- a collection of notes and reflections on urban living from the perspective of a family of five in Tokyo. My epiphany was many years ago, but being hit by a motorbike and seeing my life flash before my eyes caused a sudden change that slowly made me reflect on whether American style auto-centric urban transportation of the Roosevelt era really is a capital G "Good Idea" for civilized modern cities in the 21st Century. This blog explores the good and the bad in urban planning and design, here and elsewhere. The goal is simple - not "death to all cars," just more walkable communities, quiet tree-lined streets, good public transport, traffic calming, Velib style bicycle sharing and a bit of common sense. The bolg is mostly theraputic, so I don't go wanting to throttle every dangerous driver I come across, but partly also out of a real desire to see positive change. This blog explores how it can be done, the people who do it, and how, in many small ways, this very old idea may at last have found its zeitgeist. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Japanese electric bicycles

I have to mention one thing for anyone who has not had a chance to ride a Japanese electric bicycle: they are really actually pretty damn good. Many electric assist kits appear to be sold in the US and Europe that can be retro fit to your bike, and there are obvious advantages to that. But these things are something else. Most noticeably, there is no throttle on a Japanese electric bike. The throttle is automatically adjusted depending on the pressure you put on the crank via the pedal. This makes a big difference, because it means using one of these bikes is as easy as, well, riding a bike. However, you can select between "economy" and "high power" modes at the press of a button.

Naturally, they also come equiped with basket, lock, light, mud guards, quality gears, stand and chain guard. All you need to do is pick the colour you like. Here is the website of the make I bought. Best 600 dollars spent in a long time.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Bicycle trailer in Tokyo

We initially thought that a trailer would be too bulky for Tokyo, or that it would be too heavy to pull along behind a bicycle. This combination of electric small wheeled bicycle (National Panasonic model) plus high quality trailer (a Burley "Solo") has proven to be extremely versatile. The electric motor is powerful enough to assist my wife up any hill (and there are some serious hills in our area). The trailer is made for a single child, but we use it to carry both our children (now five and three). It also can be removed from the bicycle and wheeled around like a pram if the child/children are asleep. There is a cover for the trailer, so the children stay dry in any weather, and also space behind the children for about two large bags of shopping, which is also protected from the elements. Most bicycle trailers can also be folded quite easily when not in use, and the Burley Solo is no exception. It can be folded and chained to a post near the school allowing the bike to be used by itself until pick up time. Our school commute is about 3km which takes around 15 minutes at a very leisurely pace - a slow jogging pace of 5min per km. The longest trip I have taken the electric bicycle with trailer was about 6km, and the battery worked fine all the way with some power still left at the end of the day.

Electric bicycles abound in Japan, and very good ones at that, including some with regenerative braking. But it can be difficult to purchase a bicycle trailer in Japan as they are yet to really take off. We bought the Burley Solo from REI, the US outdoor store online. WIKE is another maker of quality bicycle trailers based in Canada. They sell direct and will also deliver to Japan and other countries.

Recently bicycles seem to be experiencing a revival of popularity in Japan, as in other countries. Bicycle trailers also are attracting a lot of interest. One of the country's largest delivery companies, Kuroneko Yamato has begun to use large bicycle trailers behind electric bicycles also. In fact, it was seeing their set-up that made me think that an electric bicycle might enable my wife to pull the trailer also. Up until I bought the electric bicycle, the trailer was just too heavy for her to pull behind a bicycle.
We have finally found the perfect "Car Replacement". This is a small wheeled electric bicycle made by National Panasonic pulling a Burley trailer from the USA.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Brompton- new bike

I've had my Brompton now for about four months. I can safely say it is a fantastic bike. Unlike other folding bikes it is a joy to fold and unfold, and the folding sections feel rock solid when riding. You do not notice you are riding a folding bike. I've had two Dahon's and while they were both nice, and competitively priced, I rarely folded them. The Brompton I fold and keep under my desk. It is also fantastic for taking my five yr old son places. He simply stands on the back rack and hugs me as we trundle along the sidewalk slowly. Fortunately, I don't have a big waist line, so he can peer around and see where we are going. It's a lot of fun.
Alone, it can hold its own on the street, and with the beautiful SON hub dynamo, and B&M lights front and back, it's a joy to ride at night without having to worry about batteries or even thinking about switching the lights on, as they come on automatically when you ride at night.

The bike attracts a great deal of attention, and I try to make a point of talking about it to anyone who asks. These Bromptons really are top of the folding heap. Even my bike racing friends are surprised at how smoothly this bike rides.

