The Gaman Spirit: Why cycling works in Tokyo started with a simple email to Streetfilms‘ Director of Video Production, Clarence Eckerson Jr.
“I’m going to be in Japan for a couple of weeks. Need anything from Tokyo?” was the gist.
Turns out they did need something from Tokyo, because it’s a city that actively discourages driving and they have a 14 percent mode share of bicyclists. That means 14 percent of all trips in Tokyo are done by bike, every single day. To put that in perspective, New York City hovers around one percent.
Yet Tokyo does not have the cycling infrastructure of an Amsterdam or even Hamburg, which is something most western minds believe to be a necessity for encouraging cycling. Not that wider cycling lanes wouldn’t help boost the 14 percent mode share, but Japanese folks in Tokyo have shown they will cycle regardless. If there’s no bike lane, they’ll just hop on the sidewalk or wherever they feel safe.
Still, it was easy to see some of the same problems persist in Tokyo that I’ve seen in my own cycling from Cleveland to throughout the United States. That is, motorists will take that space back when it so pleases them.
For instance, while cycling on a beautiful blue lane into downtown Tokyo, my hosts and I stopped at an intersection to get some shots of cyclists passing by. Across the street there was an unloading truck pulled over into the bike lane. Ahead of us, there was a car pulled over in the bike lane that forced cyclists to either hop onto the sidewalk or move further into the vehicle lane. Unsurprisingly, oncoming drivers did not seem keen to make space for the merging cyclists or to slow down.
The other peculiarity was the fact that the responsibility of designing cycling infrastructure falls onto the shoulders of the individual districts within Tokyo. Byron Kidd of Tokyo By Bike equated it with New York City boroughs coming up with their own cycling infrastructure, irrespective of one another. The result is, indeed, confusing — comically so at times.
However, cycling continues to work beautifully in Tokyo. I was surprised by just how young the kids were cycling around the city. I was told that kids start in the back of their parent’s bike, then they move up to a handlebars seat when the second child comes along before hopping onto their own bike when they’re too heavy. This all makes sense when you consider that it’s very common for Japanese children to be sent off on their own at an age many North Americans would consider too young.
Above all, everyone I spoke with agreed that there’s at least one thing the rest of the world can take from cycling in Tokyo. That is, the “Gaman Spirit.” Literally, it means “to endure.” But when applied to cycling in Tokyo, it refers to everybody getting along.
Whether you’re a cyclist, pedestrian or the rare driver, it doesn’t matter. We all have a job to get done, so as Kidd put it, “get it done.”