Sidewalk Circus


Originally published on on April 2014

The subject of cycling on the sidewalk seems to spark outrage among the foreign community in Japan, yet for most Japanese people, this is an accepted practice that millions engage in every day. Why the outrage? How is there such a disparity of opinion?

Under Japan’s Road Traffic Act, bicycles are classified as light vehicles and are required to travel on the roads—as one would normally expect. This was strictly enforced up until the mid-1970s when increased automobile use resulted in a jump in cyclist fatalities, at which time the law was amended to allow pedaling on specifically marked sidewalks and those over 3 meters in width.

Regardless of the law, millions of cyclists around the country choose to ride on pedestrian walks every single day. A typical reaction to this information would be to decree that all of them should stop breaking the law and get back on the roads where they belong. But the situation is more complicated than that.

When you refer to “cyclists” in Japan you’re actually referring to everyone: mothers fathers, businessmen, the elderly and children. Yet despite the astronomical number of bicyclists in Japanese cities—and politicians’ love of a good construction project—authorities have shown little interest in providing them with world class infrastructure, something that is evident in other great cycling nations such as The Netherlands and Denmark.

As a result, those who consider the roads too dangerous for cycling—the very reason the law was amended in the ’70s—choose to ride on sidewalks notwithstanding the legal technicalities.

Despite their inaction—or conversely due to their inaction—police and politicians understand that Japanese roads are not ready for cyclists and Japanese cyclists are not ready for the roads. To illustrate the point, in 2012 police began a campaign insisting cyclists ride on the road. Over that period, accidents involving bicycles rose 7 percent. A police spokesman was unprepared to say if the two were related, noting instead that, “more analysis is needed.” After the announcement of these figures, the campaign was swiftly put to rest.

With no safe alternative routes, society here has deemed sidewalk cycling acceptable and police, more concerned with keeping the peace than enforcing the laws to the letter, allow the situation to continue. Typically, they only enforce the law after an accident has occurred or under exceptional circumstances.

Sidewalk cycling is not the only issue. In 2008, the police decided to impose a ban on the common practice of carrying two children on a bicycle, but the burden of not being able to do so was too much for families who rely on the bike as one of their main forms of transport. Parents collectively refused to comply with the new ruling, which resulted in the law being revoked after only two months.

Cycling while holding an umbrella,  or talking on the phone—decried by many—is another practice that police turn a blind eye to. Vocal opponents argue that cyclists pose a danger to pedestrians, but statistically, of 1,634 pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in 2012, only five were killed by cyclists. Enthusiasts will explain that, comparatively speaking, Japanese roads are quite safe and that “if I can cycle on the roads, so can everyone else.” But these people make up a tiny percentage of the total number of bike riders in Japan. The belief of the 1 percent that Japanese roads are safe is not enough to convince the 99 percent who will continue to ride on the sidewalks until such time as adequate, separated lanes are provided.

The ability of Japanese society to shape the rules that govern them gives cyclists here great freedom, but also places upon them the responsibility to ride safely—sadly, a responsibility that some do not take seriously enough. While an untold number of accidents are waiting to happen on Japanese sidewalks, imagine the carnage that would occur if all cyclists were suddenly forced onto existing roads without protected cycling lanes.

Japanese roads are not ready for cyclists and Japanese cyclists are not ready for the roads. Fix these two issues and the scourge of sidewalk cycling will disappear.