- 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.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Latest Making Places Bulletin

The Latest Making Places Bulletin is out now HERE . As usual it is a fascinating read.

If you care about this kind of thing and want to do your bit, then support these guys at PPS (Project for Public Spaces). They are really doing some inspiring work. This bulletin is entitled "Back to Basics in Transportation Planning" and provides a brief but fascinating look back over the past 80 years of transportation planning in the USA - where it has taken us, and suggestions for "how we can get out of this jam". This should be compulsory reading for all public officials.

Bicycle parking in residential units

We live in a consumer society, and how you consume is your choice, right? Or is it? More and more we are finding examples of how your environment dictates your choices. As more and more people in Western cities begin to realize that proper urban planning can make the difference between a city that is 1% cycling and 40% cycling, they look to examples overseas and "quaintly antiquated" customs practiced in Japan and Europe are suddenly cutting edge vogue. Some of these I have introduced before, but over the next few weeks, I am going to try to look at specific examples of how things are done here in Japan.

My first example is from the local newspaper. Tower apartments are all the rage here in Japan as elsewhere, and I came across a typical advertisement at the office today for a nice looking apartment near the bay. There were 200 apartments in this development, and only 10 car parking spaces. Moreover, there were over 400 secure bicycle parking berths. While the apartments themselves were for sale, all parking berths were leased with the going rate for car spaces at 30,000yen per month and bicycle spaces under 300yen per month. Now while the ratio of car to bicycle spaces was in this case perhaps slightly more extreme than usual, it is a general phenomenon. In fact, 2 bicycle spaces per apartment is considered the absolute minimum, as the average household in Tokyo has three bicycles - and generally tend to use them. This kind of favouring of non-car transport modes by design is not unusual in Tokyo. There is a "tower mansion" very near my house which not only has several floors of secure indoor bicycle parking for residents, it even has three separate secure entrances to the building - one for people, one for people with bicycles and a separate elevator directly to the bicycle parking floors on B1 and B2, and the third and least convenient and completely separate entrance right around the back for the cars - which is basically just a hole down into the bowels of the building on B3 and below. That is two floors of secure bicycle parking. A far cry from your Western tower, which would have a sweeping entrance so that drivers could zoom up to the front door in their fancy [whateveritis] for maximum [auto]convenience without a thought even to safety of your kids running down to the shops, and would include at least two car parking spaces within the price of the apartment. In fact in many Western cities it is so bad that developers have become required by law to provide this car parking space.

Mind you - good as it is to have developers in Japan cater for different modal choices, if we had a system like the Parisien "Velib" here in Tokyo there would be much less need for all this bicycle parking space at all. The vast majority are simple commuter "shopping" bicycles anyway so a professionally maintained Velib bike would probably be a step up for most people. Nevertheless, considering that 10 bicycles can fit in the space of one car, it is a better solution than our Western model.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Finding Liberté on Two Wheels

Yet another very upbeat piece about Velib, this time by the New York Times Travel section.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Shigeoh: A Clean, Green Hot Company

If there is one company that exemplifies the Japanese no-fuss, can-do attitude to solving problems with a bit of lateral thinking, it is this one: Shigeoh. Some time last year these bicycles began appearing all over downtown Tokyo.

My interest piqued, I looked further. These bicycles all had a decal saying "Shigeoh". It turns out that Shigeoh, the company that decked these bikes out into such great work-horses is a small company which prepares and services bicycle and scooter fleets for Japan Post and other very large companies. I had been wanting to visit them and learn more, but recently they renewed their website with more information and even a video clip from a news program about the system. This particular fleet of bikes was a contract from a copy machine servicing company (Ricoh?) last year, when the rules changed in Japan making parking more difficult. The company decided to try an experiment that would both be "green" and deal with the parking issue. For something so radical the investment was very large - costing somewhere near a million dollars to replacing it's fleet of mini-cars, motorcycles and scooters with this fleet of fully equiped electric bicycles.

The news report notes that management at this copier servicing company were initially concerned about travel times - thinking naturally enough that bicycles would be slower than their former scooter & car fleet. But it turns out that they were in fact been able to drastically reduce their travel times since switching to the bicycle fleet. The other concern was over physical effort. But it turns out that there was no need for concern on that point either. Apparently staff were a little tired at first, but after a few weeks they quickly became accustomed to the cycling and now many actually enjoy their work more. No doubt the heavy duty electric assist helps. So on the whole, it sounds like a pretty darn good move. What's most amazing however is that the copy company expects to recoup its near million dollar investment in the fleet within just 24 months.

Unlike some overseas e-assist systems, Japanese electric assist models cut out at relatively modest speeds while conserving extra power for hills, so these systems are very safe and convenient. The model used for these Shigeo bikes looks like a Panasonic "Vivi Toughness", one of their most heavy-duty, high-tech models, which has a Lithium Ion battery with an incredible range of 84-130km, and is sold standard with lock, racks, mudguards, an integrated LED front light and a solar powered tail light. Full recharge time is just 4.5hrs.

The battery pack has an integrated locking system to avoid theft, and the rear end of the frame is specifically made longer to accommodate the large battery. This also gives a longer and more stable area on which to perch the larger solid rack fitted by Shigeo, as well as the secure lock box. Note also the umbrella perched below the nice soft suspension seat.

Front basket seems to have been swapped out by Shigeo for a stronger, larger version with a faux leather waterproof box inside. Notice the front fork lock, to keep the front end straight when parked even with a heavy load on the front - no front-end flopping around.

Stanrdard comes with hub gears and roller brakes, but Shigeo have swapped out the stand for a heavy duty spring-loaded, locking stand. The fleet always looks spotlessly clean - no doubt serviced regularly by Shigeo employees. If I worked for a eco investment fund, this might be one little outfit worth sizing up very closely. I can imagine many companies around the world who could make very good use of a bicycle fleet system like this.

Friday, October 05, 2007

New York to Outlaw Standing on the Sidewalk?


Get this - New York police are on the verge of convincing the State that it should be illegal to stand on the pavement. Rediculous as it may sound, a case has actually gone to court there which will consider this question. See this from the New York Times blogroom. This, in a country that calls itself democratic. Are people so unreasonable in this country that they need laws and police to tell them when they are standing in the way? And what about the other people who had to go around them? Are they not able to say "excuse me, you are in the way"? Do you really need police involvement in a situation like this?

Earlier this year there was a story in the BBC of police in another US city (Atlanta) tackling a man for crossing the street. Now I begin to understand why it is that Americans often get so excited about how well they are treated when they go overseas - not only is it safe and convenient to walk on the street, but you are also treated as an adult. What a revelation! In Australia, Americans are amazed at buttons pedestrians can press which make the lights change and stop the cars so they can cross the street. I found this humourous because Japanese people visiting Australia often get very frustrated with the fact that the pedestrian lights will be red until you press the button so you generally have to wait one and a half cycles of the auto lights anyway, whereas in Japan pedestrian lights will generally change regularly and in sync with slower traffic so you get a comparatively clear run (or I should say walk) - and that is only on the main roads. Back streets generally don't have lights at all.

