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Why Tokyo Is Home to So Many Cyclists But So Few Bike Lanes

A new Streetfilms video offers some compelling explanations.


The Gaman Spirit: Why Cycling Works in Tokyo from STREETFILMS on Vimeo.

It’s estimated that about 14 percent of all trips in Tokyo are made by bicycle. That’s an admirable figure in its own right; in the U.S., by comparison, most big cities have a bike share (for commuting at least) in the low single digits. Factor in that Tokyo has very little bike infrastructure—just about 10 kilometers of bike lanes and dedicated paths, according to Byron Kidd, who runs the Tokyo By Bike blog—and such a high bike travel share seems all the more impressive.

Just how the city pulls off this feat of lots of riders with few riding lanes is the subject of a new Streetfilms video produced by Joe Baur. In chatting with Kidd and other local riders and cycling advocates, Baur comes up with a bunch of reasons. Among them:

  • Local neighborhoods are compact, often anchored around a transit station, with all types of shops within a short walk or bike ride.
  • The cost of parking a car is very high. (So are taxi fares, for that matter.)
  • Car-ownership in general isn’t as necessary in Tokyo, given the city’s extensive transit system.
  • Kids are far more independent in Japan, and bikes are an accessible option for young people who can’t drive.

And then there’s the “Gaman” spirit; Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms explains:

There's at least one thing the rest of the world can take from cycling in Tokyo. That is, the "Gaman Spirit." Literally, it means "to endure." But when applied to cycling in Tokyo, it refers to everybody getting along.

The Japanese have a strong communal culture, generally speaking. But when it comes to bikes in cities, there’s a self-fulfilling cycle of tolerance that occurs: as more people ride bikes, more people become sensitive to the needs of bike riders. So it’s not uncommon to find bikes left unlocked on the streets in Tokyo. And whereas riding on the sidewalk is seen as taboo in Western cities, Baur points out that it’s a regular habit in the city.

That’s not a great practice for pedestrian safety. But it’s understandable from the perspective of riders themselves, given the lack of bike infrastructure. (Businesses are fine with the practice, too, as cyclists have been found to be good merchants.) Baur notes that one reason the bike network is so sparse is that responsibility for it falls to individual districts, not the city itself. A major expansion has been proposed as a lead up to the 2020 Olympics, but Kidd has criticized it for targeting tourist areas and not prioritizing protected lanes.

The reason so many people ride despite this bike-unfriendly street design, Kidd says in the video, ultimately comes down to convenience. “They’re not cycling to get fit,” he says. “They’re not cycling to save the environment. They’re just cycling because it makes sense. It’s the best way to get around.”

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