Many people think there are already too many bicycles. Everywhere you turn, bicycles clutter any conceivable (and inconceivable) place to park them while the average pedestrian goes in mortal dread of bicycle riders peddling full speed ahead while texting on their cell phones.
“In 2010, there were 215 fatal traffic accidents in Tokyo, with bicycle fatalities more than doubling automobile fatalities in the Tokyo area,” the Metropolitan Police Department reports on its site.
It isn’t clear from their figures exactly how these deaths occurred, whether it was cars hitting bicycles, bicycles colliding with pedestrians or, as is happening more frequently, bicycles colliding with each other.
“In 2010, there were 16 deaths due to automobile accidents, but 41 deaths due to bicycle accident,” the site said. Additionally, there were 85 pedestrian deaths due to traffic accidents in 2010, many of them possibly caused by bicycles hitting pedestrians, particularly the elderly.
Bicycles have a strange status under Japanese law, according to Yuu Nakazaki, a well-known bicycling blogger and advocate of separate bike lanes. Bicycles operate in a curious half-light: while they are classed as light vehicles that in theory should only be operated on the streets, in some areas, the law also allows them on the sidewalk.
Riding a bicycle on a busy street in Japan packed with cars is akin to a death wish for a bicycle rider. So it’s no wonder bicycle riders chose the sidewalks. But, once they’re on the sidewalks, the tables are turned. Now it’s the pedestrians in mortal danger from the bicycle riders. This becomes obvious in crowded areas near stations where bicycle riders try to ride through dense crowds at top speed. In Nagoya they decided to do something about it.
“Sakura Dori, which is the principal route from Nagoya station, was an area where bicycles were allowed on the sidewalks, drawing many complaints about the danger of collisions,” says Nakazaki in his blog. ”From 2008 on, groups of local citizens and representatives of bicyclists organization met in an attempt to try to do something about it.”
Unlike the usual inertia that affects talks among citizens and city governments worldwide, the outcome was dramatic and set to change Nagoya’s cityscape forever. On June 25 this year Nagoya opened Japan’s first real dedicated bike lanes, something like you would expect to see in Scandinavia or the Netherlands than in Nippon. Bicycles and cars each have their own lanes, separated from each other by steel guard rails that keep the cars out of the bicycle lanes. Sidewalks are also protected by steel guard rails that keep the bicycles off them.
On each side of Nagoya’s wide, boulevard-like Sakura Dori, the separate bike lanes run from the station down Sakura Dori to the Otsu intersection, about 800 meters (875 yards). By 2014, they will be extended another 1.2 kilometers (0.74 miles) to give separate bicycle lanes for 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) in one of Nagoya’s principal streets and most densely traveled route.
“This isn’t quite the millennium, nor is it Copenhagen by any means,” notes another bicycling blog.
In fact, compared to cities in Europe, or even to Seattle and San Francisco in the United States, it’s still just a tentative start. Copenhagen in particular is often held up as the Holy Grail of bicycle lane perfection. Its special bicycle lanes entirely separated from automobile or pedestrian traffic extensively crisscrossing the whole city, forming an alternative transportation grid.
While this may seem like a modest start, even if it is a first for Japan, consider Nagoya’s bus system: Nagoya buses run in special dedicated bus lanes with their own station islands in the middle of the streets. The Nagoya bus system rivals the subway or rail system in speed, frequency and efficiency. It is without question the best bus system in Japan, and perhaps one of the best in the world.
Like Nagoya’s bicycle lanes, the bus scheme, too, started out rather tentatively, and then eventually grew into the excellent system that exists today. Who knows? Maybe in a few years people in Copenhagen will be saying, “I wish we had a bicycle lane system as good as Nagoya’s.”