The very word "sidewalk" shows how Americans now treat pedestrian traffic as auxiliary to the motor vehicle. In the UK, telling a person that they could not stand on the pavement would be akin to violating the constitution - the commons are for all to be shared. Lose that and you no longer live in a democracy. In Japan also, shops and restaurants flow directly onto the streets, where pedestrians, joggers, cyclists and motorists share the road quite happily.

I begin to understand also why Japanese people are often so shocked about "violence" in North American, Australia and other Western nations. It is not so much a fear of being mugged or raped, but a general impression of how (un)safe it is to walk down the street in these cities.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Will Bucharest survive rapacious developers?

Interesting piece here in the NYT about Bucharest. Although the piece talks about how attractive the city is because of its very compactness and walkability, there is now a shortage of housing which is in turn attracting developers. Will the city succeed in creating a different model or will it succumb to sprawl and become another L.A. or Houston?

US Fed bails out more than just mortgage lenders's_Most_Popular
I wonder if other people also get the feeling that the Automotive industry is in massive denial about its future prospects. I have a sneaking suspicion that the more Asian car manufacturers gain the upper hand in US sales, the more Americans will turn away from the postwar "autopia" suburban model in search of greener lifestyles. Ironically, they will probably look to Japan and other Asian nations, as well as Europe for examples of how large populations can live more sustainably together without giving up the sophistication of urban living, just as Japan, Korea and China hope to consolidate their position at the top of the Auto heap.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

London's congestion plan in peril?

There is a lovely article here by someone at the London city authorities describing a visit by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to view the wildly successful and popular congestion charge in that city. The article describes all the success that this project had reducing inner city car trips, which far from simply reducing pollution has dramatically reducing deaths and injuries to pedestrians and dramatically improved public transport efficiency and pedestrian access. Obviously a resounding success that has the attention of city planners the world over. However there was one very ominous small note at the end which should be cause for serious concern to anyone who really cares about the improvements London has achieved. The City notes that:

"Transport for London is currently consulting on proposed changes to the congestion charge that would include drivers of the most polluting cars being charged £25 to drive in the congestion charge zone. Drivers of the cleanest cars would be given a 100 per cent discount, a policy that has widespread support among Londoners."

Whatever is meant by "the cleanest cars" this is a serious dilution of the whole concept which has brought so much improvement to the lives of Londoners. This proposal, if adopted, would essentially roll back most of the benefits of the congestion charge. If I remember rightly it was called a congestion charge, not a pollution charge. Yet this rule would welcome cars free of charge if they have less or no tailpipe emissions. This would be a dramatic step backwards. It would bring congestion right back to the city centre; the city would lose the efficiency gains to the bus and public transport networks; the number of deaths and injuries to pedestrians would come right back up where they were before. If you care about the success of the congestion charge, and what it means for London and as an example for other cities around the world - including the many cities of China and India currently being overrun by cars, then you should contact the London authorities and voice your opposition to these suggestions.

Remember, the problem with congested cities is more than just pollution:
Road Rage
Drive-by Shooting
Random Deaths
Pedestrian Deaths
Automobile is #1 cause of death among world's young
More Random Deaths

At what point do you stop calling these deaths "random accidents"? The point is, there is a lot more benefits to a congestion plan than just reducing tail-pipe emissions, and if these proposals were to be accepted you would have very little left in the way of tangible benefits to the community.

Contact Matt Brown on 0207 983 4716 or at matt.brown at london dot gov dot uk
or the Public Liaison Unit on 020 7983 4100 to let them know what you think.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

ROADBLOCK! - we are having fun here

One of the (many) great things about Japan is the festival experience. The festival season generally runs from Spring through Autumn, with each local event running to its own traditional schedule. Some, like the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori, draw crowds in the hundreds of thousands, while others are extremely local. However they all have one thing in common - for the duration of the festival the streets are cleared of cars and once again returned to the people. That in itself seems to bring people out in their thousands just to enjoy the atmosphere of walking down a street free of cars. Perhaps this is why the Japanese tend to naturally understand that automobile traffic should not be no#1 priority.

Green Weddings in China

It is good to see that some in China are not buying into "autopia". Xinhua follows this bicycle wedding entourage in China on worldwide "Carfree Day":

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Activating Armchair Activism

Show you care:

Amazing example of how concerned individuals (even the armchair variety) can really make a difference in the right situations!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Car-Free USA

If you like my blog, you will probably like this one even more. All about car-free events in the USA.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Put up a PARK(ing) lot

CNet had a top page news article about the PARK(ing) Day movement that has inspired people around the world.

A beautiful, gentle, effective way of showing people just how much better our towns and cities will be when we have a little LESS parking space, and a bit more PARK space. San Francisco is really one city in the USA that has been taking a lead on these kinds of initiatives for quite a few years now. Still nowhere near the scale of initiatives in cities and towns of Japan and much of Europe, but they are moving in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More on Velib

Yet another article about the amazing Velib programme in Paris:

I am beginning to feel that this particular project will be seen as a turning point in our attitudes to urban lifestyle in the West. The implications of this will be big - very, very big.

More pictures: HERE

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil

The ABC deserves to be commended for releasing this television documentary for free internet viewing. It is an entertaining look at the global lifecycle of oil as geologists now understand it - and the picture that it paints is not pretty. My four year old son enjoyed the CG dinosaurs but said that the documentary "made him sad". Well folks, that may be excuse enough for a four year old to stop watching, but it won't cut it for adults like you and I. We need to face this issue, individually and collectively.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Individualized Public Transport"

I have mentioned the Paris Velib plan before, but reading about the program a little more I am really impressed. 20,000 bikes at thousands of "stations" around the city. For a nominal membership fee you can take one of the bikes and ride anywhere for free up to 30 minutes and return the bicycle to any of the ubiquitous stations. Over 30min there is a sliding scale of charges, encouraging users to park the bicycles at one of the provided stations rather than locking it directly in front of your destination where others cannot use it. This really is a smart system. It truly is "individual public transport" - public transport but with the freedom to go where you like. It is incredible to think that these bicycles get used 7 to 15 times a day on average. Not only are they an environmentally friendly method of transport - they are shared and well used! How fantastic is that? A really, really smart system.