A few points:
1. Its three gears are very well spaced and I have never felt the need for the six gear model.
2. I reccomend the model with a rack, for three reasons. (1) you can attach a rear light (in fact it comes with one); (2) it has wheels that make rolling the bike easier (which make it as easy to push around as a small suitcase trunk); (3) you can carry stuff...(including another Brompton bike, they are that small...)
3. For those of you who care, I have found it difficult to pull a trailer. My Burley trailer attachment did not work, because of the way the chainstays on the Brompton are bent. The alternative hitch does not work either. I did devise my own attachment, but trailers work better on hardtail bikes anyhow, so I've stopped using the trailer with the Brompton (which has polymer suspension).

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Here is another beauty of a Dad and his kids (not me). What a way to travel !
 Posted by Picasa


This is the wonderful Xtracycle FreeRadical. I had seen mention of it before in Velovision etc., but when I realised that it actually takes a whopping 90kg, and that's when the penny dropped - this thing could really be useful. Here is a picture from their website. Mine is coming soon. Will post details when I get it all together, but it does look like a lot of good thought has gone into this product. Posted by Picasa

Izu riding

Two hours out of Tokyo and you are in another world. Mossy cliffs, mountain jungle, wild oceans, wild and wonderful people, and of course, a spectacular narrow road winding through it all, looking like any day now the jungle might just gobble up the road and reclaim the mountainside. It's magical. Posted by Picasa


For the last six months or a year, I've been a member of a mailing list of a Sydney bicycle advocacy group called BikeEast. These guys are really great. They work with local and state governments on specific projects, go on rides together, organise community events, seemingly tireless in the effort for better communties.

That's why I am particularly disgusted when I see news of the new NSW state premier planning to reverse the Sydney tunnel plans. As I understand it, the tunnel (a disgusting pork barrel project to start with) won popular support because the plan included promises to block surface roads to traffic, thereby reducing motor traffic among local communities. Well they proposed that sweetener, got the tunnel, built it, and blocked off surface traffic as promised, much to the chagrin of motorists (who in Sydney are chagrined when they can't drive to the toilet). Now, sure enough, the new Premier has taken it on himself to open up these roads again, and free the downtrodden driving masses. I'm getting cynical again, but honestly, it really tries my faith in democracy when this kind of thing happens. I just really hope the people there wake up to reality before they really do need a car to go to the toilet.

This kind of broken promise could only be done by the government. In business, it would be called fraud and the company would be hauled over coals, directors indicted and had rocks thrown at them.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Touring in Izu Peninsula

Just got back from three glorious days cycle touring in Izu with friends. When I get time I will log our route on Gmaps pedometer (a fantastic site), and maybe upload some photos.

Basically we took trains (including Shinkansen) to a town called Numazu, the gateway to the west coast of Izu. From there we rode south along the west coast, staying at a town called Toi, and then riding all the way around the point to Shimoda, staying at a small place by the beach just south of Shimoda. Fantastic trip - narrow coastal roads, scenic, very few cars, traditional towns. We rested one day on the beach in Shimoda then I bagged my bike again and caught train home from there. The others took the boat down to Niijima island for the rest of the Golden Week holiday.

Highly recommended, not least because it is pretty difficult to get lost along the coast - just keep the ocean on your RHS ! (except on the switchbacks - many hills - not a course for the faint hearted.)

Friday, April 14, 2006

Environmental Advocacy and Cynicism - a caution

Recently, I ranted to the email list of my Namban Rengo running club friends about how, in preparation for the new Tokyo Marathon (innagural race in Feb 2007, attracting 30,000 runners) the government has resealed and widened a huge swathe of roads, making footpaths rediculously narrow in places. In particular, Shinobazu dori, they made the footpath extremely narrow, destroying the atmosphere of an old part of town, and making walking in the area very dangerous and unpleasant because now the cars travel much faster and are much more agressive. It also made it nearly impossible for the hundreds (thousands?) of people who ride their bicycles in the area, to park outside the supermarket. The irony is, the space where hundreds of bicycles previously parked is occupied now, not by flowing traffic, but by a few parked cars of people who like to drive to the shop. Meanwhile the bicycles are crowding a now rediculously narrow footpath, to the frustration of everyone, and a sign has gone up saying "no bicycle parking". No alternative seems to have been even considered, as if to say that bicycles are just plain wrong.

Anyway, I wrote my big rant, and then realized how much of an angry old bastard I was becoming. Maybe there is a place for this kind of rant, but really it does need to be directed in the right direction.

