Reviewer: Rush Hambleton, Colby College '97
Topic Area: Bicycles as Transportation Policy
Geographic Area: Japan
Can bicycles become a viable form of transportation?
Through necessity, Japan has adopted the bicycle as a essential component of transportation. The island nation's limited geography, high density and lack of petroleum makes it an ideal location for small, efficient bicycles. The destruction of Japan's infrastructure during the second world war forced citizens to employ non-motorized means of transportation until the nationÕs high speed railways were developed in the 1950's. With renewed infrastructure in place, the Japanese were quick to reject bicycling and its post-war reconstruction connotations and took to riding collector busses to and from railway stations. The bus system began to be overburdened in the late 1960's and riders began to find the system slow, expensive and inconvenient.
The disincentives of bus travel and surging environmental concerns associated with motorized travel initiated a shift in public opinion in favor of bicycling and bike ownership began to grow at 10% annually . Bicycles inundated railway stations and caused a bike pollution problem, inciting the Ministry of Transportation and Ministry of Construction to take action and build 22,000 bicycle parking spaces in 1973. Japanese bike ownership doubled between 1975 and 1977, demanding additional construction projects in 1978.
The Japanese government recognized that bike travel was favorable to other modes of transport for many reasons. Biking requires no petroleum and cyclists consume only 32 calories per mile compared to automobiles' 1,800 cal/mi demand. Cyclists' respiration contribute a scant 2 grams of carbon dioxide per passenger mile, while single-occupancy automobile emits 85 CO2 grams per mile (Lowe 1989). On the road, eight cyclists can occupy the space needed for one automobile and when stopped, twenty bikes can be parked where there is space for just one automobile (Allen 1994). These advantages prompted the government to consider other ways to promote bike travel including considerable urban design changes and the addition of 37,000 miles of bike/pedestrian pathways during the 1970's. From an energy, pollution and density standpoint, the bicycle is more efficient than any other mode of short-trip travel. Because commuters are reluctant to pedal more than about four miles, railway stations are located near residential areas so that commuters will be willing to pedal to the nearest train stop; innovations in high-density bicycle parking offers travelers in the busiest stations safe, fully-automated mechanical storage facilities. Construction of the most expensive facilities cost $2,000 per bike, compared to $4,000 to $18,000 for a single automobile parking space in the United States (Replogle 1992). Japanese investments in bicycle infrastructure are offset by savings in subsidized bus systems as bicycle growth has surpassed bus ridership growth; at some railway stations, more than 50% of commuters arrive by bike.
The Ministry of Transportation has developed an elaborate bike rental system coordinated with the rail systems. Japanese travelers purchase a card granting them unlimited bike rental for a month; this allows people to ride a bike to the station near their home, surrender it there and take another from the station nearest their workplace. The identical, lime-green bikes have a built in lock, bell, light and basket for parcels; their uniformity enables extremely high density storage.
In order for bicycles to be accepted as a mode of transportation, the atmosphere for cycling must be appropriate. The Japanese have effectively discouraged automobile use with high ownership costs; in the capital city of Tokyo, automobile registration averages $1,000 a year; parking fines can be as high as $1,500; gasoline costs 3.1 times the U.S. rate and tolls on a sixty-mile trip can cost $60. These costs reflect unsubsidized automobile use (as opposed to the U.S.Õs highly subsidized system) and JapanÕs historic aversion to resource-consuming, pollution-emitting vehicles.
Urban planning encourages bicycle use by adopting traffic calming techniques to intentionally slow down and discourage automobile use. The community street method involves turning straight streets into meandering, narrow passageways dotted with trees and Òvest pocket parks'. Intersections may have irregular surfaces or large humps or even have 'diagonal diverters' to Òprevent easy passageÓ (quoted from Japanese urban planning guides). These arrangements in residential and commercial areas have garnered 90% approval ratings from citizens. Automobile traffic slowed to 5 to 7 mph and reduced by 40%, and bicycle traffic increased by 54% in front of their homes and businesses when community streets are used in favor of traditional roads. More severe are the traffic cells, which prohibit personal automobiles near city centers, reducing traffic death rates by 58%, and cutting automobile-related pollutants by 16%.
The consequences of the bicycle-intensive transportation system in Japan is favorable. Over 80% of Japanese households own at least one bike, and the national average is 1.42 bike per household. High non-motorized mode share has lowered Japanese per capita fuel consumption to 10% of AmericansÕ.
The future is not as encouraging as the past. Overall bicycle mode share is falling. Rising incomes threatens bicycle usage as Japanese commuters are increasingly able to afford expensive automobiles. Despite their previous expenditures, the Japanese government seems uncommitted to future expansion of bicycling infrastructure and they are likely to enhance their nationÕs automobile infrastructure if possible (Replogle, 1997). It seems that their history of sustainable transportation may have been only a temporary measure, forestalling their current move to energy-depleting and pollution-causing mechanized transportation.
(1)Replogle, Michael. 1992. 'Bicycle Access to Public Transportation: Learning from Abroad.' ITE Journal. (Dec) 15-21
(2)Replogle, Michael. 1992b. 'Bicycle and Pedestrian Policies and Programs in Asia, Australia and New Zealand.' Federal Highway Administration, Case Study 17. Publication No. FHWA-PD-92-016
(3)Allen , Phillip. 1994. 'Getting Back to Biking.' Geographical Magazine 66(Jun) 46-8 Lowe, Marcia D. 1989. The Bicycle: Vehicle for a Small Planet . WorldWatch Institute Paper 90.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, data is from Replogle 1992b.