Cycling to Shibuya

As discussed in the last post, I am currently staying in Saitama, a city in the Greater Tokyo area which is approximately 25 km outside of central Tokyo. On Sunday I found myself at a bit of a loose end, the weather was crisp, clear and bright, perfect for a bit of exploration.

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Japan’s version of a ‘shared use’ facility. Because Japan doesn’t treat its pedestrians with the same level of contempt as the UK does, the concept works surprisingly well.

Not willing to pay the extortionate rate expected for mobile data roaming (and forgetting to activate even the possibility before leaving the UK) I had to rely on an offline map for navigation. Add to this the unexplained failure of my phone’s GPS since arriving in Japan and I realised that travelling through the most populous metropolitan area in the world might require some creative navigation. After wandering around for a bit, I decided that I would use the train lines as a means of navigating. Thanks to the Carradice bag packed in my T-bag, I knew that I could easily pack the Brompton up and hop on the (quite easy to use) rail network should the need arise.

After heading towards central Tokyo for a while, I realised that if I followed the forking points of the train tracks correctly I could make it to Shibuya, a place I’ve wanted to see since sinking many an hour into Jet Set Radio many years ago.

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The Greater Tokyo area is remarkably permeable. Whilst there are some one-way restrictions for motor vehicles which do not apply to cyclists and pedestrians, this high level of permeability applies to motor vehicles almost as much as cycle and foot traffic. In order to make my journey I merely needed to have a rough idea of which direction I needed to travel in and the roads and streets always managed to allow me a way through. Despite this permeability, I was not bothered by a particularly notable volume of motor traffic on residential streets. Navigating through the crowds of pedestrians and other cyclists was the main obstacle I encountered and was one I was happy to work around.

This lack of rat-running is likely in part due to the fact that it just doesn’t seem to be acceptable here to haphazardly discard your car on whatever piece of public land you fancy at the other end of your journey. Cars here are stored when not in use, not carelessly abandoned. The result is that people seem to make fewer frivolous car trips (and seem to own fewer frivolous cars) with the bicycle picking up the slack instead. Residential streets are places rather than just routes, and these places are perfectly inviting for cycling and walking.

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Fancy a hot can of (surprisingly good) coffee whilst wandering, slightly lost, through a Shenmue-esque neighbourhood? No problem (I recommend the Rainbow Blend).

In addition to the extensive network of pleasant, permeable residential streets there are plenty of big, multi-lane car-centric roads running throughout Greater Tokyo. Thankfully these roads are made relatively pleasant thanks to two measures; shared use facilities and smoothing traffic flow.

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Cultural differences abound in Japan; here this sign is not an iron-clad guarantee you’ll have a bad cycling or walking experience.

Shared use facilities in Japan, whilst not a perfect solution, work unexpectedly well on the major routes. This is largely due to the fact that pedestrians are not treated with the same level of contempt in Japan that they are in the UK, so when cyclists and pedestrians are lumped together the experience is still positive. Presumably as a result of the ubiquitousness of shared use in Japan, there is not a great deal of conflict between the two types of user; pedestrians expect the encounter cyclists and cyclists expect to have to slow down or stop for pedestrians where volumes of foot traffic are higher.

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An elderly lady rides a typical Japanese city bike along one a shared use pavement. I’m not sure how she would feel about doing the same in London.

Don’t like it? Want to go faster? Get on the road. Cycling on main roads in Japan is also surprisingly pleasant thanks to measures which smooth the flow of traffic; all types of traffic. Next to the shared use sign in the above picture is a ’40’ sign, indicating a speed limit of 40 km/h or 25mph on what is effectively an urban dual carriageway. This speed limit, enforced by frequent stops for motor traffic at practically every set of traffic lights results in a consistent, smooth flow of motor, bicycle and foot traffic rather than the frequent short bursts of dangerous speed from motorists enabled by the complete subjugation of cyclists and pedestrians which we have in the UK.

The shared use facilities have priority over minor side roads which is enforced by a combination of fairly tight turning geometry and a general tendency amongst motorists to act as if they are in charge of machines which could easily kill or maim people if operated without due care and attention. At major intersections, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians get a green phase in the same direction at the same time. Motorists are permitted to turn left but must defer to bicycle and foot traffic heading straight ahead. Again this works surprisingly well thanks to a technique which Japanese motorists have developed known as ‘paying attention.’

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The very big roads have separate little roads running alongside them which are used for cycling, walking and as residents’ access. The structure above the road in this shot is a motorway which has high noise-abating walls.

Through a combination of these different types of road, I followed the train line a rather circuitous, approximately 50 km route to Shibuya. I saw plenty of little slices of life in Japan; a mother cycling to the shops with her child and his grandfather not far behind, children cycling unaccompanied along city streets and shopping malls so inundated that you have to pay for bicycle parking.

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Whilst it doesn’t hold up to The Netherlands example, Tokyo shows what can be achieved when government policy at least doesn’t actively suppress cycling.

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This was the one point I thought I may have to turn back; I had cycled down a residential street to an ornamental garden next to a river. I carried the Brompton down the steps and found that there was a path leading to a footbridge over the river leading me back to the train tracks I was using to navigate.

