TRAVEL: The Zen of vehicle co-existence in Tokyo

the Globe and Mail

With an estimated 20 million bicycles in the metro area, Tokyo is the best major city in the world for cyclists. 

Western-style bicycle lanes and bicycle activists are rare, but so are fatalities and road-rage incidents. Thanks to polite drivers, well-paved streets and a culture of sharing, thousands of riders such as myself can safely get around Tokyo faster by bike than by using the bus and train networks. Co-operation is the key. Nobody thinks that he owns the road just because he owns a Toyota, or a Tour de France racing bike for that matter. With 30 million people crammed into the Kanto Plain, we have no choice but to respect the space of others and the obligations that come with our rights.

On Tokyo’s busy streets, drivers slow down and watch for cyclists, because most car owners also ride bicycles to the convenience store or station around their home neighbourhoods. Cyclists slow down and watch out for vehicles and pedestrians on sidewalks and at intersections, because we have to walk from the bicycle parking lot to our destination and many of us also own cars.

In my view, Japan became the world’s second-largest economy, and perhaps safest and most civilized society, because of mass ownership of both cars and bicycles. On working days, millions of people stay fit by riding cheap push bikes, called mama-charis (mother chariots), to the train station, or to buy fresh fish and vegetables at the open-air shotengai shopping streets that teem throughout Tokyo. Then, on days off, stressed-out workers can relax in the privacy of their cars and cruise out to surfing beaches or upcountry temples and golf courses.

This balance between communal cycle and train trips on weekdays and cozy cars on weekends tends to keep people mindful of sharing the road. I rarely hear cyclists complain in Tokyo. Instead, we share information about cool routes along canals or back streets, or about the latest folding bike or bag allowing us to carry bikes on the train to distant locations. We tend to smile as we glide by cars in traffic, or whir along the Tamagawa and Arukawa rivers, or around Imperial Palace grounds temporarily closed to vehicle traffic on Sundays. Thanks to the city’s recent efforts to set aside lots, parking a bike is easy, safe and cheap – 100 yen (about $1) a day, much better than spending 25,000 yen ($300) a month to park a car near home.

Given Japan’s talent for making eco-friendly cars, many of us believe that both bicycles and cars can save the planet. I still think the car is the deadliest weapon in the world. Cars kill more people than wars, while bicycles kill almost no one. But I love cars, especially the 1983 Chrysler LeBaron station wagon waiting for me in Canada. In Tokyo, when I see a Toyota Prius taxi rolling silently beside my bicycle, I gaze in wonder at its embodiment of brilliant design and engineering, the steady hands and eyes of its builders, and the organizational intelligence of its mass marketers.

Poor people in China and India will some day demand a chance to drive a car, to experience the exhilaration of self-determination that has helped to empower citizens to overthrow bad rulers in Western democracies. Likewise, every rich person in North America should experience the independence and bliss of meandering along Lake Ontario on a bicycle, or smell the trees and hear the birds while spinning along a path in Vancouver.

In a future world of six billion car drivers, we will have to adopt the same ethos of mutually assured destruction that keeps nuclear powers from waging Armageddon. As in Tokyo, Paris and other great cities, people in Toronto simply have to learn to share the road with a spirit of mutual understanding and respect that is more meaningful than any line painted on a patch of asphalt.

Christopher Johnson is a Tokyo-based Canadian journalist and the author of Siamese Dreams. He is an avid cyclist and driver.

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