And the idea of first 30min free then sliding scale after that is also really smart. When you have your own bike you tend to want to take it everywhere you go - because if you park it somewhere you are going to have to go back and get it at some stage. This system - with its extensive network of stations, eliminates that altogether - so not only does it encourage cycling, but it encourages walking also, as you won't want to go over the 30min limit so will take first opportunity to park at a station near your destination and walk the rest of the way - and even better, you don't have to come back that way, you can just continue on and pick up another velib somewhere else if you want to. Amazing system. A real boost to the civic good. I am not at all surprised to discover that a few of the big global financial institutions are buying into Paris CBD real estate in a big way. If this project does reduce auto traffic even a little, it will make Paris cleaner, quieter, safer, healthier and more pleasant. This will reduce pressure on the environment and allow Paris to grow its "sustainable economy" - rather than the unsustainable components of growth. Economists often forget that not all GDP growth is "good" - particularly those at the World Bank who have tended to sponsor the creation of extensive highway networks in the Third World. Sure it creates "economic growth" but in the final analysis, this form of GDP growth is more ikin to a cancerous growth than anything else. It grows to be sure, but to the detriment of the host - potentially leading to death unless "cut out".

Paris auto club representatives have said that this project does not impact the need for cars because cars are used for long distance travel. Well, sure cars are indespensible for freight, delivery and long distance trips particularly where there is no rail network, but the fact of the matter is the overwhelming majority of miles driven are local city trips of less than a few miles - and a portion of that is just cruising to find a car park! If people have a good alternative like this Velib system then it will reduce road congestion and then existing roads should be more than adequate for the remaining cars. This means less public money is required for expensive tunnels and bypass roadworks. In the meantime it will make Parisiens fitter, healthier and happier, reducing the public health burden. You cannot get a much better public outcome than this.

I really hope Ishihara siezes on this as a theme for his new bid for a Tokyo Olympics. This would surely win the hearts of Olympic officials and Tokyo residents alike, and perhaps begin to make amends for the endless raised motorways that were blasted through this city in the 1960's in the name of GDP growth and the previous Tokyo Olympics. This will go some little way towards restoring the almost forgotten reputation of this city as "Venice of the East".


Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bridges and Cycling

Speaking of bridges - here is one place where bicycles were not forgotten. Must remember to try this route one day. Shimanami Kaido is a network of bridges connecting the main island of Honshu to Shikoku Island. Details here:

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bicycles Barred from Rainbow Bridge

A colleague yesterday alerted me to the fact that the Tokyo Port authority has barred people cycling across Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo's biggest bridge which connects the Odaiba area to Tokyo. This was surprising to me as I have ridden over the bridge in the past. In fact I remember it distinctly, because I was so disappointed by the pathetic slapped on afterthought of a footbridge on this magnificent bridge. What's more, it is placed right next to the car lanes - stink and noise for the entire 1km walk across.

There are two levels on the bridge, one is a highway, and the lower level is shared by a monorail, another four or six lanes for cars, and some piddley little space for pedestrians and cyclists along the edge - so we have to put up with the stink and noise of traffic the whole way across - that is unless you want to drive, in which case you are treated like royalty.

It could have been so much better - so simple for the bridge architects to design a wider, straighter, separate lane for bicycles and pedestrians somewhere where they could be protected from the elements as well as being spared from the noise and stink of traffic.

But not satisfied with subjecting non-drivers to this humiliation, the authority has now decided to go a further step and ban bicycles altogether. This is the notice on their website:

This comes at a time when other cities around the world are spending millions refurbishing their major bridges to fill this forgotten gap and cater to bicycles and pedestrians.

So if you are in Japan and reading this blog, now is your chance to contact the ports authority and give them a piece of your mind. Contact details here:

And just remember - a folding bike and cover will get you past the gate no problem ;-)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

USA Driving LESS !

I know this has nothing to do with Japan, but it is so interesting I will add a note.
The Car Free Network sent a link to an article in USA today, polling American citizens on their driving habits and attitudes.

Amazingly, Americans are driving less for the first time in 26 years, and 70% responded as having actively taken steps to reduce their driving. Another interesting result - a whopping 64% said they would not use public transport no matter the price of gasoline. How screwed up is that. I wonder if it is possible to place a financial bet on public transport in the USA - train manufacturers or something perhaps? There must be a hell of a lot of room for improvement if everyone hates it that much. In Tokyo something like 91% of the population commutes by public transport (the remaining 9% who drive though still make such a racket you would think there were more of them).

And another one - more people took public transport last year in the USA than any time in the last 49 years. This makes you wonder... there must have been a pretty good public transport system 49 years ago in the US to have that many people using it ... what the hell happened to it?

This article is well worth a read. It really does seem clear that the aircraft carrier sized juggernaut that is US public sentiment appears to be turning - away from cars. And that is damn good news.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tokyo politicians ride bikes for support

In Japan local politicians almost invariably dust off their bicycles during election season - it is good image. This is a photo of one of our local politicians. Notice how she is not dressed in spandex. Bicycles are not just a "sport" here - they are a way of getting about. There is plenty of overlap of course, but sports cyclists are another breed altogether. The only place in Japan where bicycles are lumped into the "sports" category is online auction sites, where the Japan seems to have borrowed the American way of doing things (so of course there is a separate auto section).

It is very sad that while politicians such as this recognise how important it is to connect with the people, at the higher levels of government and politics people tend to drive, or more often are driven, around. I have thought about this. Perhaps famous people do this to avoid having to deal with people while walking or cycling. I expect many famous politicians must also feel at great danger riding or walking around at the complete mercy of strangers driving along at high speeds beside them - strangers who recognize them and may not necessarily like them...

But the answer is not for the politicians to be driving as well. Any truly civic minded politician should be working to make life safe for pedestrians and cyclists, so that they can also safely be one themselves. As long as high level officials, politicians and famous personalities shun public transport, walking or bicycles in favour of autos, we all have a problem because they will favour policies which promote these interests.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Bicycle Repair Man

Here is the next installment. I see this little van around the place a bit. As bicycle usage has decreased in Japan over the years (although it may be increasing again lately), local bike shops have been closing down, and your local bike shop may not be so local any more. Still one every 2km or so, so not such an issue really, but these kinds of mobile bicycle repair services are still quite popular. I guess it is just the convenience of them coming to you. Particularly handy if your bike is so busted you can't easily get it to the shop.

Just program the emergency number into your mobile phone and if you ever find yourself in a pickle with a broken chain or puncture you don't want to fix yourself for fear of breaking a finger nail - never fear - just call the man and he will come and sort you out ASAP. The bicycle equivalent of your motor associations emergency vehicle. These guys are fantastic. I imagine these guys could lower overheads even more if they used a trailer like our Chariot to carry their gear.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Convenient Free Bicycle Parking and Rental

Here is the first installment of the series I have been promising on local initiatives to make life easier for non-drivers in Tokyo.

This first one is just a bicycle parking spot. I ride near it every morning, but did not notice until my wife pointed it out. This is exactly the kind of thing I had been saying that we need more of. This is a secure bicycle parking facility, connected to the subway station, protected from the weather, free, and they also rent out bicycles by the hour and by the day, including electric assist bicycles. Fantastic. Interestingly, not far from here is the valet bicycle parking area at the shopping centre that I have mentioned before. Between the hours of about 9am and 9pm, the bicycle parking area -free, and right in front of the entrance to the shopping centre, is guarded by a friendly assistant who will help you park and retrieve your bicycle - all for free. What a country!!

