If I were to believe that one can define themselves in a singular way, I guess I could call myself a cyclist. I am also a fast cyclist. I tune my bicycle for speed; I want a perfect machine. I want it to be a smooth ride and I love it when I manage to go the same speed as cars. I am not stating this to brag — I just want to set the context for the coming reflections on two very different worlds. You see, as a fast cyclist I do get in situations that others might classify as dangerous. Mind you, I am not a reckless driver. I do stop at stop signs, I yield at yield signs and I absolutely respect the law of red lights. However, when I have a clear path I love to push my limits. Nonetheless, sometimes car drivers do not expect my speed and misjudge my approach.
In the last year I spent about 7 months in Japan where I commuted daily. On weekends I cycled to the outskirts of Tokyo for a cup of coffee and some cake. Seeing more green was the icing on the cake. In order to obtain a longer term visa for Japan I recently traveled back to my home country. Of course I also commute by bicycle in Vienna. Before spending time in Japan I commuted daily in Austria. Aside of other reasons I want to save money and I like to cycle. After more than 2500km in Japan and a few years of untracked commuting in Austria I have a fairly deep insight into the problems of both cycling cultures — at least in the capitals.
Given that, both, Austria and Japan have very diverging cultures, it is not surprising that traffic behaves differently as well. While Tokyo’s dedicated cycling path network is a joke, cycling in this major city is lovely! On many streets the outermost lane is marked for cycling. While this does not mean that there is a dedicated space for cyclists, it clearly shows where you are supposed to go. Paired with the care and general politeness woven into Japanese culture this is a very safe way to cycle. Even when I went to Shinjuku and a busy 2×2 lane street turned into a major street intersection (clover style) which then resulted in a 2×4 with bicycle markings, I felt absolutely safe on the side of the road. Cars keep their distance. Cars give you space to navigate and if there is a dedicated bicycle strip on the road, it is generally kept free for cyclists. I say generally because of course you always have the outliers — looking at you BMW drivers. Nonetheless, cars keep a safe distance to cyclists.
However, not everything is peachy in the land of the rising sun. The general level of riding proficiency is incredibly low. I mean like not-even-being-able-to-go-in-a-straight-line low. When people cycle they are shaky and unsure has hell. It might be surprising but I am not talking about have-seen-it-all 95 year old Japanese senior citizens. I am talking about age “can cycle” (~5) to “see you at my funeral” (~90). When you see young people in their prime age of 18 and they don’t know how to control their bicycle, you start to question the general population of Japan.
safety over speed
However, after a few discussions with locals it turns out that in their culture there is no need for proficiency at a level you have in Vienna. After some more reflection this makes perfect sense. Traffic in Japan is generally slower. Where you would have 50km/h in Austria, you have 40km/h or even 30km/h in Japan. Cyclists are moving at a speed somewhere between Austria and walking. Additionally, almost all cyclists are on the sidewalks completely out of car traffic. This much slower pace gives a far greater margin for error. When you think about it, it is beautiful. Unconsciously the Japanese population has incorporated this system into their culture. It might have even been a necessity; I don’t know but I like it. In the urban areas, with a very high population density, a larger margin of error is crucial. If they had not had it, there would be many more road deaths. Of course there are accidents, and of course there are deaths, but given the population I would have guessed them to be far higher.
This is in stark contrast to Austria. Vienna scores the 9th place in the 2019 Copenhagenize index. Therefore you would expect it to be close to a bicycle paradise. But this is not at all how I perceive the city. Vienna prouds itself with a vast network of bicycle lanes. Looks good on paper, looks terrible in reality. Many lanes just stop. Either you take a very long detour or you will be forced to use the street. This might not sound so bad, but when you factor in how cars behave in Vienna you know that it is very dangerous. Additionally, you have trams in Vienna and tram tracks are a death trap. I have several friends who stopped cycling altogether because they seriously injured themselves on the tracks. There are solutions for this problem (rubber in the tracks) that are not employed by the city.
You can interject “but there are dedicated bicycle paths!”. But they are a farce. Cars regularly ignore your right of way there. In Vienna my commute is not even 10km long and there is not a single week where I don’t have multiple near accidents because the cars just ignore the cyclists. You could think that they just do not see you, but if they overtake you on their lane and then just in front of you turn to the right and cross your lane without yielding, then this is hardly an oopsie-daisy.
This is not a general car problem as it is a culture problem. Even the cyclists in Vienna are idiots. Ursula K. Le Guin in her book “The Dispossessed” coined a beautiful term that fits traffic in Austria perfectly. People in Austria “egoize”. It is their way of right. Not by law, but by ego. Cyclists ignore traffic signs and pedestrians. They rush through busy zones ignoring potential danger. Furthermore, when you overtake a cyclist because they are too slow on their hipster crap fixie race-frame bike, they suddenly get very competitive and pedal as hard as they can. Motivated by their sudden fading of brain matter they start to do risky maneuvers. Given that they suddenly operate on sprint level instead of nice cruising, they also sacrifice a lot of bicycle control for speed. This endangers other cyclists, cars but most of all, pedestrians.
Another problem are bike lanes themselves. Bicycle lane planning is terrible. When there is a shared sidewalk with a dedicated bicycle path and a dedicated pedestrian path you can be sure that they swap places all the time. Now bicycles and pedestrians have to crossover their lanes. Awesome! Who would think that this could be a problem? Absolutely not! No problem here, kind sir!
funny copenhagen index
When you look at the description of the Copenhagenize index you can see that it is incredibly superficial. It does not capture reality. It is a farce — at least in the case of Vienna. Tokyo scores number 16th. The dedicated bicycle infrastructure is missing, they say. I say, they do not have experience with cycling in these cities. As such I highly question their comparison.
This entry is not to be understood as a rant. I intended it to be a reflection on two diverging cultures and how both deal with a shared problem. As a small disclaimer, my opinions are opinions, as such everything I stated in this post is anectodatal, personal and probably very biased. However, I am fascinated by humans and I tried to understand the underlying forces.
In Japan the safety margin is a lot wider, therefore as long as you are conforming to a general Japanese style of riding, you have zero problems. So only I have problems, riding at an increased speed, defying the expectations of most drivers in the cars. Also, there is no need for a dedicated bicycle path because (mostly) everyone is taking care of everyone else. They also have a beautiful thinking of “the weaker one is right”.
This is in contrast to Austria, where the general skill level of riding a bicycle is a lot higher. But a terrible infrastructure and “egoizing” of everyone makes it an incredibly unsafe city to cycle in. I do not know which is generally better, a low skill and high safety margin coupled with a slow pace and therefore long duration for short distances, or, high speed with a higher skill level but low safety. I like cycling in general and I enjoy cycling in both cities. It is just that my mind is a lot more at ease in Tokyo and I perceive it as the better way to handle traffic.
Thank you, your comment successfully submitted
your comment has been submited, it might take a while to be moderated.