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.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. 1970s apartment complex in downtown Buffalo
    Equity

    The Last Man Standing in a Doomed Buffalo Housing Complex

    After a long fight between tenants and management, John Schmidt is waiting for U.S. Marshals to drag him out of Shoreline apartments, a Brutalist project designed by Paul Rudolph.

  2. An aisle in a grocery store
    Equity

    It's Not the Food Deserts: It's the Inequality

    A new study suggests that America’s great nutritional divide goes deeper than the problem of food access within cities.

  3. Harlequin books are pictured at a store in Ottawa.
    Life

    Want to Make It in the Gig Economy? Emulate Romance Novelists

    Their three keys to success: They welcome newcomers, they share competitive information, and they ask advice from newbies.

  4. Transportation

    How Toronto Turned an Airport Rail Failure Into a Commuter Asset

    The Union Pearson Express launched with expensive rides and low ridership. Now, with fares slashed in half and a light rail connection in the works, it’s a legitimate transit alternative for workers.

  5. Equity

    Even the Dead Could Not Stay

    An illustrated history of urban renewal in Roanoke, Virginia.