free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 156. BICYCLES IN JAPAN

Tuesday, November 08, 2005


As part of my on-going series on what the future looks like, today I'll be showcasing The Bicycle. Bikes are essential in energy-poor Japan, and the city where I live (Osaka) is literally clogged with them. Here's a typical scene outside a subway station:
And that's just the beginning of it. If we walk up to the subway entrance (upper left in the above photo), the sea of bicycles just keeps on going...

After a morning workout on their bicycle, commuters enter the subway here:

There's lots of stairs in the Osaka mass transit system. If you transfer or switch sides of the track, you might have to navigate six flights of stairs like this on a one way trip. So between the walking, and the bicycling, and the endless flights of stairs, it's no wonder that you don't see any obese people in these photographs.

Here's another bicycle deposit, about a two minute walk down the same street:

It's insane how many bicycles there are in Osaka. Indeed, I've often propoposed the idea of making bicycles ownerless property. Virtually anywhere you go, there's going to be a massive deposit of bicycles, so you could just grab one, ride it where you want to go, and leave it there for the next person. The city could collect strays from time to time, and truck them back to the city center.

Here's my trusty steed:

As you can see from the photos, Japanese bikes aren't the trendy, spandex, pipe-up-your-ass Lance Armstrong model. These bikes are built for easy-riding and functionality, and here in Osaka the standard type is fondly called the mama-chari ("mom's bike") because all the moms (and most everybody else) ride them. They have the basket in front, and the rack in back for cargo. If you look closely at my bike, you'll see it also has metal pegs screwed onto the back axle. This allows another passenger to stand on the pegs and ride by holding onto my shoulders. Talk about transportation efficiency -- two passengers and no gasoline!

The mama-chari generally has one speed and absolutely must be equipped with a bell because you use it all the time to work your way through crowds of pedestrians. There are also lots of mama-chari accessories -- like umbrella holders and gear for carrying children. It's not unusual to see a woman, with one child riding in a child seat behind the handlebars, another child riding in a seat on the back, and the front basket filled with vegetables from the market. It's sort of like the "SUV" for Osaka housewives.

Now, I can sense the glum faces on my American doomer readers. Clearly these silly bicycle ideas are not going to work in the U.S., because the U.S. isn't built like Japan. It's not "realistic". People are too fat to ride bicycles anyway etc. etc. But let me remind you of something: You guys are the pessimists. You (not I) are the ones predicting imminent, debilitating shortages of gasoline. So if you're right, we're all going to be riding bikes whether you like it or not. Might as well get rid of that stupid, polluting Prius you foolishly purchased, and buy your bike before the last-minute rush. I bought mine for less than $100, and it takes me wherever I need to go. Fuel costs: $0. How much did you pay for your Prius?

As the Japanese would say in their cheerful English: "Ret's shape up!"
--by JD


At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 2:34:00 AM PST, Anonymous Wildwell said...

Yep, we have the same thing here. Bikes are now heavily used in London and most of the new towns were built with cycling in mind. We also have a national cycling network!

I look forward to the first Freeway lane being converted into a cycle path and some new designs carrying families!

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 3:07:00 AM PST, Blogger Dukat- said...

That will never work in the USA, ever see anyone going through the drive throu section at KFC on a bike?, the USA needs cars, they havwe a large country and bikes will not fit their needs. It's easy to say everyone in japan rides bikes, but the reason is it is faster to ride than drive a car on their streets and it's such a small place. You can not expect someone in the USA to ride a bike 50 miles to buy grocery items from a supermarket. I just fear that in the USA and other car dependant countries, if fuel prices rise too rapidly, a great amount of civil unrest will result.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 4:48:00 AM PST, Anonymous omnitir said...

“ever see anyone going through the drive throu section at KFC on a bike?, the USA needs cars”
Wow, what a great argument against cycling //sarcasm
By the way, ever see a cyclist choose fast food? It’s my experience that fit people generally don’t even want junk food. I know I can’t stand the shit.

