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. An illustration of a private train.
    Transportation

    Want to Buy a Private Railroad Car? This Might Be the End of the Line

    If you dream of roaming the U.S. in a your own personal train car, you still can. But Amtrak cuts have railcar owners wondering if their days are numbered.

  2. Transportation

    China's 50-Lane Traffic Jam Is Every Commuter's Worst Nightmare

    What happens when a checkpoint merges 50 lanes down to 20.

  3. Design

    Cities Deserve Better Than These Thomas Heatherwick Gimmicks

    The “Vessel” at New York’s Hudson Yards—like so many of his designs—look as if the dystopian world of 1984 has been given a precious makeover.

  4. How To

    The Link Between Green Space and Well-Being Isn't As Simple As We Thought

    What does it mean for public health officials?

  5. Homes in Amsterdam are pictured.
    Equity

    Amsterdam's Plan: If You Buy a Newly Built House, You Can't Rent It Out

    In an effort to make housing more affordable, the Dutch capital is crafting a law that says anyone who buys a newly built home must live in it themselves.