This got me thinking. I have heard it said that hipocracy is the homage that vice pays to virtue. It seems insidious statement to me, but perhaps it is true. And conversely, one might say that cynicism is sometimes the contempt that virtue pays to vice. But then if you really think of it, cynicism and contempt are not really virtues anyway, so in the end I'm really just being a grumpy old bastard.

Long and short, I think there is a place in society for the grumpy old bastard. On the whole, they probably contribued to the greater good. But at an individual level, we're just grumpy old bastards, so we can't get on any high-horse just because we gripe about problems like this. And we probably shouldn't make a habit of always being grumpy old bastards, because on an individual level, it's not a very virtuous way to live. I've noticed that many environmental advocates get so involved in their pet awareness projects that they forget this point, often to the detriment of family relationships. I guess I am just trying to give a little caution - let's keep fighting hard, but also be sure to keep a balance in life. Perhaps that is why those cycle tours organized by advocacy groups are so popular, and so much damn fun, because it is a chance for people with a common goal to just let their hair down, forget about the fight, and just have a good time.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Car-free and care-free

Not quite exactly what I might have said in places, but the following link is a pretty good example of a typical discussion with the type of person who still cannot understand why someone would want to actually use their own physical energy to get somewhere...

Free at Last: a Carfree Q&A by Karen Sandness on the New Colonist.

I don't think there is anything else for me to add.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Trike design

Australian Cyclist magazine recently alerted me to the new ICE folding recumbent trike.

This is a truly inspiring design. I wish I could get my hands on one for a test ride in Tokyo. Must speak with LORO guys and see when they are planning to bring one in.

Had dreams the other night of a recumbent design with a kind of hand pull assist, just for the hills. I guess inspired by having seen handcycles and the rowbike. Trikes seem fairly stable at low speeds. And on hills, they tend to be a touch slower than regular bikes, mostly because of the extra few kilos in the frame and seat. I wonder if there isn't some way to incorporate a rowbike kind of upper-body assist for the hills, whereby you could continue pedaling as well - at least on steep hills.

All this thought of hills must be inspired by thoughts of the Utsukushigahara hill climb race in June. Guess there is no easy way out for me this year - must drop a few kilos!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Snow and cycling

The other day it snowed in Tokyo. It snowed a lot - more than it has snowed in 8 years, according to the weather news. I love it when it snows. Tokyo is full of narrow back streets that in old times were equivalent to back-yards only better and more fun because they are shared. These days, in normal weather drivers like to treat as short cuts and fangin hoon down. Kids do still play on these streets, but parents have to be reasonably vigilant in case one of these maniacs suddenly appears on their particular side street, horn blaring and engine revving. But when it snows, oh when it snows, the back streets at least are returned to the kids, and they absolutely love it - we all do. I used to think it was just the snow, but it is so much more than that - it is the feeling of safety, peace and quite - of reclaiming the streets for the kids. I can only imagine this is how it feels on the car free days in other countries and cities. An experience to treasure, definitely. I for one will be pushing this city to establish proper car-free days.

Tales from Tokyo

I doubt that the Cycling Promotion Fund is ever likely to read my blog, but I thought I would put my observations of the Tokyo cycling scene out there in cyberspace.

My first thing I would like to mention is very simple - my favourite parking facility. To give a bit of background, Japan, in case you didn't know, has a lot of cyclists - it seems like everyone here rides a bike. You do not feel if you are some sort of fanatic if you ride a bike, it's more likely people would treat you as either a snob or a hoon if you don't. For many years bicycle parking has been on street and fairly ad-hoc. As everyone wants to be the closest to the train stations, sometimes footpaths get full of bicycles and it can get hard to walk. TV commercials (created by advertising associations of agencies and television stations funded by car advertisements) portray this as a cardinal sin. Slowly main roads departments (staffed by people who love cars) have been building bicycle parking facilities, sometimes convenient and free, but for the most part inconvenient, dark, and expensive. Another factor is that these friendly main roads departments have been relentlessly widening roads, making the footpath drastically narrower. In addition to creating noisier and more dangerous roads, this has the interesting result of, not creating an extra lane of flowing traffic, but simply creating somewhere for the cars to park and removing space on the footpath for bicycles to be parked, making the chronic shortage of on-street bicycle parking even worse. This is a disgraceful trend going on throughout Japan and possibly intensifying since the backlash against highways has meant the road gangs need something new to keep themselves in work.

