- 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.