If you’re going to live in Japan, you really need a bicycle. I think it’s by far the best form of transportation in all of Japan, maybe only second to walking.
Yesterday, after 6 months of careful deliberation, I bought a bicycle. Actually, I bought a ママチャリ "mamachari”. Mamachari is short for Mama no Charinko. It's apparently a combination of charin チャリン and 子, a suffix that means 'child' or little one. This purchase wasn’t nearly as big as buying a car, but it was a pretty big deal because of the amount of energy and effort we spent over the six months, researching, reviewing, and shopping for the right bike. And the right bicycle was pricey, but we’ll cover that later.
I thought it would be good to share a few things I learned in the process.
Kobe is wonderful when it comes to transportation
The thing about living in Kobe: Everything you need is so close. It's not like any other city I've been to. I tend to compare Kobe to San Francisco a lot, because its settled between the mountains and the ocean, it has great public transportation, and the food is par excellence, among other things. And getting around in the city is amazing. Comparing it to San Francisco is a disservice. Kobe is so much easier. I think one of the main reasons the city is so easy to travel is its layout. Seven of its nine wards line up along the coast, parallel to the Rokko mountain range, each rarely more than 2-4 kilometers wide. I live in Nada ward, on the Eastern side of Kobe. Tarumi-ku and Suma-ku are maybe the exception, as they're pretty sprawling.
Up until now we've been either driving or using a combination of walking, trains and taxis, the latter used sparingly when the weather's particularly challenging or we're just too pooped to walk. I didn't really notice how drivable Kobe is until I went back to Southern California a few times this past year. In Southern California, just going a few miles in any direction is nerve-wracking after having lived in Kobe. The streets are loaded with aggressive, hostile drivers with substandard driving skills, all driving like it’s a competition to get in front of everyone while the streets are congested with traffic half the time. It’s not fun.
Kobe, on the other hand, isn’t perfect, but it’s really, really good. In Kobe, we can get to pretty much 95% of what we want or need in about 10-15 minutes. And that’s despite the fact that where we live is considered "inconvenient" by Kobe standards, at the Northern-most edge of Nada, the base of the Rokko mountains. Still, we can get to the other side of Kobe, at the coastal edge, in about 15 minutes by car.
Bicycle vs car
Traveling by bicycle is often the same or faster than traveling by car. There's no parking hassle. And because there's no parking fee, it's a lot less expensive. I’ve been driving to my Crossfit box 3-5 days per week for the past six months, and the coin parking is typically about ¥300. That’s about $10 USD per week, sometimes more, just for parking at the gym.
I did some conservative calculations on how much I’ll save by riding versus driving, and it turns out the bicycle pays for itself in about 10 months. That’s pretty impressive, especially when you realize that the battery on our Panasonic bike has a realistic 5 year useful life before it needs to be replaced. We purchased a few extra warranty and coverage packages with the bicycle, and all of our maintenance is built into the bicycle cost.
Then there’s the aerobic benefit. I took the bike to my Crossfit box for the first time last night. 20 minutes of light to medium pedaling each way. The air in my face and oxygen in my lungs makes an enormous difference in how I feel. I always feel better after a long bike ride, no matter how sweaty I am.
Still, there's a fundamental problem with bikes: Bikes never win in an accident.
Getting hit by a 1400 kg car (3000+ lbs) moving at any speed is deadly to most bicyclists. So I started doing some research on what I can do to improve my odds, both in terms of avoiding an accident, and surviving one. So I turned to Google first.
Reading on cyclist safety online is even worse than reading online about medical conditions, weight loss or better sex. Let me explain why: The smart people who do most of the studies produce one or two key data points that, taken out of context, can make your head spin, or even worse, send you in the wrong direction.
For example, did you know that drivers tend to drive dangerously closer to cyclists who wear helmets, and further away from cyclist without helmets? It’s because of a bias drivers have that assumes cyclists wearing helmets must be more experienced and less likely to wobble into and hit their car. Cars actually drive more dangerously around cyclists with helmets. Does that mean you should ride around without a helmet? Of course not. That’s not the answer to the problem. It just means that there’s one more problem to consider.
