Sidewalk Circus
The bustling walkways of Tokyo are no place for cyclists—or are they?
By: Byron Kidd | Apr 3, 2014 | Issue: 1045 | 6 Comments | 6,300 views
Sidewalk Circus
Byron Kidd is an internationally recognized expert on urban cycling and editor of the Tokyo By Bike website

The subject of cycling on the sidewalk seems to spark outrage among the foreign community in Japan, yet for most Japanese people, this is an accepted practice that millions engage in every day. Why the outrage? How is there such a disparity of opinion?

Under Japan’s Road Traffic Act, bicycles are classified as light vehicles and are required to travel on the roads—as one would normally expect. This was strictly enforced up until the mid-1970s when increased automobile use resulted in a jump in cyclist fatalities, at which time the law was amended to allow pedaling on specifically marked sidewalks and those over 3 meters in width.

Regardless of the law, millions of cyclists around the country choose to ride on pedestrian walks every single day. A typical reaction to this information would be to decree that all of them should stop breaking the law and get back on the roads where they belong. But the situation is more complicated than that.

When you refer to “cyclists” in Japan you’re actually referring to everyone: mothers fathers, businessmen, the elderly and children. Yet despite the astronomical number of bicyclists in Japanese cities—and politicians’ love of a good construction project—authorities have shown little interest in providing them with world class infrastructure, something that is evident in other great cycling nations such as The Netherlands and Denmark.

As a result, those who consider the roads too dangerous for cycling—the very reason the law was amended in the ’70s—choose to ride on sidewalks notwithstanding the legal technicalities.

Despite their inaction—or conversely due to their inaction—police and politicians understand that Japanese roads are not ready for cyclists and Japanese cyclists are not ready for the roads. To illustrate the point, in 2012 police began a campaign insisting cyclists ride on the road. Over that period, accidents involving bicycles rose 7 percent. A police spokesman was unprepared to say if the two were related, noting instead that, “more analysis is needed.” After the announcement of these figures, the campaign was swiftly put to rest.

Christi Rochin

With no safe alternative routes, society here has deemed sidewalk cycling acceptable and police, more concerned with keeping the peace than enforcing the laws to the letter, allow the situation to continue. Typically, they only enforce the law after an accident has occurred or under exceptional circumstances.

Sidewalk cycling is not the only issue. In 2008, the police decided to impose a ban on the common practice of carrying two children on a bicycle, but the burden of not being able to do so was too much for families who rely on the bike as one of their main forms of transport. Parents collectively refused to comply with the new ruling, which resulted in the law being revoked after only two months.

Cycling while holding an umbrella,  or talking on the phone—decried by many—is another practice that police turn a blind eye to. Vocal opponents argue that cyclists pose a danger to pedestrians, but statistically, of 1,634 pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in 2012, only five were killed by cyclists. Enthusiasts will explain that, comparatively speaking, Japanese roads are quite safe and that “if I can cycle on the roads, so can everyone else.” But these people make up a tiny percentage of the total number of bike riders in Japan. The belief of the 1 percent that Japanese roads are safe is not enough to convince the 99 percent who will continue to ride on the sidewalks until such time as adequate, separated lanes are provided.

The ability of Japanese society to shape the rules that govern them gives cyclists here great freedom, but also places upon them the responsibility to ride safely—sadly, a responsibility that some do not take seriously enough. While an untold number of accidents are waiting to happen on Japanese sidewalks, imagine the carnage that would occur if all cyclists were suddenly forced onto existing roads without protected cycling lanes.

Japanese roads are not ready for cyclists and Japanese cyclists are not ready for the roads. Fix these two issues and the scourge of sidewalk cycling will disappear.




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  • Avery

    Good article. Japan has a strong custom of bicycling, treated with neither shame nor annoyance, but there seems to be little interest in turning it into a responsible culture. In the countryside, I once attempted to buy a bike helmet, only to discover that they are not sold anywhere you would expect, and eventually I had to travel over 50km to get to a mall that had two or three.

  • Jaycasey

    I’ve rarely seen a modern city anywhere in the world that was less hospitable to bikes. There is rarely anywhere to park them, legally, and bike lanes are nowhere to be found. Riding them on the sidewalks is dangerous and even the mamachas ride through crowds of people with careless abandon. A friend of mine was recently seriously injured by a fast-riding biker on a sidewalk. The city needs to step up and take some responsibility – require set-asides for bike parking for anyone constructing a building, and start actually enforcing some laws.

