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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Cycle parking in Saitama

I am currently in Saitama, a prefecture of Japan in the Greater Tokyo area. despite being overshadowed by nearby Tokyo, Saitama is a city in its own right and a dense one at that, more so than most cities in the UK. Cycling here is a mainstream mode of transport used by young and old, man and woman alike. There are parked bicycles everywhere.

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I have seen very little in the way of cycle parking facilities by UK standards, other than designated areas and structures to support cycles. No-one seems bothered about locking bikes up beyond a rear-wheel lock. These immobilised bicycles can be seen everywhere.

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I assume that this area outside a chain restaurant is designed for cycle parking.

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I spotted this cycle shelter by a small apartment building at around 16:45. I imagine it is more full after working hours.

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This higher-density facility was provided for a slightly larger apartment building.

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This alleyway near some fairly low-density (by Japanese city standards) housing is used for bicycle storage.

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This space between restaurants and other businesses is used for medium-density cycle parking for customers and staff.

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Underneath a Shinkansen train station, the large area is divided into blocks to help passengers find their bikes on their way home. Again, no Sheffield stands, just bikes on kick-stands with rear-wheel locks.

Eric in an ideological Pickle over parking

I was interested to read about Eric Pickles’ statement about local authorities and car parking charges on the recently resurrected Crap Waltham Forest blog.

Councils will have to declare the total paid by drivers to park in both on-street and off-street bays, after new government figures showed local authorities’ total income from parking hitting £1.27 billion last year. 

Ministers believe the new “transparency” drive is vital to ensure local politicians can be properly held to account by motorists – and to help reverse the decline of the country’s high streets, including the closure of businesses. 

Earlier this year a government report conducted by Mary Portas, the retail expert, identified that high cost of parking as one of the reasons why shoppers were deserting high streets in favour of out-of-town centres where parking is often free. 

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account. 

“As part of that we will expose a great council cash cow cover-up, unmasking punitive parking practices that hit residents in the pocket. We’re calling time on the billion pound local war against motorists – now, more than ever, we need to see the back of this shopping tax and encourage more people onto the high street.” 

Town halls are supposed to control parking to improve traffic flow and stop gridlock occurring, and they are prohibited by law from using their powers in this area simply to boost their income. However, ministers and their advisers believe a growing number of councils seek to get round these rules by earmarking the cash raised for other transport projects.

Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to be suggesting that it is wrong for councils to charge for car parking on their sites at rates which allow them to turn a profit and that these rates should therefore be reduced.

This statement confused me immensely for several reasons. Firstly, as Conservative minister, should Mr Pickles not believe that it is wrong for local authorities to use their position to offer parking facilities at prices with which the private sector could never compete? Surely the idea of government crowding out the private sector when it comes to the provision of car parking facilities if at odds with the Conservative ideology. Naturally, the first step in remedying this would be for local authorities to increase their parking charges to allow the more dynamic and efficient private sector to step in.

Secondly, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, surely Mr Pickles should be aware that accommodating to many private motor vehicles in town centres contributes to their downfall. Shopkeepers grossly overestimate the amount of their customers who arrive by car, falling to see that, in town centres, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are usually better customers.

Thirdly, providing subsidised parking in town centres tends to damage town centres by excluding those who wish to, or have no other option than to arrive by different modes of travel. The town centre of my native Rochdale is a good example of this; surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways Rochdale’s local authority has done everything possible to accommodate private motor vehicles in the centre of town. The result of this is that the centre of Rochdale us barely accessible by non-motorised means. The tragedy of Rochdale is that even though it’s local authority sacrificed the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists to benefit motorists, it has not produced an otherwise-successful town centre. It is no coincidence that Rochdale has one of the highest levels of unoccupied shop units, with even McDonalds giving up on it. Successful town and city centres rely on a concentrating a large number of people in a relatively small area and put simply this is never going to be compatible with the car. Once people have been coerced onto using the car, it is a trivial matter to go somewhere which seems less of a hell-hole, such as the Trafford Centre. At least they have a McDonalds. 

Fourthly is Eric Pickles’ pet project, localism;

The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.

 

“It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

 

By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”

Somehow this seems slightly at odd with central government interfering with councils’ running of their car parking operations.

Finally (and building upon point three) is choice. Twenty-five per cent of households don’t have access to a car. Many of these people are hard-working strivers who want to be better off and so do without a car, at least for the foreseeable future. It is simply not possible to further accommodate private motor vehicles in our town centres without further diminishing the experience of those travelling by other modes. Should people not be able to choose how they travel? It seems at odds with Conservative values to subsidise one mode of transport far above all others, as it coerces people into acquiring the means to travel in that manner, and to use it for almost all trips. Is influencing transport choice in this way not the very opposite of the choice which is so valued by Conservatives? Surely the right thing to do would be to treat all modes of transport equally (perhaps with the advantages and disadvantages of each taken onto account) in order to give people back the choice of how to travel. Since motor transport has seen decades of generous government subsidy, it would make sense to start with massive investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.

Unless I’m reading too much into this, and it is actually just a cynical exercise in which our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government panders to the myth of the victimised motorist to boost his popularity.

Hills and Headwinds

I had what some refer to as “A moment of clarity,” yesterday. I had to run a family errand in Rochdale during the evening and I decided to ride there. I was expecting there to be little other traffic due to the time of day and I avoided the train because that particular route has been very unreliable lately. The route I usually take to Rochdale has a few hills and is a net climb when heading there from Manchester (making the ride back quite nice). Yesterday this net climb was combined with a fairly stiff headwind and a greater volume of motor traffic than I had expected. On several sections, the combination of those factors made me feel the need to walk the bike on the pavement for a few separate stretches.