To keep things on point for this blog post, let’s just focus on color and visibility for now.
Does the color of a bicycle matter?
Almost all of the articles I found online about cyclist safety covered two things: What to wear during the day and what to wear at night. Lighting yourself up like a Christmas tree at night is almost universally accepted as a good thing. And wearing reflective clothing at night is also a common safety recommendation. And recently there are a lot of articles that talk about the benefits of wearing bright neon clothes during the day as well. I always wondered why so many cyclists in Southern California sported various neon colored spandex. I always thought they were just color blind or completely lacking in fashion sense.
Because its almost universally accepted that wearing certain bright colors increases your visibility, I couldn’t help but wonder, what about the color of the bike? So I switched gears and started looking for what bicycle color is best for visibility. The results surprised me.
Almost every major cycling article I could find on bicycle color focused on the bicycle owners personal satisfaction with the color of the bicycle. Then I found this: The Effect of Bicycle Color on Visibility, a research study completed at Clemson University in South Carolina. The Departments of Psychology, Computer Science and Business co-authored this study on bicycle visibility, partially funded by Trek bikes. What they wanted to know was, does the color of a bicycle make a difference? It turns out that it does, but it’s not quite how I assumed.
The researchers approached the question in two ways: How fast do drivers visually identify bikes of different colors, near and far? And does selection bias - for example, our favorite colors - affect what we see and what we don’t see. I’m not going to get into the gory details of the study. You can check it out here for yourself. It’s really good nerd stuff, the kind of stuff graduate students live for. The bottom line is: It appears drivers notice the color light blue faster at close range, but not at long range.
Then I found this. Which makes my brain want to explode. Basically, some studies say color makes a difference. Other studies say it doesn’t. Which do you trust?
The conclusion I came to is that color does matter, because someone has data that demonstrated it does. To what degree it does, I’m not exactly sure. Studies that conclude nothing don’t prove something. So I switched gears again, and instead of hyper-focusing on just visibility, I asked myself what about avoiding the cars and drivers we’re worried about in the first place?
Steering clear of vehicles
So if it’s debatable whether or not color affect visibility in order to prevent drivers from hitting cyclists, the next logical question is how to avoid getting hit in the first place. After we purchased our bicycle, the sales rep at Asahi Cycle kindly provided me some pointers and guidelines as I donned my helmet to head home for the first time:
Pedestrians always have right of way.
Bicycles are supposed to ride in the streets, but not on highways.
Bicycles are not supposed to ride on sidewalks where pedestrians are, but in reality everyone rides on sidewalks. Refer back to #1 above.
On my way home I felt like I was in a real-life game of Frogger. Every street, every sidewalk, every corner and every turn was a potential collision with a car suddenly pulling out of a driveway, another bike coming around a corner, a child running out onto the sidewalk. I was super tense. Which was perfect. The goal was to figure out 1) the least dangerous place to be and 2) carefully avoid the dangers on that path.
Later that night, when I got home, I actually read the bike manual. On page 23 of the manual I found a really great visual guide to avoiding potential accidents (see image to the right). It summed up my entire experience riding home nicely. Check out the manual here if you're curious.
Appropriate precautions - avoiding and counting on getting hit
Just last week a mom and her daughter in Kobe were hit by a car running a red light.
The mom was severely injured and the daughter didn’t regain consciousness, at least at the time of this writing. The driver was a business guy running late to work and he sped up and ran a red light, right as a mom and her daughter entered the intersection on a green light.
The accident happened a couple days before we bought our bike, and it really made me think twice about whether or not I even wanted this kind of risk in our life. Just the thought of losing my wife or children is beyond terrifying. And that presents a big problem: If you avoid any activity that comes with risk, you effectively can’t do anything. No flying, no driving, no walking, no cycling. You just sit paralyzed out of fear. No one can live like that.
