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Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004

MEDIA MIX

It's a taxing job dealing with the two-wheeled barbarian horde


On Sept. 13, the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry gave its seal of approval to a local tax that was passed last year by Tokyo's Toshima Ward. Whenever a local government in Japan passes a local tax law, the ministry must check it out before it goes into effect in order to make sure it doesn't overlap with other taxes. Toshima's is to be levied against railway companies that operate in the ward, and the revenues will be used to promote measures to solve the bicycle-parking problem around the ward's train stations. Although the ministry allowed Toshima to impose the tax, it stressed that the ward should discuss the matter further with the railways.

Naturally, the railways are opposed to the tax, which will collect from them 740 yen for every 1,000 passengers who board trains within the ward. After the tax goes into effect next year, Toshima expects to collect about 211 million yen in annual revenues, which it will use to build new bicycle parking facilities as well as disposing of abandoned bicycles.

Illegally parked bicycles are an issue everywhere in Japan, but only Toshima has looked beyond the usual solutions, which target users. These have proven ineffective and as a result bicycle riders have earned a blanket reputation for being selfish and inconsiderate. Many stations in Toshima Ward do have facilities for bicycle parking, but because they charge fees or are far from the station, many cyclists don't use them. The Toshima law, in effect, tacitly acknowledges that commuters who ride bikes to stations are so irresponsible that they are impervious to civic-minded reason.

This reputation is transferred to the bicycles themselves, giving them the image of something disposable -- garbage waiting to happen. Bicycles are nothing more than tools, but the media tends to treat them as either a nuisance or a menace. Illegal bicycle parking at stations and shopping arcades is a popular human-interest topic on evening news shows, since they give reporters opportunities to catch average citizens breaking the law. Occasionally, they focus on young people who ride bicycles recklessly through crowds of pedestrians as if it were a social problem on the level of teenage prostitution or drug use.

However much individual riders besmirch the image of the noble two-wheeler with their behavior, the core of the problem is economic. The automobile has priority, as evidenced by the common practice of allowing drivers to park free for certain periods of time at parking lots if they purchase a certain amount of merchandise from nearby retailers. Bicycle riders get no such benefit, and if a shopping arcade does not have a free parking lot for bicycles, then patrons just leave them where they will, creating eyesores and blocking sidewalks.

But the problem is also structural, as pointed out by Diet member Takashi Kosugi in a recent editorial in the Asahi Shimbun. Kosugi and some confederates are working on legislature that will clarify laws related to bicycles and promote greater bicycle use through infrastructure changes, such as bicycle lanes on city streets.

Pointing out the obvious -- that bicycles should be approached as a social benefit, not a nuisance, since they don't hurt the environment, don't use valuable resources, and provide exercise -- Kosugi says that the reason bicycles have such a "low position" in the eyes of the majority of Japanese people is that they are disliked by both drivers and pedestrians.

According to the law, bicycles are only to be ridden on streets. However, as the number of bicycle accidents increased in the 1970s, the government revised traffic laws to allow bicycles on sidewalks as long as such permission was indicated by signs. According to Kosugi, the law was so vague that the police never enforced it, and so bicycle riders came to think that they were supposed to ride on the sidewalk. Even the police ride on the sidewalk.

In 1980, a new bicycle law was enacted that focused on illegal parking, thus fortifying the bicycle's negative image. Inevitably, Kosugi claims, bicycle riders were caught up in a "moral" dilemma. No matter where they rode, they were considered scofflaws. Police tended to only enforce those laws that were clearly defined and easy to enforce, such as headlamps after dark and illegal parking (and stopping gaijin to make sure the bicycles they were riding weren't stolen), but traffic laws were too vague. Children in Japan are taught to always walk on the right, while cars must drive on the left. Nobody knows which side bicycles are supposed to be on, so you see them on both.

Bicycle riders have thus become cavalier about safety. They talk on cell phones, carry umbrellas, barrel down narrow sidewalks and carry two or more children at a time (the law prohibits more than one child as a passenger, but stores commonly sell bicycles with two child-seats attached). Not surprisingly, the number of bicycle accidents goes up every year.

The irony of the situation can be appreciated by looking at other countries. Japan is No. 3 in the world in terms of number of bicycles, right behind the United States (China is No. 1), where bicycle-safety regulations are balanced by policies that promote their usage.

In Denmark, elementary schools give credits to students who ride bicycles to class because its helps the environment. In Japan, children are prohibited from riding bicycles to school, at least in principle, which makes you wonder what the difference is between Danish kids and Japanese kids, or, for that matter, between Danish bicycles and Japanese bicycles.



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