also allowing an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, for $7. Around 9,000 Chicagoans have already signed up as members, making it the second-largest bike-sharing system in the country.

 Seeing the Divvy bike-sharing in action made me wonder if Tokyo might benefit from a similar system. Certainly there are already loads of Tokyoites who rely on a bike to get (at least part of the way) to work or school. I live in one of the city’s near-suburbs, where it is common for people to bike from their home to whatever train or subway line they use, and pay ¥100 to leave it at a parking facility. It would be easy enough, I suppose, to convert some of these facilities to bike-sharing stations, but it would also be necessary to create enough stations in or around the residential areas. 

Shibuya Bicycle Parking
A cycle lot near Shibuya. (Photo by Draconiansleet on Flickr.)

Bike-sharing seems better suited to the urban core of Tokyo. Most of the 23 ku, often called “wards,” are within reasonable biking distance of the city’s business districts. The number of bike commuters is already on the rise in the city center and the lack of adequate parking facilities has led to a rise in illegally parked bikes in some places. Bike-sharing might improve the situation—and alleviate the related problem of abandoned bikes.

Bike-sharing is not exactly a new concept in Japan. The first initiative dates back to 1975, when the city of Yōkaichi in Shiga Prefecture introduced a “rental cycle” system that lasted a few years.

Today there are some bike-sharing services operating in the greater Tokyo area. The Setagaya government, for instance, has partnered with Sanyo to offer a bike-sharing system featuring electric-powered bicycles available at solar-powered stations. And a few parts of central Tokyo seem to be covered by the CogiCogi bike-sharing system.

But to find a Divvy-style system you need to travel outside of Tokyo, to the city of Toyama on the Japan Sea. In March 2010, it introduced what was billed as the first “full-scale” bicycle-sharing system, modeled after (and created in partnership with) the Velib system in Paris—also the system that inspired Chicago to try bike-sharing.

Tokyo may be behind the curve on bike sharing, but there are signs that when a full-fledged system does arrive it will have some high-tech features all its own. A couple years ago the mobile carrier NTT Docomo teamed up with the bike-sharing company Pedal Ltd. to launched the Interstreet system on a trial basis. It allowed users to pay with the “Osaifu-Keitai” payment function on their mobile phone or with a credit card. The rental bikes were equipped with a holder for a smartphone so it could be used as a sort of navigation device, and Docomo offered users apps with maps suggested routes, and other handy features.

One other technical development on the Japanese bike-sharing front that has, quite literally, generated a buzz—or a thumping bass line, as it were—is the Turntable Rider created by the Cogoo bicycle-sharing service. The company’s website proudly describes this breakthrough as “an epic bicycle accessory which converts a bicycle into a DJing machine.”

“Cool,” “Dope,” and “This is the worst mixing I have ever heard” were some of the comments that the YouTube video elicited. My own reaction falls more into the category of “Huh?” Tokyo seems quite loud enough without adding DJ cyclists to the mix.

The “epic” DJ-bike is unlikely to turn the world on its ear, but it does seem safe to say that the bike-sharing trend will gain traction in Tokyo. (MS)