  • Steven Forth

    There is a bit more nuance here. Many trips in Tokyo are to the nearest station, or relatively short for shopping. Relatively few people make long commutes by bicycle. So on average bikes in Japan are moving very slowly. And they are designed to make it easy to stop and put your feet down. I cycled to the train station every day for eight years in Tokyo and never had any problem. About 4 km each way (we lived in a big old house in an awkward corner of the city). I found that much easier than cycle commuting in Boston (which I did for six years) or Vancouver, where I live now. I have also lived in Copenhagen, and yes that was a cycling paradise, inside and outside of the city. I do have a cousin who cycle commuted all the way to his work in a Ginza art gallery, and he did have a few close encounters with cars. But that style of cycle commuting is still very unusual and given the quality of transport infrastructure in Tokyo may never catch on. I am in Tokyo once or twice every year and generally spend at least one or two days on long rambles through the city.

  • Citrus

    I live in a part of Tokyo that actually has a few kilometers of both sidewalk and designated bike lane. It is CLEARLY marked where pedestrians should walk and cyclists should ride. But for all it’s worth, every time I ride on it, there are always at least a few elderly people who insist on walking in the bike path. Is it that they don’t understand the concept, or they just don’t respect the differentiation? It’s so frustrating… (And dangerous!)

  • Allan Murphy

    Kidd-san raises some important issues. Essentially, Tokyo’s
    sidewalks are over-capacity: pedestrians, cyclists, bicycle parking (both
    official and unofficial), shopkeepers’ goods, vending machines, garbage
    collection places on designated days and so on. It seems to be, as my father
    would have said,” like putting a quart into a pint pot”.

    In addition to the issues that Byron mentioned, I would like
    to add five points:

    1) Many cyclists wear headphones / ear buds (whatever they
    are called). When cycling, my ears give me almost as much information as my
    eyes. Headphones should be prohibited.

    2) Cycling at night without a headlight should be against
    the law. If it is, it is not enforced. If it isn’t the law, it should be. For
    some reason, in the winter many cyclists wear dark down jackets etc. Add to
    this the dimly lit streets and then no headlight – it is a ninja experience
    that could be fatal.

    3) In some places, for example along Yamate-dori, there are
    sidewalks with designated pedestrian / cycling lanes. Much expense has gone
    into this construction. Unfortunately there is absolutely no adherence to using
    the indicated lanes, nor is there any penalty not to do so. Window dressing?

    4) Bicycle helmets should be mandatory.

    5) In every developed country I’ve been to (and that would
    be about a dozen), the rule is that if you drive on the right, you walk and
    cycle on the right. And, if you drive on the left, you walk and cycle on the
    left. Daily life in Tokyo would be much easier if people would adopt this
    simple rule.

  • Byron Kidd

    Thanks for your response, I’d like to address the points you made.

    1) Like you, I rely on my ears almost as much as my eyes when cycling and thus never cycle wearing headphones. Cycing with headphones is technically not against the law in Japan, but it is increasingly being targeted by police as they have the power to issue warnings and fines for any practice they deem dangerous. The “manners police” have also been making a big deal over cycling with headphones lately.

    2) Cycling at night without a headlight is illegal in Japan, but like most Japanese cycling laws it is poorly enforced. On a properly lit bicycle the color of a cyclists clothing should not be of concern, there should be no requirement for cyclists to wear outlandishly bright clothing, just as there is no requirement for pedestrians to do so.

    3) Yamate-dori is a fine example of how pedestrians, cyclists, and cars should be separated, yet as you observe pedestrians and cyclists largely ignore the path markings and still intermingle. I don’t believe there are any laws pertaining to the use of these separated facilities so there is nothing for the police to enforce. Instead there should be better education as this type of infrastructure is still relatively new in Japan. Also as I pointed out in a recent blog post lane markings are not enough to seperate cyclists and pedestrians, there needs to be a physical barrier (even an unobtrusive easily crossed one such as posts every few meters) to get people to take notice.

    4) Bicycle helmets should never be mandatory anywhere. We’re all adults and should be free to decide for ourselves when we should wear a helmet or not. Cycling on the pavement to the shops is not a dangerous activity, forcing all cyclists to wear helmets forces everyone to believe that cycling is a dangerous activity, this discourages bicycle use. In the only two countries to have mandatory helmet laws (Australia and New Zealand) cyclist numbers have plummeted. Helmets don’t make cycling safer, good infrastructure makes cycling safe.

    Personally there are times when I wear a helmet, and times I do not. I’m not anti helmet, I’m pro choice.

    5) I could not agree more. Keeping to the left when walking and cycling should be second nature in a country where cars travel on the left. But in a country where a large percentage of the population do not hold a drivers license, and many of those that do never actually drive, people may be less concious of the need to keep left. In the mornings when walking to school with my children I see the principal patrolling the route telling kids to keep to the right. My local subway station has signs on the stairs encouraging people to keep left and others in the interconencting walkways telling them to keep right. A little consistency even here would go a long way to making roads and sidewalks safer.