All the meanwhile my friends in their fancy BMW have to go back upstairs, pay their hefty fee, go down elevator into basement, find their car in the bowels of the building, and drive back up to ground level, where there is another attendant who makes them wait for the pedestrians to go past before they can get out, onto the road, and promptly get stuck in a traffic jam...

Friday, May 25, 2007

New Double Trailer

Finally had a chance to upload a photo of our new Chariot trailer for the boys. This is a Chariot Cougar 2. Chariot Carriers are based in Canada, and are arguably the best child trailer makers in the world. From Japan, they can be bought from REI, and sent via Fedex. The shipping is fairly expensive however, so a very kind friend very kindly brought one back from the US for us.

The kids absolutely love it (and our friend for bringing it...). It is slightly wider and heavier than our old Burley Solo. When we unfolded it in our living room, our first reaction was "no way -it is too big". But it is surprisingly easy to manouver, as you can see in the photo of mum here, and the trailer really is only barely wider than the handlebars, so you really don't need any more clearance than you would otherwise anyhow. Her battery powered assist bike helps her on the uphills of course, but otherwise she switches it off and goes fully "human powered". I can pull both kids up the hills on a regular bike no problem, so we also bought an extra hitch so that I can attach it to my regular town bike.

Some of the great features of this trailer:
> a solid hitch that is strong and safe, but very easy to detatch trailer from bike

> fantastic suspension - incredibly, the battery on the assist bike lasts longer, probably because of the suspension. It also makes pulling easier, and of course bumps are less jolting for the boys.

> plenty of storage space in the back

> great air ventilation for summer, but proper rain cover for wet weather - keeps the boys completely dry in a downpour, but the cabin does not steam up like other models can when the cover is down

> fantastic fold, that enable it to be folded down flat, quickly and easily - you could take this sucker on the train (as long as you had someone else to look after the kids while you lug it).

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Copenhagen and cycling

I know I promised I would report more about how things are done in Tokyo and Japan generally, but I just had to post this one. Here is a google video made by the city of Copenhagen on their cycle policy. Pretty incredible stuff. Sure, Tokyo has the same number of cyclists probably, but wow, the level of public and political support there is awesome.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Interview with Enrique Penalosa

Was alerted today by someone in Sydney to a fascinating interview with Enrique Penalosa, the former mayor of Bogota Colombia.

I really wonder if Tokyo leaders are aware of these fundamental change to transport thinking that are transforming New York, London, Paris and elsewhere. In one place he describes how they removed large numbers of car parking spaces and put in cycle lanes. At the time, some people protested against this, but in the end the bike lanes increased propery values, made the area safer and increased local trade. How is that for a win-win. I really hope auto makers have a Plan B - like making solar panels instead perhaps.

Another excellent video on the same site here about separated bike lanes, with interviews, images and footage of bike lanes from around the world. Transportation Alternatives really is an incredible organization.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Music, not cars

In the latest newsletter of the WORLD CARFREE NETWORK was a link to an inspiring and well made little music video that really deserves watching. Apparently made by Czech filmmaker Vit Klusak, it perhaps shares a little of the critical mass spirit. Very poignant piece.


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Global Warming: Test of Capitalist Democracy?

A little bit of evidence that the climate - global warming and other environmental issues, are finally really being noticed - and taken into account, by the wider finance and investment community. The article quotes an interesting New York Times article on the topic in relation to real estate and insurance:

The Real Riddle of Changing Weather: How Safe is My Home?

Maybe a little bit of hyperbole, but then again maybe we should be considering these things when signing up for a 30yr mortgage. In any case, it certainly does show how far public opinion has changed in the past few years. Even Mayor Bloomberg has announced a long term plan setting out some fairly ambitious plans for the city in terms of sustainability. A lot of wording in there about need for "infrastructure". In the past, that has been a codeword for more highways and roads, but there is a lot more about transit infrastructure in this plan. I am sure there are many who will be watching the DOT and others very closely to see that they put the money where Bloomberg's mouth is.

I am rooting for capitalist democracy of course. It will no doubt help us pull through this challenge. Many new industries are already riding the wave of popular demand for action. However, as at any time of rapid change, there are those on the "losing side" who will oppose. The strongest subversionary pressure is likely to come from already powerful industries such as the auto industry that have the money and will to try to divert popular will or at least attention. The old guard (auto industry) is already having a tough time economically and probably will continue to do so for a very long time. But they do still wield significant power and are putting up a hell of a fight. But inevitably, they will either change course or find themselves on the wrong side of the zeitgeist. If capitalist democracy takes its course, other new (and greener) industries will surely take their place relatively smoothly. That is the way of the market. Apathy has in the past been a problem, but it looks like the internet is helping to change that and more people are demanding proper accountability.

This is where politics comes in of course. We need politicians to represent the will of the people in seeing this change happen. In this, it is absolutely fantastic to see the environment finally getting broad bi-partisan political support in the United States, from Bloomberg on the East Coast to Arnie in the West. Pity about Washington of course, but it can't be long now surely. The broader international arena is where the real test lies of course. There are signs that China's leaders are beginning to come around, but still all we hear these days is talk of more roads and "infrastructure" (aka roads).

As an aside, it is a great shame to see Beijing using the olympics as an excuse to tear down its old city and replace it with auto-friendly infrastructure USA style. It is exactly what Tokyo did in the 60's and residents are still trying to have these highways removed. Interestingly, one place in Tokyo (Nihonbashi, once the pride of Tokyo and even called Venice of the East, but now a concrete pit with some slimey water surrounded by roads and covered by a highway) that was particularly ruined by this auto-network building orgy in the buildup to the 60's Tokyo olympics may see the highway removed and some of the canal's former glory restored in what seems to be the beginnings of a radical shift of political will on transport policy even here in Tokyo. If only Tokyo could find the courage to run its own Olympic bid on a platform of replacing the auto-network it installed for its previous olympics with greenways and public transit.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gadgets Galore

Depending on how you like to ride (and what sort of bicycle), this may really actually be kind of useful. For $20, you can get a dinky little gadget that will hold your umbrella for you. Provided it isn't too windy and you don't try to go too fast, you will get home nice and dry in your suit.

Personally I prefer to change clothes at my destination, but I could imagine the Brompton crowd kind of getting into this.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Has the Tide Already Turned?

There was a fascinating article in the Washington Post on Saturday about a massive new program in Paris to provide cheap and easy bicycle rental throughout the city - with a rental station every 250 metres! Absolutely incredible. There are similar plans afoot (pun intended) in other large cities throughout the world, including Sydney and Melbourne.