“You can not expect someone in the USA to ride a bike 50 miles to buy grocery items from a supermarket.”
Why not? Because Americans are all unfit? Cycling will fix that within a few short weeks. Here in Australia the cities and suburbia are set up very similar to how they are in America – the result of urban sprawl on a very large land mass. If anything, the distances to travel are even worse here then in the states. Yet many people are into cycling. I personally now ride about 30 kilometres a day (around 50 miles), which is only about an hour of pleasant low-impact exercise. I also find that I’m often travelling a hell of a lot faster then the cars stuck in gridlock traffic.

Still, looking at all those crappy girls bikes in JD’s pictures isn’t going to help sell cycling to people living the American way of life. I think the sell needs to be from more of a prestige and status symbol angle, just like the automobile.

Why drive your fat ass around in a foul, ugly, polluting, death-trap car when you can cycle your sexy bod on the latest nano-carbon fibre frame for a fast and easy ride, with the comforts that modern technology offers, and with state of the art computers monitoring your performance? At least, that’s the angle I think needed to convince people to change their car for bicycles. People need to realise that cycling is actually better then driving. Life would be *better* without cars.

And for longer trips, try public transport.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 7:32:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

30 kilometers=about 14.8 miles, not 50. 50 miles on a bike in one hour would not be pleasant low impact exercise.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 7:45:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I've never tried it, I'd bet that trying to use a bike to get around in modern full-of-cars suburbia would be suicide for an inexperienced rider.

Don't get me wrong, I'd love it if I could make all my regular trips by bicycle. I just don't think it prudent to take a little pedal-powered vehicle several miles along a busy road.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 7:48:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are, at least, obvious solutions to the problems of "need to go 50 miles" and "need to carry 50 pounds of groceries":

1. Shop/work closer to home. (I realize some people can't. They'll just have to move, or live with higher gas prices. Sorry.)

2. Make smaller trips more often.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 8:06:00 AM PST, Anonymous Scott said...

“ that stupid, polluting Prius you foolishly purchased”

Never thought I'd see that in a sentence. :-)

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 9:09:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

dukat if you need to ride 50 miles to buy groceries I'd say you are going to have to move either way, even if Michael Lynch turns out to be 100% right and we have no petroleum shortage in the next 30 years, gas prices would seem to make that kind of trip a very, very bad idea.

The vast amount of car trips take place within 2 miles of home, these can easily be replaced by riding a bike.

My brother does not have a license and has done quite well for himself in both chicago and Las Vegas, YOU DO NOT NEED A CAR, sure if you *currently* require a car you could be in trouble, but if you are following peak oil you probably are living sustainably close to your work place or in an area with mass-transit commuting options right??

I think your only argument against bikes is that it would require effort, well bike ownership went up by well over 300% after the 70s oil shocks, believe it or not the prospect of poverty (since gas won't be running out, not even the doomers claim that - it will just cost alot) isn't all that appealing.

Sure bikes can't replace cars in this country, just as biofuels won't replace petroleum or GTL won't replace conventional oil or nuclear power won't replace NG power - however when you take everything and add it up you have enough mitigation to keep you going.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 10:14:00 AM PST, Blogger John Markos O'Neill said...

Yeah, the U.S. is different. If you leave your bike at rack by the train station, even in low-crime Palo Alto or Sunnyvale, you can say goodbye to anything that isn't locked up. Although the bike racks at Stanford rival those in JD's pictures, I hear there's a lot of theft there, too. Ironically, one good way to avoid getting your bike stripped or stolen is to lock it up somewhere that no other bikes have been parked. Also, lock up the wheels and remove anything that can be pulled off the bike quickly. Some people take their saddles with them!

And forget about getting a decent bike for under $100! A good one will set you back at least twice, maybe three times that.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 10:25:00 AM PST, Blogger John Markos O'Neill said...

That said, JD's description of bicycles in Osaka is quite impressive and inspiring. I think Omnitir is on the right track when he imagines how Japanese bicycle culture might be translated into North American (and Australian).

Appeal to the desire for independence and fun, feelings of individuality, and give in to people's laziness. I'm imagining a wide selection of hip-looking electric assist bikes with high quality components that work right out of the box. You could price them in the $1500-$2000 range and make a mint!

