Cyclists are starting to feel aggrieved. Their conveyance of choice consumes no limited resources, pollutes no air, leaves no carbon footprint, and gives bracing exercise besides. And yet nobody likes them.
To motorists they’re a nuisance, to pedestrians a menace. “They terrify me, the way they barrel down the sidewalk,” one pedestrian, evidently speaking for many, complains to the Ehime Shimbun. The Nikkei, in a similar vein, bemoans cyclists “weaving in and out” among people on foot, “ringing bells in the faces” of honest citizens and, as often as not, lost in their own exclusive universes of earphone music and cell phone jabber.
Maybe the pride they take in helping to save the planet has gone to their heads. The police seem to think so, and are lately cracking down hard on scofflaw behavior they have long winked at.
They have a case. Nationwide, according to the Ehime Shimbun, 151,626 bicycles were in accidents last year, 80% of them involving motor vehicles. Nikkei says Japan’s bike accident rate is among the highest in the world.
An indication that it could get worse before it gets better is the surge in bicycle use following the March 11 earthquake – which, among other havoc it wreaked, exposed the fragility of the clockwork-efficient public transportation system commuters used to take for granted.
Legally, bicycles are classed as “light vehicles” and belong on roads, not on sidewalks. Enforcement has never been strict. That seems about to change. Both the Ehime Shimbun and Nikkei are pleased that police are taking the matter seriously but wonder if the letter of the law is really what the situation calls for.
As Nikkei observes “Simply forcing bikes onto the roads could aggravate another danger” – namely the threat cars pose to cyclists. Is putting cyclists’ safety at risk the only way to protect pedestrians?
Both publications lament Japan’s shortage of bicycle lanes and roads. Automobile priority has never been questioned, while cyclists are expected to fend for themselves but given no means to do so. That’s changing, though slowly. In 2008, the Ehime Shimbun reports, the Transport Ministry and National Police Agency set up model cycling courses in 98 areas across the country and saw bike accidents decrease in those areas by between 26 and 36%.
In the meantime, if cyclists are to be forced off the sidewalk, “drivers need to learn to co-exist with them,” says Nikkei. That could take a bit of “safety education.”
Cyclists will need that too. It’s fine for police to enforce the law – that’s their job – but many cyclists, Nikkei observes, “don’t even know the rules exist.”