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The Gaman Spirit: Why Cycling Works in Tokyo

In Tokyo, bicycling accounts for 14 percent of all trips. Yet Tokyo does not have the cycling infrastructure of Amsterdam or even Hamburg. As much as wider bike lanes would help, Tokyo residents will bike regardless. If there's no bike lane, they'll just hop on the sidewalk or wherever they feel safe.

Joe Baur produced this excellent Streetfilm. He writes:

Still, it was easy to see some of the same problems in Tokyo that I've seen in my own cycling in Cleveland and throughout the United States. That is, motorists will take that space back when it pleases them.

For instance, while cycling on a beautiful blue lane into downtown Tokyo, my hosts and I stopped at an intersection to get some shots of cyclists passing by. Across the street a delivery truck had pulled over into the bike lane. Ahead of us, a car in the bike lane forced cyclists to either hop onto the sidewalk or move further into the vehicle lane. Unsurprisingly, drivers did not seem keen to make space for the merging cyclists or to slow down.

The other peculiarity was the fact that the responsibility of designing cycling infrastructure falls to the individual districts within Tokyo. Byron Kidd of Tokyo By Bike equated it with New York City boroughs coming up with their own cycling infrastructure, irrespective of one another. The result is, indeed, confusing -- comically so at times.

However, cycling continues to work beautifully in Tokyo. I was surprised by just how young the kids were cycling around the city. I was told that kids start in the back of their parent's bike, then they move up to a handlebars seat when the second child comes along before hopping onto their own bike when they're too heavy. This all makes sense when you consider that it's very common for Japanese children to be sent off on their own at an age many North Americans would consider too young.

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.

Whether you're a cyclist, pedestrian, or driver, it doesn't matter. We all have a job to get done, so as Kidd put it, "get it done."

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  • Danny G

    This is great to see. Thanks Clarence.

    It's good to see Tokyo getting recognized as the major cycling city it is. So often you see Copenhagen and Amsterdam as the poster children, but when it comes to cycling for transportation on the megacity scale, Tokyo is just as valuable as a model.

  • com63

    As a pedestrian in Tokyo, I often found all of the bikes on sidewalks to be annoying. They definitely didn't seem to get any respect from cars either.

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Glad you enjoyed it, Danny! Thanks for watching.

  • http://www.streetfilms.org/ Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Joe did a great job. I feel like I was there!

  • AnoNYC

    Are there any plans to expand or build new bicycle infrastructure in Tokyo?

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    They're expanding some thanks to the olympics, but all that infrastructure is limited to areas near existing or developing olympic venues. Plus I had various conversations with folks complaining about how neighborhoods were being drastically altered to fit the olympics.

    Still, there's hope that city officials (who get a tax-payer funded vehicle) will see the benefit of that cycling infrastructure during the olympics, keep it around after the torch goes out, and expand on it.

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Thanks, Clarence!

  • Shinji

    I'm Japanese, living in Saitama, next to Tokyo. There are many people like you in Japan who complain about bicycles on sidewalks, not only passing bicycles but also parked ones. In fact, the number of accidents between pedestrians and bicycles has gradually increased recent years, although the number itself is still very small. As a result, the police as well as municipalities try to crack down cyclists ignoring traffic laws more strictly than before. This can significantly affect the popularity of bicycles in Japan, I'm afraid, because lax law enforcement against cyclists has been one of the reasons why bicycles are so popular in Japan, where bicycle infrastructure is very poor.

  • Jeremy

    The film didn't mention that bike theft in Tokyo is much less of a concern than in most cities. Having lived and biked in Tokyo, San Francisco and New York, I'm more likely to bike if I know that I can safely leave my bike on the street for an extended period of time.

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    This is true. Japan is in general one of the safest countries in the world.

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Thanks for watching, Shinji. I definitely got the sense that everyone would ideally prefer separated cycling infrastructure to keep everyone safe.

  • AMH

    I don't see a video--is it supposed to be here?

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Yep! It's up there.

  • Shinji

    I recently made a video about bicycle paths in Japan. The video is rather primitive, compared with your video, but still gives some impression of Japanese cycling infrastructure, I hope.

  • Justin

    Cool video, I've always wanted to go to Japan. Clarence will there be a video about Tokyo's public transit system especially their rail systems? That's another thing worth checking out, especially the fact that it runs like clockwork, just a suggestion. It be interesting though!

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Thanks for sharing!

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Thanks for watching! The transit certainly was phenomenal, especially the Shinkansen bullet trains.

  • Andy Salkeld

    Hi Joe,
    A great film. Other cities have a lot to learn from the Tokyo example. I have visited friends in Tokyo and was amazed at the scale of cycle parking in and around transport hubs and the general level of bike use. I suspect that the perceived language and culture barriers have restricted acknowledgement of the situation in Japan. I hope to screen your film at Cycle City Active City 2016 here in Leicester (19/20th May). You would be welcome to come & speak if you happen to be Europe-bound around that time ? http://landor.co.uk/cyclecityleicester/home.php
    Or another time if you arrive in the uk - I will be happy to host a presentation here.

  • http://joebaur.com Joe Baur

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the film and hope to screen it at Cycle City Active City.

    Coincidentally, I was just in the UK and more specifically Leicester a couple of weeks ago. I won't be Europe-bound again until Germany in August, but I'll happily let you know should another opportunity come up. You can reach me at joe@joebaur.com should any other questions come up.


  • Steve King

    FYI. I'm reading this on smartphone and can't see a video either. Will check again from PC

  • HamTech87

    I'm in Tokyo right now and I'm blown away by the sheer number of bicycles everywhere. The average cyclist's age is about 65 with a lot of elderly women. The fish market showed how versatile bikes can be, with many departing loaded with boxes of fish and produce for parts unknown. Every train station has a bike parking area, and stores front and back have bikes everywhere. It is truly a wonderfully chaotic bicycling culture.

  • HamTech87

    Great film! There are so many other relevant streetfilms that can be made in Japan:
    (1) The amazing subway system;
    (2) The regional rail lines that augment the subway system inside cities with multiple stops.
    (3) The Shinkansen, of course.
    (4) The rubber tracks in every sidewalk and transit station to help people with vision impairments travel. (Note: for the first few days, I thought these were sidewalk separators for pedestrians and cyclists.)
    (5) The mix of transit in places like Hakone, with a train (that zig-zags), buses, ferries, cable cars, and "ropeways" (aka gondolas). http://www.hakonenavi.jp/english/traffic/transportation/

  • HamTech87

    "I didn't want to cause accidents...." Can you imagine a driver in the US saying this?

  • Bailey

    I thought the exact same thing about the rubber tracks in the sidewalk. If sidewalks were wider in my city, there could be a decent separation as a soft of off-road cycle track, but I'm still talking with my planning commission about curb-separated tracks.

  • RGD

    Yes. At least, most of them. Where I live, most motorists are aware, however dimly, that there is some danger involved in driving in the US. But where I live, there are no really good alternatives, and it is unfortunately not a good enough reason if you have no other good way of getting around.