Out of Disaster, a Burst of Enthusiasm for Bicycling By MIKI TANIKAWA Published: April 18, 2011 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/18/business/global/18iht-rbog-bicycle-18.html...
TOKYO — Whenever Shigeki Kobayashi spots a salaryman on a bicycle with his bag in the front basket, he knows that he is watching a novice bike commuter: putting the heavy load up front makes steering harder, an elementary mistake.
Mr. Kobayashi also realizes that someone is new to street cycling when the rider is on the sidewalk. “Some people mistakenly think it is safer on the sidewalk,” he said. “That’s wrong, because on the sidewalk there is greater chance you’d bump into someone or something.”
Mr.Kobayashi is director of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes usage of bicycles in Tokyo. Since March 11, when an earthquake devastated northern Japan and rattled the Tokyo metropolitan area, the streets of Suginami ward, where he lives, have teemed with wobbly bikers pedaling their way to work.
“The increase was sudden and visible,” he said during an interview.
Over the past 20 years, more commuters in urban areas like Tokyo have been switching gears and choosing to bicycle to work instead of using trains and cars, citing concerns for health, environment, costs and an escape from packed trains. The catastrophe last month has now converted some of the holdouts by proving one more benefit to cycling: you have a means to go home when the trains stop moving.
On that fateful day, millions of workers were stranded in the middle of the city when virtually the whole Tokyo train and subway system — which together shuttle nine million people in and out of the megalopolis daily — ground to a halt. Railways stopped trains for fear of aftershocks. While most of the trains and subways resumed service toward midnight, hundreds of thousands walked home or took shelter in their offices or public halls.
Amid worried colleagues wondering how to get home, Masataka Isashiki, 32, a government worker in downtown Chiyoda ward, wowed his colleagues when he announced he was going like he always did: He put on his helmet and headed for his bike. The street was jammed with traffic, “but I simply found my way between cars which were stuck,” he said. “My colleagues were impressed.”
That night, hordes of workers trailing home, sometimes as far as 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, on foot, swarmed any bicycle shops they found on their route.
“There were many, many people who bought a bike on their way home,” said Kenji Tanaka, secretary general of a bicycle retailers’ association in Tokyo. “Many stores went empty that night.”
Since then, “sales have been steadily growing and orders have been pouring in,” he added.
Reflecting that, “there are more people on a bike on the road in the morning” now than a month ago, Mr. Isashiki said. “I also see more bicycles parked in the premise of the building I work in.”
Mr. Kobayashi, director of the bicycle advocacy group, regularly counts the number of bikers passing by a busy boulevard that leads to downtown Tokyo. On a day last November, he counted 105 bicycles from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. That rose to 243 on March 14, three days after the earthquake and to 330 on March 30.
“The quake has clearly changed the number of bike commuters,” he said. “It resembles the sudden spike in bike commuters in London after the 2005 bombings when public transportation was suspended for a while.”
People who try biking to work quickly discover that finding their way on the meandering Tokyo streets is neither as daunting nor as exhausting as they expected. “With smartphones and Googlehttp://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/google_inc/index.html?inline=nyt-orgmap, the task is made easy,” Mr. Kobayashi said. “They also notice it is quite a pleasant experience cycling. All together, the earthquake may have triggered a change in lifestyle for many.”
Mr. Isashiki, the government worker, rides 10 kilometers each way — a 40 minute trip — on his silver Bianchi, an Italian-made bike for which he paid 80,000 yen, or $960. “It just feels good on the bike, generally,” rather than being squeezed into a train, he said.
Riding lowers stress, said Takayuki Maruyama, 51, an executive with an information technology company in downtown Tokyo, who cycles to work once or twice a week. “Some people say you might get exhausted on the bike,” he said. “But I feel refreshed. The only snag is parking. There is no dedicated bicycle park, so I leave it on the sidewalk.”
For most metropolitan riders, the mental and cardiovascular benefits outweigh the perceived environmental gain, since most have switched from train commutes rather than cars.
“Since around 2002, people began talking about the metabolic syndrome and so forth for middle-aged people, which gave birth to the initial boom in bicycling,” Mr. Kobayashi said.
According to the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute, a government affiliated agency, bike ownership in Tokyo rose to 8.99 million in 2008, the most recent available yearly figure, from 7.07 million in 2000.
Recently, electric-powered bicycles have also seen something of a boom in demand, particularly in the aftermath of the March temblor.
Tooru Miyake, manager of the sales planning team at Panasonichttp://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/matsushita-electric-industrial-company-ltd/index.html?inline=nyt-orgCycle Technology, based in Osaka, said that, probably as a result of the earthquake, the company’s sales of electric bicycles rose about 30 percent in March from that month last year. In February, the increase was just 10 percent, he said.
The company would not say how many bikes it had sold, but it said total electric bike sales in Japan were running at about 380,000 a year, of which Panasonic holds a 40 percent market share.
*This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:*
*Correction: April 19, 2011*
An earlier version of this article stated that bicycle ownership in Tokyo rose to nearly nine million in 2008 from 7.07 million in 1990. The 7.07 million figure was for 2000, not 1990. *