- 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, 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.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Legitimate parking

What Japan, and Tokyo in particular, really needs is legitimate on-road parking space for bikes. All we need to do is knock out a few on-road car parking spots here and there, and install bike racks. You could fit at least six bikes in the space of one car. How is that for efficient use of space!

Here is one fabulous design that carries a positive message as well as being practical - although I would face the other way, so that cyclists didn't need to walk out into traffic to get their bikes, and so that cars do not knock over the bikes on the rack.

There is a fair bit of parking for bicycles in Japan around stations. However, this only caters for the regular bicycle commuter who rides his/her bike to the train station, and leaves it there. There is currently no reasonable options for anyone who (1) commutes irregularly, (2) commutes directly to the office (as there is generally no -zero- legitimate bicycle parking in downtown areas), or (3) wants to go anywhere else other than the station. Shopping malls and department stores, libraries are constantly faced with zillions of bicycles all over the footpath. Instead of tagging and impounding the bicycles, why not simply create legitimate on-street parking space? Removing a few car parking spots would seem to be a small price to pay for something that benefits all pedestrians and cyclists. Even drivers become pedestrians at their destination, so in this sense it helps the drivers too.

Transportation Apartheid

There is quite a bit of chatter on the blog lines and community about the rumoured legislation proposal to make more footpaths mandatory for bikes in Japan. Whereas other countries try to force bicyclists onto the road, drivers in Japan do the opposite and try to make rules forcing cyclists onto the footpath. Interesting this.

I can see the tyranny of money (auto money that is) at work here. In the USA, where cycing still does not have a majority, they can make rules forcing cyclists to use the road. As a result, experienced and/or hardcore cyclists are satisfied, because they get to use their bikes. However, beginners, small children and elderly are discouraged from cycling because they are told not to ride on the sidewalk. This is great for the auto people because it means children cannot ride safely, and so bicycles are unlikely to ever become hugely popular.

In Japan however, there is already a large percentage of the population using bicycles - close to half the population uses bicycles regularly in many places. The auto people cannot easily create rules forcing all cyclists onto the road, nor would they probably want to because there would be enough of them to really slow down the cars. Car drivers want their speed (to hell with the danger), or there is hardly a reason for having cars in the first place. So auto money tends to do the reverse here and try to force all cyclists onto the footpath. This is fine for the many elderly cyclists and the mothers with children, who really cannot ride amongst cars. However footpaths are often crowded enough that if cyclists were *forced* onto the footpath, then cycling becomes little better than walking. What is the point of having a bicycle if you have to walk it around?

When you really think about it, "sidewalks" themselves are really only there because drivers want the road to themselves, but need to leave at least some small strip for when they get out of their cars. This is why most roads designed for cars, by car drivers, have narrow and neglected footpaths, while the car lanes are smooth, wide, clear and straight. Greedy bastards. I would really like to see roads designed and built by people who like to walk.

Seriously though, there should not be any hard fast rule about where cyclists "should" or "must" be. Beginners, elderly, children, etc., must be allowed to ride where it is safe, and more experienced riders must be allowed to ride on the road if they wish to -that is what it is for. Think of somewhere like the big ugly main road in front of Shinbashi station. When it is crowded you would be lucky to be able to push a bicycle down the footpath it is that crowded. A rule like this one being suggested would not stop cyclists from cycling along the road - outer edge of the outer lane of a huge three lane road. But in the event that a car hits and injurs that cyclists, blame would be apportioned more greatly to the cyclists, because it would have been illegitimate for the cyclist to even be there in the first place. Sounds like apartheid to me.

If it were a highway, then I might understand. But it isn't, it is regular roads which cars crawl along at a pace slower than the cyclists. Perhaps that is the real reason for this proposal - drivers are fed up with cyclists showing them how much better, quieter, cleaner, safer AND FASTER bicycles are at getting around the city.

Japanese City Joins Car Free Movement

信濃毎日新聞[信毎web] 松本「脱クルマ」先進地に カーフリーデー正式参加へ

My mother-in-law sent me a clipping of this article from the Shinano Mainichi. The front page headline of this local newspaper from the Nagano region states that Matsumoto City is officially working towards becoming Japan's first official city participant in the Car Free Day. The Car Free Day movement began in Europe many years ago and has slowly spread to many cities around the world. Once a year, on September 22, a large part of the old part of Matsumoto city (near the castle) will be blocked to automobile traffic. Other cities in Japan regularly block of certain sections of roads, including huge 6 lane roads such as Ginza in Tokyo, but this is the first time that a major part of the inner-city will be blocked to motor traffic.

Best news I have heard in quite a while. I have no doubt that once this kind of thing can only become more and more popular around the country as locals and tourists alike discover just how nice it is to be able to walk and play on the streets, free from the noise, pollution and threat of cars.

Carbusters Magazine

Carbusters Magazine

This is a really funky magazine supporting car free living. Good for car free news.

Monday, January 08, 2007

JCN new Forum - messages

JCN new Forum - messages

Great website and forum for information, advice and tips about cycling in Japan.

New German community models car-free living |

New German community models car-free living |

Promising looking idea. The concept is not new, but not many places exist where it has actually been implemented on a large scale.

Also read of a guy in the US who created a solar system for his house, and instead of stopping there, also introduced a hydrogen generator, whereby during summer months the excess solar power would be used to create hydrogen. In long winter nights, energy would be released from the hydrogen generator to make up the difference. A dual system totally self contained, and totally environmentally friendly, which powered his whole house including jacuzzi and all the mod-cons, and also powered the guys electric car to boot. This sort of system sounds incredible. Cost him a lot, but if you could develop this into a marketable product system, it would be awesome, and assume cost would come down.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

crankk cycling life, news and opinions.

crankk cycling life, news and opinions.

Here is a cool website for cycling news.

Nasty Bike Law Proposal

Every now and again, the car people find the ear of someone in government, usually in the roads department or police department, and come up with some really nasty anti-bicycle law proposal for the government, hoping to sneak it through. But it is pretty ironic that the latest effort by these seedy types would be made in Japan, such a bicycle nation, in a time when most governments around the world are trying to PROMOTE cycling as much as possible, as a solution to our oil dependence, environmental problems and obesity and health issues. You would think that the police at least would know better - as they are the ones who have to deal with the aftermath of so many car accidents.