In the midst of this, there are some fantastic exceptions spearheaded by those committed to sustainable, liveable communities. LaQua in Tokyo is one example. Smack bang in the middle of town, next door to Tokyo dome, is a large shopping centre/theme park/hot spring relaxation spa. And the bicycle parking there, while smaller than it could be, is convenient, being conspicuously positioned right in front of an entrance to the centre; it is free; it is well lit, and; it is staffed by friendly guards from 8am to 10pm every single day of the year. As a final touch, the building's air conditioning ducts flow into the bicycle parking space, keeping it nice and warm through Winter. Every time I go there it feels like being treated first class. Fantastic way to promote cycling.

The other day I visited the centre with some friends. I cycled and they drove a convertible porsche. I waited for quite a while as they parked. On the way home, they had to go upstairs, get their parking ticket paid, go down a special elevator to the basement and get the car. I on the other hand, strolled to the front entrance, said thank you to the guard for looking after my bike, and was probably half way home before they left the building.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Waterproof suit bag?

Here is another idea. A waterproof Ortleib style suit bag. Panniers are not an optimum size for a suit, so for someone who rides to work everyday, it would be handy to have a good way to carry your suit.

Two possibilities:
1. The suit backpack/messenger
Suit bags are generally pretty lightweight, so this seems feasible.
Features: slightly larger than a messenger bag, unzips and folds out for hanging like regular suit bag; perhaps slightly harder walls, so that the suit did not get crushed (but weight main priority); waterproof - obviously a vital necessity; clips for LEDs and some other pockets and general messenger bag features.

2. The pannier style suit bag
This could be a little more substantial perhaps. This idea stemmed from my use of a regular (somewhat waterproof) suit bag sitting on top of the bikerack, with the coat hanger hooked onto the seatpost, and the plastic of the suit bag clipped onto the panniers to stop it from moving. It is a good way to carry the suit, but a commercial version could be so much better - properly waterproof, easier attachment, clips for LED lights -I'm thinking something like one of those great big folders that artists use to carry their work around - but when you unzip, it is a folding suit bag. It could be lovely.

Responsibility for "accidents"

Interesting article on the net:
"Drivers, bikers equally to blame for accidents"

The County figures quoted here in relation to the apportioning of blame between cyclists and drivers just go to show how much the US really is stuck in the car-culture rut. Man, they are in so deep, they can't see out. In Japan, you cannot hit a pedestrian or cyclist while driving without being stuck with at least some of the blame, if not all of it. Car vs car? The police will think about it - were you awake? drinking? distracted? But car vs bicycle or car vs pedestrian - no way. You're responsible.

I can only hope that as people in other countries begin to realise that cars are (duh!) maybe not ideal from an environmental/lifestyle perspective, they will also awaken to the fact that the mere act of driving a car is in itself an inherrently dangerous activity. That makes all drivers culpable in the event of an accident with pedestrians and cyclists. Why? The simple fact that walking and riding your bicycle do not have the potential to kill like cars do.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

bike case concept

Here's a new concept - hard bike panniers that actually connect together like the ends of the Tri-all-three bike case, to make a small suitcase/bikecase. Obviously it would be much smaller than a regular bike case, so what is the point? Well in two words - folding bikes!! Think BikeFriday, by Green Gear with that big suitcase pulling behind it. This concept would allow us to ditch the suitcase trailer, and convert to PANNIERS. In transit, you have a case with bike inside. On the road- you have a bike + hardcase panniers! Lovely.

25 January

While I am here, I should tap out a little rant about cars. I have a theory - many car drivers behave badly/dangerously because drivers are so thoroughly enveloped in their sound-proof machines, there is no opportunity for the rest of us to give them a good clip around the ears when the do something really dangerous - like get agro at someone. You can't even give them a proper piece of your mind when they are hiding away in their little steel coffins pretending not to notice you flip them off. So they do it again next time, do something stupid again like tailgating, they get away with it, it makes them feel tough, and the cycle continues till they kill someone. Damn fools.

Is there a national database of bad drivers? It should be advertised on TV, if there is. Seems like we could develop an "X strikes and you are out" kind of policy.

January 25

Finally getting around to making a post. So many ideas - or should I say wishes, for bicycles and better transport / better living. Must remember to write them all up here, in the hope that someone will see them.

Just booked a hotel in Sydney for my trip next week. Trying to find bicycle rental. Certainly not ideal situation. Very expensive for starters. Why does a bike cost almost as much as a car to rent? You would think there should be significant discounts for long term rental (like a week or so) And why extra for pumps, baskets and all the rest? Blimey, every one of them should have a basket, lock, simple pump and repair kit/spare tube, just as every car has a spare tyre and keys. And why are they in inconvenient locations!

Tell you what, if I was mayor I would give a special rebate to every hotel that offered free loan bikes to patrons. Every city hotel should have bicycles.