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 11:12:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, I left a broken bike(one whole pedal arm had fallen off) outside a restaurant in berekely for 1 hr, and it got stolen....

If need be, people can get off their fat asses and ride bikes. We do NOT need cars. However, you must relocate closer to the city if you plan on doing this, which conflicts with the doomer mentality that we should all run to our little farms away from cities. There seems to be no middle ground for many peak niks, it's either life as is, which is wasteful and horrible supposedly, or everyone who can run to the hills to avoid a massive die off as society magically crumbles. Us americans are spoiled, but god we're not so ridiculous that we're going to burn down the white house if we have to wake up an hour earlier to carpool or ride a bike to work.

JD, I don't like half your topics where you attack people like simmons and ruppert and all the other mainstream doomers, but just one article like this is enough to redeem you. There are other options out there. We don't need to revert to Mad Max just yet.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 2:36:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Most of the objections you hear to bike and public transport are kind of lame. For example?

the USA needs cars, they havwe a large country and bikes will not fit their needs.

Sigh. If you live too far from work to bicycle there, here's what you can do:

1. Move out of your McMansion and get a small apartment close to town
2. Bicycle to a train station and catch a train
3. Get a job closer to home
4. Carpool with four other people in a Prius
5. Telecommute

While I've never tried it, I'd bet that trying to use a bike to get around in modern full-of-cars suburbia would be suicide for an inexperienced rider.

If oil is really expensive and fewer people are driving, the roads will be much safer. Plus, cities can build dedicated bicycle lanes.

That will never work in the USA, ever see anyone going through the drive throu section at KFC on a bike?

LOL, you think there will still be drive-throughs when oil costs $250 a barrel?

We had a survey in Australia about why people didn't exercise, and the majority (like over 60%) said because it was "too expensive". Seriously. We need to get people to realise exercise is free, that you don't need to spend money to move your own limbs around.

If exercise is the way you get to work in the morning, rather than a chore you perform to cleanse your guilt at eating charcoal chicken, then the obesity problem is solved.

At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 6:41:00 PM PST, Blogger dub_scratch said...

"That will never work in the USA, ever see anyone going through the drive throu section at KFC on a bike?"

Yea. Riding a bike for Americans is impossible. They do it in Japan only because their special. Americans are different. They have 60 years of car oriented sprawl to live in. They cannot do without their dumbshit boxes. Imposible. Can't be done. Won't happen.

Therefore, Americans and all humanity will dieoff into Oldivi stone age hell/paradise because the physical ability to jump on a bike and to live a low milage lifestyle is forever and ever gone!!!


At Wednesday, November 9, 2005 at 7:08:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

ROFL. Great characterization of the doomer attitude.

At Thursday, November 10, 2005 at 8:00:00 AM PST, Blogger EnergySpin said...

The American Heart Association is advising people to exercise at least 30 minutes every day.
Bicycling is a pretty good exercise IMHO and will have the additional side effect of giving every man a Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon era) behind.
Women lucked out: they will only achieve an Angelina Jolie jiney

At Thursday, November 10, 2005 at 8:39:00 AM PST, Blogger eltonwilson said...

Great post!

I was looking into riding my bike to work this summer. I only live a 10 minute drive, so it would probably only take me 30 minutes. But after mapquesting to find a route, I couldn't find a way to get to work that didn't have me riding along the side of a 6 lane hiway where cars are doing at least 65MPH. So, while riding a bike may be good for my health and the environment, getting hit by a semi would not be. Well it might be good for the environment since I'll be consuming less and I won't be able to reproduce.

Also, since I live in a suburb of Chicago, what do I do in the winter? Snow if commonly piled up 6 ft. high on the side of 6 lane hi-ways, making it impossible to ride a bike.

I hope that as gas prices rise, and more people begin using bikes and scooters and other smaller transportation, more bike lanes will be designed into the road infrastructure. But what to do in the mean time?

At Monday, November 14, 2005 at 6:29:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been to Osaka, great city! I was amazed by women in skirts, stockings and high heels riding bikes! I love the Japanese.

At Tuesday, November 22, 2005 at 6:40:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone wrote: "I think Omnitir is on the right track when he imagines how Japanese bicycle culture might be translated into North American (and Australian)."