Why Tokyo has not latched onto this I don't know. It would be perfect here. There appears to be not enough public pressure for change away from the nasty old "more, bigger, faster roads for cars and everyone else be damned" attitude. If only we had some politicians who would stand up for "everyone else".

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bicycle Basket - FOR PETS !

A bicycle basket specially designed for pets !! This may be yet another "only in Japan" story.
I love this country.

GASOLINE AND HEALTH (mix like gasoline and water)

I have been learning a little about the health effects of gasoline lately, and it is not good news.

One report here discusses the dangers of ethanol. Aside from all the other issues with using ethanol as a fuel, this one sounds like a pretty nasty mew problem if ethanol becomes a popular additive.

Speaking of fuel additives, I recently also discovered the frightening story of MMT, the gasoline additive using manganese, a human neurotoxin known to cause serious illness. Brought to the world by Ethyl Corp, the company that also brought leaded-petrol (tetra-ethyl lead) to the world, and which obviously losing customers on that product, this lovely company recently leveraged the terms of the free trade agreement NAFTA to force Canada to lift its ban on MMT, despite serious concerns in that country that airborne manganese causes disabling neurological impairments in movement and speech.

It looks like car exhaust really is as nasty as it smells - that is unless of course you drive a hydrogen powered Humvee like Arnie...

Tokyo Cycling Green Map

I need to get out of the house more. Found a group called Urban Ecology Tokyo, who, aside from running the Earthday Tokyo bikeride, have set up a really cool map Tokyo Cycling Green Map utilizing google maps. Still needs a bit of work, but nice - and they even went ot the trouble of creating an English page. Legends.

A little bit more digging online, and I found that the map is part of a worldwide "Green Map System".

Now this is real democracy at work. Great stuff.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Climate Scientist Meets Enviro-Activist

Interesting piece from The GRIST here about two guys, a Stanford climate scientist and an environmental activist, who have really decided to take the campaign to the streets and seem to be doing very well with it. Feeding the Zeitgiest. Great stuff.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Crumpler "Barney Rustle Blanket"

My wife has a thing for handbags, so seeing as she is now a full blown everyday two child-hauling cyclist, I recently bought her the Barney Rustle. Smart move.

Originally from Melbourne Australia, it's a quirky brand, but these are fantastic bags - pretty much waterproof, convenient, comfortable, hold heaps and even look alright. I can see why messengers love these things. Bummer really though, because I was kind of hoping she wouldn't like it...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Which would YOU prefer

So which one is it going to be? Streets for people, or streets for cars? I love stories like this. Why do the newspapers not report stories like this. Is it because auto advertising pays their bills?

Bitter twisted cynicism aside, we really are a conservative lot. We hate to veer from accepted street lore - the tried and true - or so we like to convince ourselves. When it comes to roads, we instinctively resist anything that would restrict, slow or divert auto traffic. It goes against the flow - 70 years or so of tradition, so we resist out of habit. New ideas sound nice on paper, but we resist anyhow. Surely if they really worked, they would have been done before, right? Block off a road to auto traffic? Surely it would increase congestion elsewhere. It would reduce visitors. No doubt it would send local business under. Well, now a comprehensive city study commissioned by the San Francisco Mayor, and conducted by the County transport authority, no less, seems to have shown that in the case of the world-famous Golden Gate Park at least, blocking roads to auto traffic has (1) more than doubled visitors' usage of the Park, (2) increased attendance at local businesses and museums, and (3) caused no significant negative impacts on parking or traffic whatsoever in the surrounding neighborhoods.

It can't get much more convincing than that ! Wow. What a mandate for change that is. Yes, it has been done, and yes, it does work.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bicycles Belong

Reports by a National Police Agency study group that bicycles should be allowed on the footpath have generated a fair bit of chatter in Tokyo. Many faster on-road cyclists read "allowed" as meaning possibly "must" and so have kicked up a fair bit of stink - for example here. This is natural enough because these cyclists - almost exclusively adult men, prefer to ride on the road, which, while more dangerous, is faster, smoother and easier as long as you don't get hit. I ran the Tokyo Marathon back in February and it really hit home to me just how nice it is to use the middle of the road. Cars have a sweet deal. The gutter on the outside lane is a far cry from having the middle of the road to yourself, but it is smoother, faster, and less obstructed than the pavement, and you generally get an unobstructed view, so these guys prefer to use it despite the danger from cars. So it is understandable they are worried that bikes off the road might become the default.

But many seem to think that the NPA wants to somehow ban bicycles altogether, or at least somehow make them less popular. Now the way that traffic police sometimes like to stand at intersections seemingly protecting the cars from the pedestrians I sometimes wonder about this myself. Interestingly, I think I found the list of members of the NPA study group that kicked off all this fuss on the NPA website, and it appears that the panel includes none other than the editor in chief of the Japan Automobile Federation magazine. Hmmm. An affiliate of the automobile association on a panel to make proposals for regulating cycling. Slightly dubious.

But really, in this day and age when even George Bush is talking up his plans to deal with global warming, the tide is flowing against such archaeic ideas as these. Banning bikes, or even banning bikes on roads is a pretty hard sell in Japan. Women, children and elderly people use bicycles more than cars, and these groups in particular need all the protection that society can afford them. Sidewalks are scant protection from cars as it is - the kerb is more psychological than anything else. I have seen an out of control car go over the sidewalk, and the kerb didn't even slow it down.

But like I say, people all around the world are rapidly starting to realize all this, and do something about it. So if anything we will inevitably see more roads go the other way - wider sidewalks, less car lanes, and more car free streets popping up in various places.

Transportation Alternatives - Tokyo Style

New York City organization Transportation Alternatives is making a big difference in NYC.

Full of sensible ideas and commentary from sensible people, and interestingly, they really seem to be making a difference, fighting back against autopolitics on behalf of both pedestrians and cyclists.
Please contact me if you are interested in setting up a similar organization here in Tokyo. Once we can get a reasonable size group of like minded people together, we can get organized and make things happen here too. There are cycling groups already, but I think we need something wider than this.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Carfree in Beppu

Here is a fabulous video made last year by a NZ guy named Rob Thomspon living in Beppu city in Kyushu Japan:

Apparently he did a ride through Asia to Europe not long after this. He is now in Montenegro, and you can follow his progress here:

Fascinating little journey. Very glad to see that one of my favourite little bike shops (LORO) have gotten behind his expedition also.

Monday, April 02, 2007



Saturday, March 31, 2007

Build carfree streets and they will come - on foot

And build roads and highways and carparks - and surprise surprise, people will come in cars.

Interesting article HERE reminding us that all the scientific evidence points to the fact that we may not really actually need those highways and carparks that the generation before us so vehemently fought for. The real result of all the extra roads is that the average American now apparently drives three times as much as he did in the 60's. Hmmm. Autopia?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Cyclist Killed on Tokyo's "Model Bicycle Intersection"

On the intersection of the Imperial Palace and Hibiya Park in central Tokyo is one of the most dangerous intersections for bicycles and pedestrians alike. It is a model of how to build an intersection that is inconvenient, confusing and dangerous.

