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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Japan's Bicycle Boom

Giang Nguyen

Nov. 11, 2015

The number of cyclists in Japan is rising, as more people become concerned about fitness and the environment. The trend is also presenting some challenges, not the least of which is the need to compete with cars for space on the road. There are over 71 million bicycles on the road in Japan, which ranks 6th in the world in terms of ownership per capita.

The variety of bicycles available is also increasing. Recently, 30,000 people flocked to Japan's largest-ever bicycle expo. They came to check out the latest models on offer, including a bicycle that turns into a shoeshine shop and a folding model that fits into a suitcase.

The expo had a whole section dedicated to power-assisted models, also known as e-bikes, which are gaining popularity. A four-wheeled model on display was made especially for elderly users, with a function that doesn't allow the speed to surpass 15 kilometers per hour.

Another manufacturer has aimed for style and function with an electric sports bike designed for urban riders. The small battery means it weighs just 15 kilograms. "I'd never seen a stylish power-assisted bike before," a visitor said. "It's really cool. I’m happy I was able to test ride it." Wataru Shimizu, general manager at the manufacturer, Yamaha Motor, explains "since it is light, it can travel smoothly even in the power-assist mode." He thinks of it as a way to further spur the already high demand for bicycles. "If sport bikes like this take off, it will help broaden the customer base," Shimizu says.

The latest bicycles are creating a lot of opportunities for business growth. They look set to complement our daily lives and enrich our travel experiences.

NHK reporter Giang Nguyen joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: It looks like the number of cyclists has increased, but can we say that Tokyo is a bicycle-friendly city?

Giang: Anyone who has driven a car in Tokyo knows how congested the city can be. The same is true for bikes. Bicycles are legally in the same category as cars and in principle should be ridden on the street, but many people don't seem to be aware of this. Japan has very few dedicated bicycle lanes, so cyclists often ride on the sidewalks. As you can imagine, that leads to a lot of accidents. According to data from the National Police Agency, the number of road accidents has fallen over the last decade, but bicycle accidents involving pedestrians have increased 30 percent.

Beppu: That's very serious. In the past, drivers used to be mindful of cyclists and drive slowly around them. But that appears to be changing as more cyclists take to the roads. What measures is the government planning to improve the situation?

Giang: I looked at the current landscape for bicycle-riding in the city and the changes that are being planned. Here is my report.

An extensive network of roads and public transit makes traveling around Tokyo a breeze for foreign tourists. But when it comes to bicycle lanes, you could say the wheels come off. There simply aren't enough dedicated lanes.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government announced in April that it would establish "recommended bicycle routes" with the aim of making the roads safer for all cyclists ahead of the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The plan includes introducing dedicated bicycle lanes.

Currently, less than 10 percent of Tokyo streets have designated bicycle lanes. The situation forces riders to live dangerously, weaving between parked and moving vehicles. One cyclist says, "drivers tend to think they own the road, so they don't care much about cyclists. Sometimes it's a bit scary."

Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe has said the city needs a network of routes dedicated to bicycles, and the metropolitan government planning 200 kilometers of safe routes in 7 areas. Some will pass by the future Tokyo Olympic stadium and other Olympic facilities and others will give access to tourist sites, such as the Tokyo Skytree. The idea is to take advantage of existing bicycle lanes, linking them with train stations and tourist sites.

Some streets already have dedicated bike lanes on both sides, painted in blue so they can't be missed. Before they were established, many cyclists would ride on the sidewalks to avoid traffic, getting in the way of pedestrians. "Now I can ride my bicycle without having to worry about crashing into people," one cyclist says.

Tokyo and about 100 other locales that have bicycle lanes have already seen safety improve. Officials report 30 percent fewer traffic accidents in those areas. Next to improving safety, another goal is attracting more visitors. Tomoyoshi Sugo of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government says "I believe the bicycle route is important from the standpoint of marketing Tokyo as a city where people from overseas can leisurely tour on a bicycle."

Shibuya: So the government is focused on building cycling infrastructure before visitors flock to the city for the 2020 Olympics. But how popular is bicycle tourism in Japan today?

Giang: Bicycle tours have become a major trend. Hokkaido Prefecture in northern Japan offers nature cycling tours that are drawing many foreign tourists. In the Shikoku region, cycling tours along the coast offer breathtaking views and have become an important source of revenue. Tokyo is also experimenting with cycling tours that would take people to some of the city's lesser known neighborhoods. And it's expanding the city's bicycle-sharing system so tourists can see more of the capital. n top of all that, the government needs to make sure tourists know the rules and can understand traffic signs.

Beppu: Big cities like New York and Paris have similar problems with cyclists and cars having to share the roads. But there are some success stories, too, particularly in Europe. What have they done differently?

Giang: In countries like the Netherlands and Denmark, bicycle lanes were included in city development plans early on. But that didn't happen here. It was never a priority when officials drew up their city plans. As you can imagine, adding new lanes now is not an easy task. In some cases, city planners had no choice but to put the lanes on sidewalks. Critics say that still leaves pedestrians and cyclists at risk of colliding. There's a lot left to do, so we'll keep watching to see how things improve.