On one of these stretches, there was a long section of car-parking allocated on the pavement which was not being used at the time. I decided that despite the hill and the headwind I might find riding along this section of parking bays better than walking. Riding along that section, the hill was still there and so was the headwind, but I was effectively separated from the motorised traffic. I was riding much slower than I usually do (~12 km.h-1) but the hill and headwind were no longer bothering me.

It was at that point that I realised why I felt the need to get off. The hill and headwind were too much together for me to maintain the minimum speed at which I feel comfortable riding on a fast (40 mph) or particularly narrow road (around 20-25 km.h-1). I imagine this speed is different for different people, for many it is the speed at which they would travel in a car, hence they are put off cycling on these roads altogether.

If I had been riding on Dutch-style segregated infrastructure, or if the road hadn’t been narrowed to accommodate free on-street parking, or if the speed limits were lower, I would have felt secure climbing the hill against the headwind at a very low speed. Many people say that Dutch levels of cycling are unattainable in the UK because of our geography (The Netherlands are famously quite flat), but the vast majority of people can tackle our hills on bikes. They just need to do so at a lower speed, whilst feeling safe from the threat of motorised vehicles. If that threat were removed, I, and I suspect many others, wouldn’t feel the need to get off and push on almost any hills, even with a stiff headwind.

Dutchie

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I spotted this bike parked up at UMIST near Piccadilly station a few days ago.  The manufacturer is Dutchie, I have noticed their site a few times when I was searching for a bike, before I lucked-out with the DL-1. The bike comes with SRAM hubs, which I have mentioned before are some of the more expensive internal hub gears, hub dynamos and drum brakes out there.  The rear hub is a 3-speed with coaster brake, and the front is an i-Light dynamo hub supplemented with a caliper brake.  This particular bike sells for just under £300, which is cheap when you look at the cost of the SRAM hubs and factor in the included accessories and the lugged-steel frame. 

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Once again I am puzzled by the choice of the SRAM dynamo hub over the cheaper Sturmey-Archer dynamo hub with drum brake. There may be some kind of behind-the-scenes bulk-discounting by SRAM to influence this decision.  Still, it is quite a lot of bike for the price, always nice to see more of these kinds of practical, utilitarian vehicles being made available to the public.

I hope it didn’t end up getting stolen, the owner seems to have fallen into the trap of “If I can’t take this bit off, no-one can.” All you’d have to do is remove the fork momentarily to defeat the lock.

Spotted in Manchester

One of the things I have noticed since starting this blog is how many interesting bikes I see parked up around Manchester.  I have recently been noticing a lot of vintage bicycles around, in addition to a few interesting new bikes.  When I can do so without looking too abnormal, I take pictures of the bikes I see around town.

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A Raleigh “Conniosseur,” spotted at Sainsbury’s in Fallowfield.  By the look of things the bike seems to be very similar to the Raleigh Sports.  I think it goes together well with the Tourist in the middle picture.

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A very similar Raleigh to the one above, this time branded as the “Transit.”  I doubt modern Raleigh would name any of their bikes the “Transit.”

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A Batavus BUB parked outside Piccadilly station.  One of the few bikes I have ever read about at the prototype stage and seen come to market, it looks like quite a comfortable ride.  One was given away as the grand prize in the LGRAB summer games.  The frame design was inspired by a paperclip.

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A well looked-after rod-brake roadster, a Humber according to Sheldon Brown, identifiable by the unusual fork:

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Curiously, I think I may have once bid on this very bike on eBay, before it got a bit too expensive for me.

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A huge double top-tube Pashley Roadster, with my Tourist to the right for scale, and a Pashley Princess to the right of that.

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I’m guessing whoever owns this bike is incredibly tall.

There are some very nice old and new bicycles around Manchester.  There are plenty of crap-heaps too, but they are less photogenic.

Cambridge Trip

As many of you may have noticed from an earlier post of mine, I have recently been to visit a friend in Cambridge. Whilst I was there I was shocked at how prevalent the bicycle was as a means of transport. Based on what I saw I’d guess a modal share of 10-12% which is unprecedented in the UK of the 21st century. This is despite a lack of any real pro-cycling intervention, sure there are painted cycle lanes and ASLs as in Manchester, but there is no proper infrastructure. The main differences are that everyone cycles, so motorists expect to see cyclists more and there is more cycle parking around because of the demand. The popularity of cycling in Cambridge could be due to the affluent university culture, or perhaps due to the number of historical buildings which have prevented the spread of car-centric traffic planning such as the wide, fast modern roads you see in Manchester.

Pairs of bicycles locked together in gardens and outside terraced houses are a common sight in Cambridge.

Traditional English roadsters from the era of rod-brakes are a very common sight.


Every available object is covered with locked bikes. Bikes left leaning against walls and locked through their frame were also a very common sight.

Pashley bicycles are very popular in Cambridge, although the Princess outnumbers the Roadster by around ten-to-one.

The Raleigh Twenty is also very popular here. Cambridge definitely has the highest usage of internal hub hears and mudguards I have seen in the UK, which is odd considering the reputation the UK has for its lack of rainfall.



Obligatory touristy photographs.

Re-assuringly, Cambridge isn’t all picturesque.

What I have learned from looking around Cambridge is that you don’t necessarily need to invest in cycle infrastructure to get people cycling. It can also be done by not increasing the capacity of motorised traffic the roads can accommodate, making it a pain to drive. people will see that there are better options and take them. People always say that cycling could be a lot bigger if there was the political will to build things such as segregated Dutch-style infrastructure. The political will to do this is always absent. Cycling can also be encouraged by doing nothing to increase road capacity or traffic flow, letting motorists create gridlock and subsequently finding a better way to get around. There isn’t the political will to do a lot of things which would make life better, but I genuinely believe that there might just be the political will out there to do nothing to make it better.