Having lived and biked on three continents, I have ridden in a variety of cycling cultures. I’ve learned that how and to what extent people utilize bicycles throughout the world varies tremendously. Changing the cultural norms surrounding cycling could be more impactful than building new infrastructure in order to promote bike use. But it’s not easy.
Commuting by bike in a city like Seattle is like preparing for battle: most bike commuters don helmets (required by law), gloves, high-visibility jacket, and climb on a rugged bike with several sets of gears. Commuters tend to work up a sweat, particularly with all those hills, so showers and changing rooms are becoming standard in the workplace.
When I lived in Japan, the cycling scene could not have been more different. The Japanese don’t seem bothered to take cycling so seriously. Most cyclists don’t get outfitted for riding, or even bother to wear a helmet. Instead, you’ll see women in flowing dresses and businessmen in suits leisurely cycling as they go about their day. When it rains, they simply ride with an umbrella, forgoing expensive Gore-Tex jacket and pants. The bikes they ride are invariably cheap one-speed cruisers, which don’t go fast, but are comfortable to ride and don’t cost much to replace.
Nearly everyone in Japan seems to use a bike. Mothers load their toddlers onto the front and rear of a bike to ferry them on errands. Packs of uniformed students drift to and from school by bike while distractedly texting or chatting. Salarymen wobble home on two wheels from late night drinking sessions with colleagues.
The Japanese mainly use bicycles to get travel short distances. It helps that cities there are quite compact, connected by rail extensive rail networks. If they need to travel further afield, commuters will ride a bike to the local train station and park it there. This necessitates large multi-level bike parking structures above or below stations. Some are even fully automated. Seattle’s newest light-rail stations provide only a few bike racks, because there isn’t currently demand for much more. However, Seattleites can bring their bicycles onto the trains. This is only possible when cycling is the exception, not the norm. (It would be unthinkable inside Japan’s packed trains).
In Tokyo, 16% of trips are taken by bicycle. Only 3.4% of commuters ride bikes in Seattle, although this statistic makes it a leader among US cities.
Japan’s widespread cycling culture didn’t come about from building miles of dedicated bike lanes. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are only about 6 miles of dedicated bike paths in Tokyo, a city of over 13 million. Seattle has 28 miles for well under a million people, and is pushing to build more. Instead, the Japanese simply ride on the sidewalk.
Side streets don’t have separate sidewalks, however, so cyclists, cars, and pedestrians are quite used to weaving around one another. Pedestrians have become conditioned to instinctively give way when they hear a bicycle bell approaching from behind. Is all this dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians? Yes it is, but Japan is uncharacteristically laissez faire about this issue, because cycling it so ingrained. In some US cities, it’s illegal to ride bikes on the sidewalk, although it is permitted in Seattle.
Bike lanes, racks, and indoor parking are the solutions we need now to encourage Seattle’s bike culture. But if we could somehow change our bike culture to be more laidback, like those in Asian or Northern European cities, we could achieve much more with far less. For a start, repealing the helmet law would send the signal that cycling isn’t a combat sport. It should be as natural as slipping on one’s shoes to go to the store.
Cathcart-Keays, A. (2016). Where is the most cycle-friendly city in the world?. the Guardian. Retrieved 7 March 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jan/05/where-world-most-cycle-friendly-city-amsterdam-copenhagen
The United States Census Bureau. Retrieved 7 March 2017, from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2014/cb14-r10.html
Jaffe, E. (2016). Why Tokyo Is Home to So Many Cyclists But So Few Bike Lanes. CityLab. Retrieved 7 March 2017, from http://www.citylab.com/commute/2016/03/tokyo-bike-lane-streetfilm-gaman-spirit-video/471945/