Imagine a vast clean metropolis where you can ride your bike virtually anywhere – on the road, on cycleways, on the pavements and you can park it anywhere it’s not blocking a doorway or driveway.
Imagine a place where you could leave your bike leaning against a railing, unlocked, for a WHOLE YEAR and when you go to look for it, it’s still there, looking the worst for the weather but intact?
That city is Tokyo. It must be one of the world’s busiest cities with everything from narrow, deserted little local lanes to multi-lane flyover hghways. To give you some idea, twelve years ago it had 12.8 million residents owning 8.4 million bikes.
The fast flyover highways that curve and swoop over the city don’t look remotely safe for cyclists, but not long after arriving, I noticed a couple of very fast courier-types on skinny-tyred racing bikes weaving their way through main-road traffic and thought “Well, it’s possible….”
And as we walked around more and more of Tokyo, it became apparent that it’s not just the fast couriers and the lycra types who cycle in this ultra-clean, vibrant, efficient, expensive city, it’s everyone!
You see bikes leaning up against railings, piled two to three deep, in some places and there are bike parks outside supermarkets and department stores.
Parents pedal with their kids on the back in babyseats, pet owners pedal with their dogs in the back, in zipped open dog carrier bags!
Old people pedal steadily along the pavements, shopping in the front basket of their bikes, without a care in the world. Women cycle to the shops wearing hats, mackintoshes over skirts and ordinary shoes.
Getting on a bike to go somewhere seemed a very natural thing to do. People have step-through shopper bikes with chainguards and mudguards and baskets front and back plus a rack on the back but no gears. These are known as mamachari or “mum’s bikes.” Fine on the flat, heavy-going on a hill, particularly when loaded with shopping!
Hardly anyone locks their bikes. Son no 1 was borrowing a too-small bike to cycle 30 minutes to the station from home and back for most days during six weeks. He never locked it. No-one ever shifted it. However, the official advice is that although Tokyo is a relatively low-crime city, top-end bikes and bits are still likely to be stolen if they aren’t secured.
There are occasional walk-ways where cycles are banned, but pedestrians don’t mind in the least about sharing pavements with cyclists. They have no need to be concerned. They have right of way, and in an accident, the cyclist is always held responsible.
I have no idea of the bicycle accidents/fatalities statistics or how they compared with other major cities, but at first sight Tokyo seemed to have an enviable bike culture which is good for everyone. It was just frustrating that during our short visit, we didn’t have time to locate a good bicycle hire centre so we could go out for a spin!