I have two assumptions about what may have happened in the accident. First, the mother may not have been continuously scanning for vehicles approaching the intersection. Even on a green, I always assume someone’s going to run the red, and I’m constantly checking. At every intersection in my neighborhood, one street is a through street and the opposite street has a big 止マレ (tomare, “stop”) in big white letters on the asphalt. I’ve learned to never, ever trust that the cross traffic will actually stop. Maybe 1 in 50 times, the cross traffic runs right through the stop. Maybe someone’s in a rush, like the salaryman who hit the mother and daughter riding the bike. Or maybe it’s one of the many super-old residents suffering with slight dementia. As Japan’s population grays, this is becoming a bigger problem. Regardless of the reason, it happens. And still, you can’t avoid every possible collision, which brings me to the second assumption: One or both of the riders may not have been wearing helmets.
Since moving to Kobe I’ve noticed that the odds of a mom wearing a helmet are less than 5%. And the chances of a child wearing a helmet seem to be about 50%. That doesn’t change the likelihood of getting hit, but it completely changes one’s survival odds. Helmets are an absolute, non-negotiable requirement. I really hope both the mom and daughter were wearing helmets, but if they weren’t (and the odds are they weren’t) then the damage done is so much worse than it would have been.
My rules for safer riding
Determine if riding is for you based on where you live and your lifestyle. I live in Kobe, Japan. It’s calm, it’s not congested, traffic is slow, and there are bikes everywhere. Would I buy and ride a bike back in Southern California? No way. Driving skills in Southern California are way low compared to Japan. Getting a driver’s license in California seems like it’s a matter of whether or not you have a pulse. Getting a driver’s license for a car in Japan is really, really difficult and requires skill and demonstrated competence. Would I ride a bike in Tokyo? Maybe, depending on where I live. Definitely not in the most congested parts of the city.
Ride defensively. Assume every other driver, rider and pedestrian is going to break the rules or do something really aggressive or stupid. Slow down everywhere.
Light yourself up like a Christmas tree. I wear light spurs on both feet, a huge Iron-man style light on my chest, a pulsing red light on my back, a headlight and that’s in addition to the front and back lights on the bike. I want to be as bright as the brightest vehicle on the streets.
When it comes to dressing brightly, go all out. Think “neon clown barf”. Be visible during the day. Stand out.
Pick a bike color that’s more visible. I picked light blue. Based on the research I read and my own attempts to see what stands out on the road, light blue seems to be the choice for me.
Never, ever ride without a helmet. And if you ever drop the helmet more than 1-2 feet, or if you ever fall in the helmet, replace it. If the helmet’s older than two years, replace it, even if it hasn’t been hit. Buy the best helmet you can for you and your kids, and make sure they’re adjusted properly, and NOT LOOSE. I get so mad when I see people wear lose helmets.
Above all else, don’t abdicate your safety. Cities and governments know that cycling accidents and deaths are a problem, and they’re taking steps to help. Here’s a couple examples, from Creating Safe and Secure Road Spaces for Cyclists. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism put a lot of work into this. It's worth the read.
In Fukuoka, they're doing something that should make San Franciscans jealous. One city started converting four-lane roads into slightly wider two-land roads with color-designated bike lanes. Light blue bike lanes. Think that color choice is by accident?
One of the biggest problems in almost every city I've driven through in Japan are cars parked temporarily or otherwise on the side of the road. It's obnoxious and annoying, but it's so common that the driving technique including turn-signal use is actually taught in driving school and tested during the driving test. They call it "obstacle avoidance". Some cities recognize this presents a huge problem for cyclists, forcing them to go deeper into traffic to pass a parked car. That's prime danger for the cyclist, and new laws are being passed along with signage and steep financial penalties to dissuade these opportunistic car parkers.
Some of the ideas implemented in various cities around Japan are very forwarding looking, but while well-intended, will take time to prove out. In the meantime, you don't want to be a statistic for the next PDF.
Please ride safe everyone, and don't get hit.
Some additional reading: Nippon.com on mamachari
About the author:
James Coleman is an entrepreneur, technologist, teacher and writer, originally from California now living in Kobe with his wife and two sons. You can follow him on instagram @japaneur and on twitter @japaneur. You can sign up for his newsletter to get notified of new articles and blog posts related to travel and life in Japan.
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