I have always thought it strange therefore that there are several signs posted right on this intersection that says that this is a "Model Intersection for Bicycles". Whenever cars are involved the meaning of the word "safety" is commonly construed creatively, but this one is a doozy.

The icing on the irony cake was finding a new sign there the other day asking for witnesses to come forward with information about an accident in which a bicycle was hit by a car (hit and run, no less) on March 4 on this very corner. You can just see the "Model Bicycle Intersection" sign in the background of this new sign, still there as if jeering or taunting at the poor person who was hit. When did we allow ourselves to become such a violent, heartless society?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Here is one car I might consider driving...

This is what they call a "velomobile". Basically a high tech three wheel recumbent bicycle with a high tech fairing. These vehicles are manufactured and used mostly in the cold and windy countries of northern Europe, but even the guys at Greenspeed of Australia have gotten into the act lately.

There are basically two types of these faired recumbents - racing and general use. The racing variety are usually two wheeled and built purely for speed. These velomobiles are built for daily use, and are usually three wheeled (four wheels just adds extra weight without much benefit.

Is this the future of personal transport:

Saturday, March 24, 2007


There. I said it. Are you happy now?

My next door neighbors recently moved to New Zealand. The other day Mrs. Neighbor admitted to me that actually she enjoys driving. I think she was expecting me to put up a fight with her or something - to try to talk her round or something. But you know, I will freely admit to anyone that OF COURSE driving can be convenient. It is easy; it keeps you dry; there is a radio, you can carry your luggage and your friends just about anywhere; the roads are well kept and you get to blast down the middle of it noise and smoke trailing behind you while everyone else looks on jealously from the sidelines. Sure, they are probably more likely to be angry - but you can wind up the window and pretend they are just jealous.

All that is beside the point. A smoker will always enjoy his cigarette. Enjoying it doesn't make it a good thing. I choose to not drive simply because I finally admitted that car culture is out of hand and that I can personally do something about it. It is as simple as that. I smoked cigarettes for a little while, but gave up smoking when I was 21 and said to myself - "You can give up smoking anytime, but whatever you do with your life after this, giving up smoking HAS to come first - the other stuff can wait until after you do that." And it is amazing how following through on that one decision can change your whole outlook. Good things just seem to flow from a good decision like that. I was able to get fit again, lose weight, get along better with healthy non-smoking people etc etc. I feel the same way now about driving. Once you take that plunge that you know you really probably should, it can really be quite liberating and literally change your world for the better. I find that I meet more locals and bump into friends more often when walking or cycling. I get to work in a better mood. I feel better and healthier. It would be great if lots of other people gave up driving too, but I understand that not everyone will or can do that - not just now anyway.

I would probably give up beef steaks too if I could, but I can't - not yet.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Just the Tikit


If you are interested in folding bicycles - you really should take a look at this. Even if you aren'T you should watch this anyway. This thing is incredible. Folded size looks a touch larger than the Brompton, but manageable. I wonder how it handles when riding...

Cycletech-IKD will probably get a model in at some stage I don't doubt. [looks like they have a test model here already now: SEE HERE]

Probably not a fast touring bike, but for commuting it could be awesome.


Found an interesting little story about the history of suburbia and car use in the United States here:

Not surprisingly, the author appears to be from Oregon - Eugene or Portland.

Also found this book: "Sprawl Kills" one of a growing number of books chronicling the chronic problems with the runaway culture of cars and sprawl around the world.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Convenient Truths

How is this for a great idea? Treehugger online is running a competition for best video about some easy ways to do something about the climate problem.

Treehugger has been around for a while. I have always thought that Treehugger was a bit overly consumerist (in a "buy this wind up torch! buy that dinky solar powered electric toothbrush and you can save yourself when the end of the world comes! "... kind of way).

But this video competition actually is a really cool idea. And it is great fun watching the entries. Check them out.

The Beautiful Streets of Beja

Carfree times has a new edition out online, with some pictures of the beautiful streets of Beja. Imagine streets like this in your home town.

Quiet, clean, safe = happy, friendly and sustainable. Details here:

And these are just two lane streets - imagine what you could do with a four or six lane road.

Motor Show Sabotage

Any takers for doing this at the next Tokyo Motor Show? The balloons say "60 meters by car makes this much CO2"
Even better - get some young ladies to help hand out the protest flyers and balloons to all the oogling geeks who only come to take photos of the girls in miniskirts pimping the vehicles at the show. Fight fire with fire.

Friday, March 09, 2007

New Yorkers Demand Safe Streets

New Yorkers are sick and tired of deadly streets. Last Sunday over a hundred rallied at City Hall to demand a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan. I wonder how many people in Tokyo would do this kind of thing. I imagine you could get thousands of people outside the department of transport, or the mayors office.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Ski slopes, a car-free refuge?

There is a ski slope in Japan called Gala Yuzawa which is probably fairly unique in the world. In most places in the world, skiing means driving. Whether you drive, or take a ride with someone else, or take a bus, driving is regarded as pretty much the only way to get out to a slope. At Gala Yuzawa however, the gondola lift is linked directly to a shinkansen (bullet train) station, which puts it just a little over one hour from Tokyo station. How cool is that!? How respectable is that! Read a book, have a sandwich on the train on your way up, get off, rent your gear, get changed, gondola straight up the slope before breakfast you are on powder snow high up in the mountains. There is even a spa resort connected to the station, so you can clean up and relax before the train home in the afternoon - again relax, read a book or eat your dinner during the short (and safer) trip back home.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece about skiing in China, and noted that one of the great attractions of skiing to people everywhere around the world is the peace and quiet and clean air. It is a pity that people don't realize that our city streets could also be as quiet as this if we just changed the way we thought about things.

Friday, March 02, 2007

State of the Union

Each year, the Department of Environment and Conservation in NSW Australia releases a report entitled "Who Cares About the Environment in 200X". The 2006 report, HERE, shows a huge increase in awareness and concern about environmental issues. For example, about 90% of people say they are concerned about the environment (makes you wonder about the other 10% though).

But how about this one - more than 75% of people could not even distinguish between the ozone hole problem and global warming. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that 75% of Australians have their heads so far up their #$%%s... or then again maybe... (just kidding!)

Even still, 85% of people think that government and industry are not doing enough to combat environmental issues. There's a mandate for change if ever there was one.

The High Cost of Free Parking

It always blows me away to see the amount of precious space that cars are allowed to take up in Japan's crowded cities. Well, it looks like I am not the only one who thinks that on-street car parking is just "not on" :

Obviously not many people in Japan likely to be able to attend this event, but interesting to see the high profile that this issue is reaching in the US.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

The old adage "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" may not hold true for much longer...

