- 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, 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.