I don't think it'll be translated to North America. Japanese culture is East Asian culture, those pictures in Osaka are just as likely to be found in cities in South Korea, China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Ever been to China? There must be more bicycles in China than Chinese people.

At Friday, November 25, 2005 at 5:18:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Another advantage of bicycling is that you never have to think about exercise again. You get half an hour's exercise just getting to work, completely subconsciously. You don't have to take time out to drag yourself to the gym in a car and sit in a dark smelly room pumping iron and blasting out your hearing with an iPod.

You can get home from work in the evening and eat all the greasy crap you like, because you've spent an hour and a half walking and bicycling around. The Americans will love it!

At Thursday, February 23, 2006 at 3:57:00 AM PST, Blogger Rebecca Necker said...

For anyone still interested, 30 km = 18 mi., not 50 and not 14.8. Even in an extremely sprawling city, you could probably find a grocery store within seven miles of your home, and if more people cycled, stores would spread out into the suburbs more.

I've spent some time in Japan, and I just loved riding around town on my cheap bike with its sqeaky brakes! It is a very free feeling. And, of course, it keeps you fit, even if you ride only gently.

Cycling is not Asian culture, though. It is a big part of life in some British cities—particularly Oxford and Cambridge—and also in various cities in mainland Europe.

It could be imported to the US quite easily. The only problem is the lack of provision of safe cycling routes, which could be developed very inexpensively, as it is much cheaper to build a lane for bicycles than to build one that supports the weight of trucks.

At Tuesday, April 25, 2006 at 8:08:00 PM PDT, Blogger David Grenier said...

I bought a bike last summer and I ride it as much as possible. I haven't been able to give up my car yet, because I work as a wedding photographer and need to be able to drive all over the state (and as much as I've tried to find one, there is no substitute for a car in this situation.) Still, that's about 60 days out of the year. The other 305 I ride my bike or take the bus if its raining/snowing.

I understand JDs car-hatred, but I think making it an all-or-nothing issue (if you even sit in a car once a decade its the same as driving a hummer 90mpg across the continental US every single day!) is a bit counterproductive. I hear a lot of folks saying, "Well, I'd like to bike but what about rainy days" or something. I'd rather people use a bike and public transit to cut down their driving as much as possible even if they still own a car, than see people not even get a bike because they can't rely on it 100% of the time.

Anyway, the three biggest arguments against biking I hear from people are:

1. "What about SITUATION X? (needing groceries, rain, etc)". I sorta already addressed that, but I'll reiterate - even if you cut your car use in half its better than nothing. Moreover, if you get rid of your car completely, the money you'll save on car payments, insurance, DMV fees, excise taxes, and gas will be more than enough to pay for delivery if you do all of your shopping online. I know one of our local big supermarkets has online shopping and deliver for a flat fee of I think $8. I'd gladly pay $8 every two weeks for grocery delivery if it meant I could save $5K a year in car-related expenses. And if I run out of something in the meantime, I can walk to my more expensive convenience store to get the one or two little things I need. And as for other rare situations where you might absolutely NEED a car (assuming they are rare, like the once a year you need to haul stuff to the dump, or the few times a year you drive to your parents rural home for holidays) the cost of renting is sure cheaper than owning. In fact, I looked into selling my car and just renting when I needed one, but I'm a bit beyond the break-even point there.

2. "I like the idea but it's unsafe." I hear this idea a lot even when it comes to small cars or scooters, so with bicycles forget it. But here's the thing, I live in an incredibly densly populated city with incredible traffic congestion and no bike lanes, yet I haven't had one accident. I have a blinky headlight and a blinky taillight and such, but mostly I ride really defensively and plan my routes well. I always look at the safety thing as more of an excuse, because its one of those emotional trump cards. You can't argue with irrational fear. But seriously, people need to stop being pussies and get over it.

3. "I'm too out of shape." I weighed 285 when I started biking. I'm down to a little over 260 now. I'm sure I'll lose more weight this summer. The key is that I bought what's called a "comfort bike" - a bike designed specifically for fat fucks like me commuting around the city. Sure, it cost a little more but I've never had a problem with it, never been sore after riding and never popped tires just from my sheer bulk. I still have to get off my bike to walk up some really steep hills, but that's not a big deal to me.

