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Jun 03 2015

Bikes and Cars in Japan

In December of 2013, new laws were enacted that made it illegal to ride on sidewalks in Japan with a bicycle. There are some exceptions, such as for those who are elderly or in elementary school. Another exception is if there is a blue sign on the sidewalk showing a symbol of people and bicycles; it signifies that that sidewalk can be used by both pedestrians and bicyclists. Starting in June of 2015, in order to enforce this new law, amongst others already in place, bicyclists who receive two violations in a three-year period will be required to attend a 5700 yen ($50) 3-hour course. Not attending the course results in a fine of up to 50000 yen. It is unclear if this is just Tokyo area, but I suspect this is nationwide. They say that bicyclists should think of being on a road as the rule, and being on a sidewalk as the exception. This is a proper way to think I about it. They also say that cars and bikes are “friends” and share the road.

This is true and their intentions are all well and good, but there is an underlying problem with all of this. Cars (or rather people who drive them) are not good at accommodating bicyclists. Sometimes it’s an honest mistake of pulling out in front of me because you may not have thought that I could catch up to you (I tend to bike much faster than the average mama-chari city bicyclist). But there are reckless drivers who don’t properly give space to bicyclists. My friend suggested to bike somewhat non-uniformly, the idea being that if you drive somewhat erratically, cars behind you are basically forced to give you more room. This may work, but it is ultimately more dangerous.

On a side note, before I get into the main point, there’s one more area that is kind of annoying. When cars are waiting to turn right, while they will naturally wait for opposing cars going straight, they are sometimes not expecting a biker behind that last car as they turn. They are supposed to wait, sure, but it can be sudden for them. As a biker, I can tell even a few car lengths back whether or not there’s a car there waiting to turn. I am not entirely sure how to approach this situation. If I go behind the three or so cars who are at the light, I can go more in the middle of the lane. There are pros and cons to this-the pro is that it increases my visibility to the waiting-to-turn car, versus being out of the line of sight by being completely on the outside of the lane. The con is that I can’t make myself completely visible, and in the off-chance that they still haven’t noticed me, they may start to turn and now it’s more difficult for me to avoid a collision since I am in the middle of the lane. I am currently approaching these situations by going as far left as possible and actually intentionally going slower than the traffic as to leave a gap. The first turning car may have time to turn in front of me, which is fine if they feel they can do it (in this scenario, I am basically giving them enough space to see me and decide if they want to go). An even rarer circumstance is having two cars in a row who are trying to right turn in front of me. Sometimes, cars make a chain without really paying attention to whether they should stop or not. If I am hit in that case, it’s more their fault.

But I don’t want to get hit, even if it’s beyond a doubt the other guy’s fault. I shouldn’t feel like I don’t belong on the road. My main concern with these new enforcing laws is that while many bicyclists do take too many liberties and they should be more careful, what about people like me who are careful? On another side note, it still baffles me that people think that riding against traffic, even if for 10 seconds, is appropriate. Can you imagine if a vehicle did that? Everyone who saw that would call the cops immediately and say there’s an extremely reckless driver on the road.

My main point, though, is that none of this will matter unless drivers change their attitude towards bicyclists. So if you drive in Japan, here are a few things you can do to make the road a little safer for everyone (including other drivers).

1. Give bicyclists a little more space when passing

You may know that you are going to drive around those darn bicyclists without hitting them. However, when you are biking, a car who passes too closely can be intimidating. Give just a little bit more room and we’re good.

2. Expect a bicyclist when turning

This should be a principle of good driving to expect either a bicyclist behind a car or a pedestrian to cross the crosswalk. But people who aren’t used to a bunch of pedestrians are more likely to hit them as they aren’t expecting it. This is true of my suburban town in the US, where I don’t think to look in the crosswalk. But I should.

3. Wait your turn

When there are no cars in front of me and you can clearly see me, I am either going straight or turning left. Either way, you need to not make your right turn in front of me. When I approach the intersection, why not let me go? You would let a car go, right? Why? Because you don’t want a dent in your car. But you won’t let me go because I probably won’t dent your car. And while it’s true that those God-given reflexes allow me to stop in time to avoid a collision, I still have to get through the intersection eventually. The idea shouldn’t be for me to brake whenever you’re in my way. The idea should be for you to wait as you already have to.

But there are probably a few things us bicyclists can do better as well. Here are three of them:

1. Use the bell/chime more often.

In a “quiet” country like Japan, it does break the cultural silence in some circumstances (aka in rural areas). However, when going past somewhere that has places where cars, pedestrians or other bikers could come out, the bell can act as a warning. While cars may not hear it, it doesn’t hurt to do it. There was a blind corner I took every day for three years that I rang the bell twice loudly. Some people would take the corner on the opposite side of the road way too tightly, which is foolish; while they would be liable if they hit me, it still means I get hit.

2. Don’t cross roads diagonally.

Yes, I know that the quickest way from A to B is a straight line. But to cross the road diagonally is illegal, dangerous, and usually means that you either started off on the right side of the road (which is the wrong side) or you will end up on the right side of the road (unless you began on the left, went diagonally right and then immediately into a parking lot or something). Let’s avoid getting that much into the road.

3. Use lights earlier in the day, before sunset.

Cars ought to follow this rule as well, but it seems like some bicyclists think it’s a great idea when the sun has basically gone down to bike without lights. It doesn’t matter if the road is well lit. Just like cars who wait way too late in the day to do this, it’s not safe for bicyclists to bike without doing it either. In fact, if we are proactive, we as bicyclists can switch our lights on, and maybe inadvertently spark a driver to turn their car’s lights on and then help everyone avoid an accident.

Let’s share the road, as we are encouraged to do. Unless we are lucky enough to find sidewalks that allow bikes (and then pray for no pedestrians while we’re biking), bikes and cars are required to be on the road at the same time. Let’s work together rather than against each other.