Eventually I made it to Shibuya. By this point my arms were really aching; unlike making a similar journey in the UK, I didn’t need to stop all that often. It turns out that my body has grown accustomed to the frequent stops I must make as a cyclist in the UK riding on a road network designed solely around motor traffic.

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A street in Shinjuku, pedestrianised during shopping hours. Nearby here is where I saw the only HGV I have seen in Japan. It was being used as a mobile stage to promote an album launch. Major freight movements seem to be by rail.

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A scramble crossing outside Shibuya station. By the time I got to Shibuya, after a short wander around, I was so tired I decided to head back to Saitama. Sometimes it is all about the journey.

Cycling alone and through the one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, I was unfamiliar with the language and the specifics of the law and yet I still felt safer than I ever do cycling on the roads back in the UK. The UK really has an awful long way to go.

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Partition is a panacea

The title for this piece is borrowed from an old article whose author creates a straw man to argue against pro-infrastructure views. The title of that piece came to mind again recently when reading reports in June of the UKs worse-than-expected quarterly growth. This was also around the same time that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wrote an open letter to Nick Clegg urging for some of the infrastructure investment being discussed at the time be directed to provide Dutch-quality cycle infrastructure. The title of that particular old post came to mind because the failure of austerity policies in reviving the British economy has been leading to ever louder calls for a different, more Keynesian approach; in addition to the many proven benefits which come from actually having dedicated cycle infrastructure, right now we stand to benefit from significant wider societal effects from the process of actually buying this infrastructure too.

At a time when unemployment (particularly of the young) is staggeringly high, imagine the benefits of a project as grand in scale as finally making Britain’s roads fit for purpose, for all users, regardless of transport mode. As many of the detractors of cycle infrastructure are quick to say, reconfiguring our entire road network to something resembling that of The Netherlands is a big and expensive job. However, right now this should be seen as an opportunity in itself; we have a huge number of young (and plenty who are not so young) people who are desperate for work and who are on the verge of becoming a lost generation if they do not do so.

A project to reconfigure the entire nation’s road network would create a huge number of jobs, in every corner of the UK. Those new to the world of work would be given a chance to learn a trade and earn a wage; the jobs wouldn’t just be limited to obvious areas such as construction, a huge amount of design, planning and legal work (to name a few) would also be required. Such a project must be handled correctly, through publicly-owned enterprises paying a living wage, rather than private contractors whose ‘cost savings’ are typically provided by driving down wages, which subsequently have to be topped up with tax credits, housing benefit, council tax benefit and so on, negating any real savings to the public purse. Even worse would be to finance it through private finance initiatives.

The knock on effects of boosting employment this manner are obvious and the same as for other big infrastructure projects. However, unlike other many other infrastructure projects such as traditional roadbuilding or motorway construction, once built cycle infrastructure actually pays dividends. Reduced healthcare spending, reduced congestion and its associated costs, increased employee productivity, increased wellbeing of citizens to name but a few, the benefits of high-quality cycle infrastructure are well-studied and broad. Added to the significant economic benefits we could reap from merely building cycle infrastructure, it really does start to look like a panacea.

Cities fit for Cycling

I am extremely pleased to see that a national newspaper has given the safety of cyclists (and the inherent hostility of our present road network to them) the attention it so sorely deserves. I was even more amazed that it was none other than The Times who were behind this movement. The Cities fit for Cyclists campaign shows an understanding of the underlying issues, where it could have been all too easy to start talking about helmets or other such easy but ineffective measures. Needless to say, I encourage you all to sign up.

However, my joy at the issue of cyclist safety and the importance of infrastructure receiving such attention was dampened somewhat when I tried to encourage friends outside of cycling circles to sign up too. Surprisingly to me, the issue of 20 mph in residential areas appeared to be a bit of contentious one. The issue of children’s freedom to play outside without motor traffic being a threat did not seem to be a significant persuader either, with the long history of children playing on the streets seeming to have been quickly forgotten by some. Inevitably, the issue that cycling, walking or public transport are not viable for every journey made by every person came up. Whilst true, it is my experience that this argument is often used to justify car use which, at least in the right road environment, could easily be made through walking or cycling. Walking, cycling and public transport are unlikely to be viable for every single journey made by every single person in the UK. This does not change the fact that they could be made viable for the vast majority of journeys made by the vast majority of people. To me, raising the limitations of our current public transport system is merely an acknowledgement of the need to invest in the expansion of our rail and bus services.

It didn’t take long for the issue of the law-breaking behaviour of some cyclists to come up, despite its dubious relevance to the topic at hand. As a member of a vilified minority group, I am often expected to justify the behaviour of others within the same minority group, despite the fact that I have nothing to do with them. I acknowledged the bad behaviour of a minority of cyclists and gently pointed out the bad behaviour of (what I generously described as) a minority of motorists, including the red light jumping and pavement driving (both of which are regarded as reprehensible behaviour when cyclists do it but largely tolerated when motorists do it). The issue of motorist behaviour was mostly ignored.

The Times’ Cities fit for Cyclists campaign is an enormous and welcome step in the right direction. However, the responses to my attempts at promoting of the campaign show that we need to keep plugging away at this issue to bring in further into the mainstream.