- 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.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Auto-society will never be safe

People sometimes mistake the "carfree" movement as the pipedream of some maniac who unrealistically want to rid us entirely of every last automobile on the planet. In a world overrun with automobiles today, that might seem a pointless exercise. But most of the issues boil down to three very valid points - safety, quality of life, and environmental impact. Most of these problems can be largely alleviated without ridding the world of cars entirely, but we do need to move beyond auto-society.

In this post, I am going to add items from the news which give examples of these fundamental issues. I will keep coming back to it as I find news clippings. First, safety.

If you ever thought that an auto-society could be safe if only we could all just drive carefully, the following will bring you out of that dream. These few articles will give pretty irrefutable proof (as if you really needed any) that automobile society will never be a safe society.
  1. Careless drivers
    Triple drink-driver behind bars and One dead in police pursuit crash
    The sheer volume of stories like this highlight the fact that there will always be careless drivers who do not care much for their own life and safety, and therefore are prepared to put everybody else's lives at risk along with their own. As long as the system permits this, streets will never be safe for children and elderly.
    These two stories that speak for themselves, but for each of these stories there are literally thousands more like them. We need protection for non-driving road users. This can be done in many ways - more car free streets, better transit, traffic calming, wide flat unobstructed pavements protected by solid concrete bollards between road and shoulder on all roads with auto traffic. It could also be done by creating car-free urban residential communities with a single car-park and almost no vehicular traffic within. You can bet your bottom dollar that whatever the solution, it will be people friendly, not car-friendly.

  2. Elderly drivers:
    Driver, 78, jailed for road death.
    Auto-society begets auto-dependence. This leads older people to cling to their cars when they should not. Everyone gets old and many people get too sick to drive, but no-one wants to lose independence. In non-auto societies of Europe and Asia, the elderly live longer largely because they have more independence and mobility into very old age. The very design of walkable towns and cities allows the elderly to remain a part of the community well into old age - walking to shops, doctors and family - the social and psychological benefits are just as important as the physical fitness. No wonder Westerners die young by comparison. In a society where you need a car to buy milk, go to the bank, or the doctor, having a licence revoked is almost equivalent to receiving a "death row" sentence as we are shunted off to a "retirement home" to await death with a gaggle of other death-row strangers. The gentleman in this story is at least contrite. It could have been much worse for him, but it is still a horrible outcome for all involved. And as Western societies age, this issue will only get worse. The worse it gets, the more we realize the limits of automobile society.

  3. Automobiles as Weapons
    Duo Deliberately Crash 4WD into Hospital Ward
    Driver deliberately crashes into 50 cyclists, ends Olympic cyclists' bid
    As long as automobiles are: (1) big and heavy, (2) able to go fast, and (3) freely controlled by the driver, they can and will be used as weapons to one extent or another. Whether it is cutting a bit too close to another road user just to "scare them a bit", or deliberately crashing a 4WD into a hospital ward, the ability to cause great physical damage, injury and death to others is the same. This story highlights a design flaw with the auto-society.

  4. Sprawl leads to crime
    $100K offered for clues to hit and run incident
    Auto-society leads to sprawling cities and towns - we all know that. But what many do not realise is that sprawl also leads to crime. When there are many dark roads with few pedestrians and no eyewitnesses to see what goes on - people get away with crimes that they would not get away with if the city had remained more dense. In more dense "old world" cities, there are always many eyes to make sure that people don't give in to the criminal urge in the first place, and help catch them if they do.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


And how could I talk about child carrying bicycle options without mentioning this crazy thing!!

It certainly looks the part. About the only review I have seen online by someone who has actually ridden the thing is here: Bakfiets en Moor, and by the sounds of it he is someone would know. Unfortunately the review is not good. The concept is very enticing, but as is often the case in the world of cycling - simple may be the very best.

Another interesting blog here about another city in the world that emphasises non-motor transportation - Copenhagenize. Can you imagine - the mayor for traffic and environment has proposed that on days when pollution is above recommended levels, traffic lights stay red a little longer - drivers would be text messaged in the morning in advance to give those who are able to the option to chose another mode of getting to work. That's great. If time is money then this is pure Capitalism. And who was the smart person who put the transportation and environment porfolios together in the first place? What a fantastic idea!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Where is the Tokyo DOT on this?

London "gets it", Paris "gets it", Barcelona "gets it" and now even New York seems to "get it".

Where is the Tokyo Transport Department on all this...?

A Win for Sanity

The Tokyo police had announced last year that they were going to begin to sting cyclists for behaviour such as riding with two children, front and back - something that apparently is actually an unenforced no-no.

Well, would you believe, the public reaction was so strong that the police have announced that they will not after all start issuing fines for such behavior. Instead they have requested bicycle makers to make bicycles that are safer for young children. The news has been all over the talk back and TV news.

I think this is a wonderful outcome, and strongly suspect that the police had this in mind from the outset, but simply wished to use it to force a public safety awareness campaign. And by the looks of it, that is exactly what they got. Nothing more, nothing less. Fantastic. A typically Japanese approach to a public issue. I wish the police would use the same force with driver safety issues. But then, perhaps they realize that "driver safety" is something of an oxymoron.

All the same, my wife and I do not use standard Japanese "Mama-chari" (ママチャリ) with our kids. We bought a trailer that can be pulled by a bicycle (子供乗せトレーラー), ours is a Chariot). That way even if the parent slips and the bike falls over, the children are still sitting pretty in the back (yelling nonchallantly "Mum! What are you doing up there?!") There are many other options also, the most practical of which is probably the beautiful Bakfiets Cargobike which has a low centre of gravity(低い重心), so that a tumble is far less likely to hurt anyone than a mama-chari, and also has a rain cover for the children. As the kids get a little older, I find they enjoy riding on my Xtracycle, and the concept is more or less the same but without the rain protection.

Anyhow, there is quite a bit of talk on TV and radio etc about finding the perfect bicycle for families... if you hear such talk, please let them know that such options already exist in the form of the Chariot and the Xtracycle and the Cargobike and others.