The bottom line is most folks could bike more to reduce their car usage, and I think as gas prices keep going up most folks will. They may not be able to ditch cars completely, but I think they can bring themselves closer to one-car families rather than 4 car families. However, its going to require change on the part of EMPLOYERS, not just average citizens. People have to be able to show up to work sweaty and not worry about it affecting their pay or job status.

At Friday, July 21, 2006 at 2:45:00 AM PDT, Blogger cwilliso said...

sorry about this comment, guys but :

DUH !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

At Friday, July 21, 2006 at 3:02:00 AM PDT, Blogger cwilliso said...

Having married a Japanese woman and got to know her and her parents, relatives, and friends over the past 8 years has woken me up to how damn spoiled we are in here in the US. Lattes, day spas, SUV's and HumVees, expensive restaraunts (bistros), HD televisions, "The Jonses", hollywood, etc. Makes me sick at my stomach. And if you get too fat from eating at McDonalds and BurgerKing, and get sick or disabled 20-30 years later, you hit-up the medical care system, and get a motorized wheelchair and some damn drugs which are pushed by filthy rich companies (much like our well-known filthy rich cigarrette companies.)

What ever happened to real living, and wholesome family life. Asian view on life is much more down to earth, and realistic, compared to our superficial and fake existance. I don't even feel like I am alive here in the US. No wonder so many drug addicts, overweight, divorce, mental problems, murder, poverty, and the list goes on and on and on.

And Osaka is a very wonderful place, even though there are lots of bicycles!

At Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 2:16:00 AM PST, Anonymous Death Wish? said...

A bike in my Arizona town begs to be vandalized, stolen, or if your riding it, ran over by some car. Cars do not pay any mind to what is sharing the road with them. They are usually driving 70 in 50 mile zones, 50 in 25 mile zones, basically a race track! When I used to ride my bike, before I got sick, I was frequently hit by cars. Riding a bike in my area is NOT an option, unless you have a very major death wish!

At Friday, June 20, 2008 at 4:59:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Elizabeth said...

I don't think it is energy poverty which makes the Japanese choose the bike as the most sensible way to get around - with all the benefits that brings to all their health - but the fact that they can't park in the streets. They have to put them in privately run car parks, so no bureaucracy needed to ration parking as the rest of us have. If only we would follow suit and make this simple reform, most able-bodied people would be on their bikes and the only cars left would not be such a problem.

At Tuesday, August 12, 2008 at 6:44:00 AM PDT, Blogger eshibui said...

Lots of good points here... I've been hanging out in Japan for the last two weeks and it's really refreshing to see how many people use bicycles for everyday transportation. This summer, I bought a nice cycle cross style bike in the USA for about $1,200 and have been enjoying getting back into cycling for exercise. I can spend a bunch more money to add all sorts of accessories to make my bike more of a town bike for local trips to the market and the store. But after doing a little research, I think it might be about the same cost to buy a simple 3 or 6 speed town bike here in Japan (and bring it back to the USA) or get a Breezer back at home in CA. The nice thing about the town bike or "Mama Chari" bike is that it doesn't attract a lot of attention among the bike thieves and it's super functional and pretty cheap.

People in Japan also drive a class of cars called "kei cars", which are under 660cc. It's a great solution for local trips, since they get really good gas mileage and are pretty cheap to opperate (cost about $10-$12 new). I think there's a lot we could do in the USA to move away from our over-consumption lifestyles, and that doesn't mean throwing the baby out with the bath water and giving up everything. I think it means looking around at other societies and growing up a bit; getting away from living so large all the time and getting back to the basics.

At Wednesday, February 11, 2009 at 3:21:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in Japan recently (from the US)and loved the transportation alternatives available: train, bus, bike, foot, etc. It was a pleasure to explore the back streets of Tokyo and Kyoto, though it was sometimes hard for me as a pedestrian to share the sidewalks with bikes. It was a shock to come back to the pedestrian-empty streets of the US. I hope we can find a way to bring Japan's alternatives to the US.


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