Apparently a "promising" treatment for PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) is gaining a certain degree of popularity around the world. The treatment combines psychotherapy with psychotropic drugs. Basically patients, quite often traffic accident victims, are repeatedly exposed to the experiences -the sights and sounds of the events that haunt them causing the stress. But rather than getting hurt, being exposed to pain or the threat of injury, they are instead sent sky high on drugs in total comfort and safety. The idea is to disassociate the negative outcome from the ordeal in order to reduce the stress.

Without wishing to detract from the gravety of the disorder for many patients, something about the whole thing sounds distinctly distopian. Worse, it could conceivably reduce the persons feeling of danger if placed in such situations again. In the context of traffic accident victims for example people would essentially be encouraged to forget their ordeal until they think everything is peachy again, and that cars are cool - even the one that almost killed them in the first place. Plus, I can imagine if victims are habitually treated in this way, they are not likely to devote themselves to fighting for justice later - whether that be advocating car-free streets, pushing for laws against rape or sexual harrassment or whatever.

I don't know. I have been a victim of a serious road crash and frankly, I would rather remember it for the nasty experience it was. Sure, the ubiquitous sound of traffic will never be the same - and good thing too. You know what they say - once bitten, twice shy.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Good Life

Found a fantastic article today about the island of Hydra in Greece.

The islands of Greece are some of the few remaining places in the world where you can experience modern life entirely free from cars. One widely held misconception is that modern life cannot exist without cars. Hydra and other places show us that this does not always need to be the case. Many towns and cities around the world shut a street or two on Sundays, or perhaps even for a month in Summer like in Paris, or have their town centres car free, but there is almost no-where in the world these days, where you can live and go about your business from morning to night without needing cars and without interruption from them - where even the roads are designed for pedestrians, not cars.

Particularly in the "new world" these days you would have to go climb a mountain, or go kayaking into the wilderness to experience an entire day without cars, but of course in the wilderness you have to go without running water, toilets, beds and many other things also. It is no surprise that we North Americans and Australians think that life without cars is somehow backward !! Hydra reminds us that it does not need to be this way.

Interestingly, the website (Project for Public Spaces) also mentions that the mayor of Paris has announced plans to pedestrianize the highways along the Seine, riding on the success of Paris Plage.

Good news all around.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Fire chief drinks, drives, causes accident, flees scene and crashes into ambulance

Sometimes I wonder if men should be allowed to drive cars at all. Anyone who has raised boys will know that there is something in us (men) that causes us actively seek out danger. If we have a choice of doing things safely or doing things dangerously, we will often choose the dangerous option just to see what happens. Perhaps it is the challenge - a test of our skill that to refuse would be to acknowledge defeat.

There must be statistics on this kind of thing, but I would wager that the vast majority of reckless driving and drunk driving cases are caused by men. Folklore has it that "women drivers" cause accidents and terrorize the roads, but I wonder.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Child Trailers (子供用 トレーラー)

Advice on where to buy child trailer in Japan.

There are many brands of child trailer, but the only one I would bother recommending is the BURLEY SOLO. It (1) is lightweight yet strong and safe, with full harness seatbelts (2) has a good and safe hitch, (3) is narrow enough to be easy to pull through crowded streets without any hassle. It is even narrow enough to fit through doorways, and in and out of elevators, and can be folded easily.

If you have two children, the BURLEY EURO D'LITE is also an excellent trailer, just 8cm wider. Be careful not to get the older non-Euro model, as the new Euro is much better - narrower taller and stronger.

Unfortunately, you cannot buy Burley trailers direct, and the only shop I know that will sell to Japan is the US outdoor goods store REI (which sells the Solo HERE). Shipping adds to the cost, but it is definitely worth it.

OK, I will mention just one more brand: WIKE These are really nice, and they will ship direct to Tokyo. The only problem is that these trailers are very large - definitely too wide for Tokyo streets.

Just one more note, if you have any serious hills around your place, or have to pull two children, you could probably use an electric bicycle also. We have found the National Vivi to be an excellent combination with the trailer, as the bicycle itself is not so long. This bicycle helps my wife pull two heavy kids up some serious hills twice each day.

Anyway, long and short, I hope more parents consider using trailers like this. My oldest son had a tumble on a child seat mounted on a regular bike. Although he was not seriously hurt, I took the opportunity to look around at the options, found these child trailers, and made the rare plunge and bought one. I am so glad that I did. In fact they are so good that my formerly non-cycling wife is now also using it every day, twice a day.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Are you Enviro Hedonist or Defeatist?

In the global debate that rages (increasingly loudly) about the environment, people are often asked whether they are an optimist or a pessimist. Your average enviro-awareness crusader is easily cast as a pessimist doomsayer and your techno-salvation guy as an optimist. On the face of it this distinction might be true, but the important thing is that both are acting on the evidence, and so both are likely to bring about positive change - the former helping to reduce bad practices, and the latter to introduce new good ones.

Rather than an optimist vs pessimist question, a more relevant distinction to make would be between those who do something about the problem and those who don't. Those who don't could fall on either side of the fence as well - pessimists who fail to act are defeatists, and techno-salvation believers are just hot air unless they really support the technologies that they think have the potential to divert the world from asphyxiation. I suspect many techno-salvation types are just hedonists or narcissists who have latched onto the idea of techno-salvation so that it doesn't spoil their fun.

So whether you are pessimist or optimist on the future of the enviroment, it is important to at least speak up, or even better, do something. Don't just resign yourself to it all and go live in the countryside (where you will likely need a car). The issue of global warming may prove to be the most serious test of democracy yet. Let's make it work.

You want change?

Step 1) do what you can yourself to mitigate problems / raise awareness
Step 2) support organizations and groups that do the same thing on a bigger scale
Step 3) if there are none, form one
Step 4) support elected representatives who do the same
Step 5) if there are no elected representatives doing that, or you are frustrated with the pace of change, run for office yourself.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Tokyo, a land of contrasts

It is often said that Japan is a land of contrasts. This is very true for the state of cycling. Any other country in the world with the levels of cycling that Japan enjoys, has reached these levels due to strong support from governments. Japan, however, seems to have high levels of bicycle use IN SPITE of the best efforts of governments.

Ochanomizu station is one good example- a very popular station on the JR line, where both the express and the local trains stop, as does the Chiyoda subway line. The area is home to numerous universities and teaching hospitals with many many students, fertile ground for a strong cycling population. So you would expect that there might be a bicycle rack near the station. In fact, you might expect that there would be bicycles everywhere around the station.

Yet, when you look around, all you can see are signs like the one above saying "NO BICYCLE PARKING" and red hats and poles up blocking the path to make absolutely clear that bicycles are not kosher here.

