Pity the poor cyclist. Beginning in June, Japan’s National Police Agency is planning a crackdown on cyclists who break the law. Scofflaws who get caught will be required to sit through a three-hour lecture – and pay a ¥5,700 (€42) fee to attend it – before they’re allowed to ride again. The punishment is a lot harsher for repeat offenders: in the worst-case scenario you could be sent to jail for up to five years or fined up to ¥1m (€7,400). Pretty Draconian stuff.
Police officials say they are simply trying to prevent injuries and deaths caused by reckless cyclists; last year in Japan there were 7,600 accidents and 82 deaths blamed on them. The number of deaths has gone up by 60 per cent over the past decade. If cyclists didn’t ignore stop signs and traffic lights, cross railway tracks as trains are approaching, ride while drunk or texting, or use the pavement or the wrong side of the street, maybe there wouldn’t be so many accidents. In the eyes of law enforcement officials it’s clear who the culprit is.
But in all the news reports in the past few days one thing has been overlooked: driver behaviour. Truth is Tokyo’s narrow roads can be a dangerous place for a cyclist; too often drivers are unwilling to yield to someone pedalling around on two wheels. Taxis and pint-sized keijidosha (mini cars) pose the biggest threat. They tend to brush past frighteningly close at an alarming speed, engine revving and horn blaring. Imagine being on a bicycle and having to swerve around a delivery truck parked at the kerb while getting buzzed by a passing car. It happens to me almost every time.
Tokyo has just 9km of bike lanes. Often the choice for a cyclist is between riding along the gutter or on the pavement. This is why I often end up on the pavement; you would be crazy not to. If you were to get around the neighbourhood as I do on what the Japanese call a mama-chari – a bike with kids’ seats – the last thing you would want to do is endanger your loved one by competing with cars for precious road space. The cyclist is going to lose.
I have no problem with the police wanting to punish cyclists for endangering themselves and others. But until officials do more to fix the root of the problem – such as building more bike lanes and teaching motorists to give cyclists a wider berth – you’ll find me breaking the law, swerving among pedestrians on the pavement.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.