When you talk about cycling in London, it isn’t long before accident rates and the somewhat hostile relationship between cyclists and drivers is brought up, but when you talk about cycling culture in Tokyo, the story is very different.
Cycling infrastructure is an increasing topic of conversation in cities. Where most urban landscapes seem to prioritize traffic over people, the culture is shifting rapidly. As fitness, convenience, the environment, and an increasing desire to cultivate a healthier work/life balance contribute to a changing mindset, there is a drive to change the way our cities function.
In cities like Sevilla the infrastructure is inherently positive, people are a primary consideration and cycling is a common mode of transport. The harmony between people and traffic works extremely well there, but it’s far from the universal standard and is driven largely by the fact that a large portion of the city’s traffic consists of bikes.
While most cities have an increasing population of cyclists, it remains at 1% or 2% for most. In Tokyo however, 14% of all trips are taken by bicycles every day. Yet despite that figure, there has been little or no move towards developing the infrastructure to support and cultivate the trend. So why the high numbers?
In general, cities all want more cyclists and in places like New York those numbers would be welcomed with open arms, but Tokyo has a meagre 10km of cycle paths to its name. In fact, the result is that many of the cyclists use the pavement and move in tandem with pedestrians in order to steer clear of traffic and remain safe –something that would cause outrage in a lot of other cities.
There are practical factors for the popularity of cycling in Tokyo, much like there is in any other city. It’s prohibitively expensive to park and own a car in Tokyo, the roads are increasingly dangerous, but also the mentality around cycling is different – it’s something that most people have been doing all their lives in a general sense, even if it’s not something they do now, so no one thinks anything of hopping on their bike to go to the shops, it’s just what they do. But practicalities aside, cyclists there as in any other city know that there is great pleasure to be derived from cycling – as one cyclist interviewed on Treehugger.com pointed out, when you cycle you realize that the city is actually rather small, while when you’re on the metro it’s all too easy to lose your bearings and be unaware of the distances and directions in which you’re travelling.
Byron Kidd from Tokyo By Bike believes that the main reason for cycling’s enduring popularity in Tokyo however, is the culture of the people themselves, and notably the Gaman spirit – a Zen Buddhist term meaning: “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” That definition seems a little extreme, but in short, it means ‘getting on with it without complaining.’
There is a strong sense of happiness and enjoyment around cycling in Tokyo, anyone you speak to about it has a wonderful smile on their face. So the essence is that cycling is something they want to do and therefore the lack of infrastructure isn’t going to put them off – if they have to cycle amongst pedestrians they will just get on with it. Just imagine how popular it could be with the right infrastructure in place then!?