When you go ask the policemen on the corner - who incidentally ride bicycles themselves, why it is that there is no bicycle parking around the place, they will tell you that, well, Japan is a small place - there is not enough space. Ironically, not two feet away on the road side of the footpath, there are six full lanes of vehicular traffic, two of which are entirely occupied by parked cars.

It is even more ironic that the space these six or ten cars occupy would be more than sufficient to meet the needs of one hundred cyclists wishing to use the station. Yet rarely does anyone seem to notice just how hypocritical this is.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

実用車  - The Ubiquitous Utility Bike

Anyone who has lived in Japan will recognize these bikes. At a glance they look the same as the old bikes that have been around longer than Jiji can remember. But if you look closely they are really pretty impressive machines.

Just like the old jitsuyosha, the frame is strong and heavy, with a step through cross bar for easy access. The sturdy stand and the curved handlebars which give these bikes an upright seating position also make them look like the old fashioned models. These bikes however, have internal gears, usually 3, 7 or 8 speed shimano hub gears. They have modern caliper rim brake on front and sturdy reliable roller brake on rear. They often also sport nice bright hub dynamo lights - th is one is standard bottle dynamo, but resistance isn't much of an issue on an electric assist bike.

Japanese electric assist bicycles these days really are pretty amazing, often with a whopping 30-100km(!) range and a powerful drive which automatically adjusts the level of torque input from the motor based on the gear you are in and how hard you push the pedal, fading out almost imperceptibly at higher speeds (around 25kph) to preserve the battery and for safety, and unlike earlier models, these electric bikes can also be pedalled normally with motor off, further extending battery life. These bikes often come with fairly large sturdy lockable waterproof boxes on the back like this one, installed securely on the rear rack. An amazing practical touch to these practical bikes is the grip tape sealed to the top, so that if necessary you can put an extra box on top of that temporarily without it slipping out of place in transit (note the bungy cord dangling down to the ground in the picture). Finally, a huge capacity steel basket is fixed over the front wheel, supported from the front hub, which has a waterproof vinyl lining and cover for extra all-weather carrying capacity. Saddle is wide and suspended, which actually helps when you are sitting bolt upright. The upright position is however very good for handling, especially when there is a lot of weight on the bike. Another feature is a front wheel lock, to stop the front end from flopping to one side when there is something heavy in the front basket. Naturally, they also come with a quick rear wheel lock and mud guards installed.

These bikes are commonly used by bankers, deliverymen, servicemen working for printing companies etc, shop owners etc etc etc. They are the epitome of practicality and convenience, and a cheap, clean, sustainable solution to many of our transport needs (and health issues). They are of course particularly useful in towns and cities that are quite dense, where most distances travelled are not very great, and there are many narrow back streets that are safe and quiet. Unfortunately not quite as practicable in the car-oriented societies and cities of the West, but with a 50km range electric assist motor, the issue is more one of safety than distance.

Ever since setting up my mountain bike + xtracycle, I have had a new found respect for the humble jitsuyosha. Fortunately I don't need electric assist yet!

I am afraid I didn't get the brand of this bike, but it looks like a Panasonic.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Matsumoto first Japanese city to join "Car-Free Day"

Matsumoto has become the first city to join the worlwide "Car Free Day" organized, I think by this group - Mobility Week.

One day per year without cars in the inner city is unlikely to make Matsumoto world famous - the town already blocks off the inner city for several festivals throughout the year, so it is unlikely to make all that much difference, but it has managed to get the city into the news a little lately.


Four or five undeniably nasty things about cars:

1) they are noisy
2) they are dangerous
3) they are dirty (i.e. bad for the environment)
4) they stink
5) they are just plain too big for everyone to use them all the time

A lot of people talk about electric cars these days. I must admit, having electric cars would deal with problems 1 (noise) and 4 (smell). However, no noise would make them even more dangerous, and unless we can find a non-polluting, non-dangerous way to generate the necessary electricity, they are not much better for the environment. And they are still just plain too big for everyone to be driving them around all over the place.

Now perhaps we (as a society) can manage to develop systems for automated driving. Many people have been talking about such systems, with sensors all over the place that make it virtually impossible for a car to crash or hit someone, and companies like Omron may actually manage to actually make the systems work, and the auto companies may actually fork out the dough to implement them (I suspect they will try to make us pay for it). If they do (and that's a very big "if", but if it happens), then we shall have dealt with a large part of the safety issue also.

That leaves us with two problems - size and the environmental issues. Not insignificant problems. In fact the environment issue is one of the biggest.

Now I like to think of myself as a positive guy, so I will assume that one day soon we will figure out a dinky little environmentally friendly way to generate and store the energy needed to power cars without polluting the environment, such as generating hydrogen via environmentally friendly solar systems and storing it safely in magnesium compounds, and running our cars (and our jacuzzis) on the electricity generated by it.

But that STILL leaves us with one big problem - inconvenience, particularly in cities and towns - where is after all where most people live. Forget about everything else for a moment, and consider the space that cars take up in our towns and cities. Cars really are still just plain old too big for everyone to be using them to get everywhere because when towns and cities are built for car sizes, you can't walk to the supermarket, or school, or work, or your friends house or just about anywhere else anymore - you need a car. And that is just plain inconvenient at a really fundamental level. Forget about the rich-poor divide, that's a hassle for even your average, everyday millionaire celebrity who wants a carton of milk.

Oh, and that leads us to yet another serious problem besetting our car-dependent societies - obesity. And that just will not ever go away as long as cars rule the roads - not, that is, unless pedal cars come back in a big way.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Geez some people just don't get it. Saw a woman riding a shopping bike with a toddler barely one year old standing up inside the basket in front. No helmet, no restraining belt, nothing. Made me think...

I ride a bike because :
(1) it is convenient
(2) it is fun
(3) I get fit, not fat
(4) it doesn't harm the environment
(5) I don't want to endanger other people's safety

Cars can maybe meet the first two sometimes, but none of the others. Let's have a look:

(3) Getting fit - well we all know there is an obesity epidemic so that one is down the tube;
(4) We all know the state of the environment;
(5) people's perception of safety - what is an acceptable level of safety - seems to me totally out of wack. There are no wars, police security is good, we are a wealthy society - yet we put up with several deaths and hundreds of injuries each and every day on our roads. Just getting about! If you have seen the emergency ward of any general hospital in any major city, you will know what I mean - it is predominantly traffic accidents. How weird is that? How weird is it that we don't think it is weird? - that we don't think we can do better? -that we treat this as an "acceptable" level of risk?

You want to know what I think? I think that because the majority of people in society are still so resigned to life with cars, that we have reached a stage where our whole society has collectively thrown away these other three goals as just unachievable. Thus we are fat, we ignore the environment, and we put up with unnecessary risks.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Inside Bay Area - Electric bicycles gaining traction

Inside Bay Area - Electric bicycles gaining traction

Interesting article about electric bicycles gaining popularity in the USA. I just wish they were able to experience Japanese e-bikes.