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I want to ride it where I like

Dead bikeIf you’ve driven more than ten yards in Japan, chances are you’ve hit a cyclist, been hit by a cyclist or had any number of near misses. Younger cyclists especially, who have never driven a car, seem to have less road safety awareness and can often be seen writing emails on mobiles or huddling under an umbrella (or even both, as I’ve seen on more than one occasion) while cycling. The danger increases exponentially at night with the vast majority of bicycles having no lights. On unlit suburban or rural roads, a cyclist with a belief in his or her invulnerability gets by on luck.

And part of the problem for you as a driver is that bicycles can be coming from any direction. You’ll see cyclists riding in both directions down both sides of the road. Astonishingly, they’ll be doing the same on the pavement.

When I first arrived in Japan, seeing bicycles on the pavement was a novelty to me. As a pedestrian, almost being hit by cyclists who I assumed would get out of a pedestrian’s way was a novelty that soon wore off. When I asked locals about this, I got answers ranging from “It’s illegal to ride on the road, they have to ride on the pavement” to “It’s actually illegal to ride on the pavement but they do it anyway.” So which is it? Or is it something in between?

In the 70s when road traffic began to increase significantly, Japan had one of the highest rates among industrialised nations of road accidents involving cyclists. So the government made a provisional revision to the Road Traffic Law to allow cyclists to use the pavement. This was a temporary measure enacted until such time as the road infrastructure was improved. Which it never was. Although road accidents involving cycles decreased, accidents involving bikes and pedestrians on the pavement of course shot up. Japan now has one of the highest rates for this kind of accident too.

It’s therefore somewhat surprising to learn that the National Police Agency are pushing for a change in the law that would eventually move all cycle traffic… onto the pavement. Satoshi Hikita of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group wrote an interesting piece on this recently in the Asahi Shimbun, under the headline “Allowing cyclists on sidewalks defies logic”.

Mr Hikita states that “no country in the world stipulates that bicycles should use sidewalks. Bicycles are light vehicles which should use roadways as a general rule. Japan is no exception. The law stipulates that cyclists must stay to the left side of the road.” He goes on to say how this was confused by the 1981 revision, and a lack of law enforcement has meant a gradual degradation into a free-for-all with no one really sure what the law is.

Having said all that, whatever the government decides, we can probably look forward to the same level of enforcement as the much-vaunted ban on in-car mobile phone usage – namely a week long national ‘campaign’ after which the police will retire to the koban and forget about it. And everyone will carry on doing exactly whatever they want, be that watching TV in their car or riding a bike full-speed along the pavement scattering grannies as they go.

To finish on a lighter note, perhaps we shouldn’t worry – it seems that Japanese pedestrians are really rather well trained…

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