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Culture Sat Sep 29 2012

Letters from Japan: Biking in the Countryside and City

Editor's Note: This is the first in an occasional series of columns from former GB contributor Sheila Burt, who now lives in Japan. "Letters from Japan" will discuss social and urban issues Chicagoans face and how the Japanese do it differently.

In late July 2010, I moved from the suburbs of Chicago to Namerikawa, Japan, a small seaside town and a sister city of Schaumburg, to teach English. Namerikawa is a town of about 34,000 people in Toyama Prefecture on the west coast of Japan. Situated directly off the Sea of Japan, we were luckily unscathed by the terrible triple disasters of March 11, 2011 (311, as it is called here). Rice fields and seafood are in abundance here, and my town is famous for hotaruika, firefly squid with a natural fluorescent that cause them glow in the dark. Most people I have encountered here are very proud of Namerikawa's traditions, yet officials also take Namerikawa's modern relationship to Schaumburg very seriously, and many of my colleagues have visited Chicago and Schaumburg to promote cultural exchange. Chicago's pizza and the size of steaks in restaurants are somewhat of a legend here.

Although I enjoy having this Chicago connection, almost everything I encounter daily reminds me I am very far from home, and in a much more rural area than I have ever lived before — many Western foods, such as peanut butter and cheese, are hard to find or extremely expensive; Japanese grannies offer me candy when we wait for the supermarket to open on the weekend; and I'm constantly stared at by children everywhere I go. There is, however, one thing that consistently surprises me — how bike-friendly this small Japanese town is compared to any Chicago suburb I have ever lived in or visited.

I have biked around the south suburbs of Chicago countless times as a youth and as an adult in the summer, early fall and spring. While I always enjoyed it, I never considered it my main form of transportation. Most streets were not equipped with bike lanes and I was too timid to bike in traffic, so I biked on sidewalks, many of which were eroding or uneven. But as a college student in Evanston, if I biked on the sidewalk to avoid cars, I risked getting a ticket. In Chicago, I was too inexperienced and timid of a biker to even try biking in traffic, though I enjoyed riding along the lakefront bike path many times. As a result, I relied on walking, the Metra or El, or a car for trips around the suburbs and the city.

When I moved to Japan, I decided I would not buy a car and would rely solely on my bike and the train to get around town. It's a challenge, but every day, I ride my mamachari to and from work, as well as everywhere else in town. Namerikawa has its share of windy country roads with inadequate lighting and eroding pavement, and trails are hard to find here, but it still surprises me how many roads in this small town are designed for bicyclists. Most of the main roads in town have a bike lane, many of which include a small barrier that safely separates cars from bicyclists, offering bicyclists and pedestrians additional protection from traffic. These designated areas are generally two times the size of any American suburban sidewalk or bike lane I have seen.

japan_bike_lanes.jpg
left: Bicycle crosswalk; right: separate bike lane along a road

Nearly all elementary, junior high and high school students in my town rely on bikes to get to and from school, so it is not uncommon to see packs of students biking through traffic in the early morning and late afternoon. It's simply a way of life here. Many of the adults and elderly here still drive, though I always see at least a few obasans (grandmothers) on their bikes with a basket full of flowers and fresh food after a trip to the supermarket.

bike_parking.jpgBecause biking is so common for trips around town, most stores have a separate parking area reserved for bicyclists. Although some libraries and schools in the Chicago area have parking areas for bikes, most supermarkets or convenient stores wouldn't even consider making space for bicyclists.

The biggest city close to Namerikawa is Toyama City, which has a population of about 420,000 people and is the largest city of Toyama Prefecture (a prefecture is like a state). Toyama is unfortunately one of the few prefectures in Japan without a shinkansen (high-speed rail, though a line is currently being built), yet it is still equipped with a newly renovated tram system and a bike rental program for residents that was the first of its kind in Japan. Many parts of Tokyo, a dense city brimming with more than 13 million people, are also fairly bike-friendly.

In these ways, Namerikawa, Toyama and even Tokyo seem to recognize bicycling as a serious form of transportation. In comparison, the Chicago area, particularly the suburbs, seems woefully behind in some important ways.

Ethan Spotts, marketing director for the nonprofit walk, bike and transit advocacy organization Active Transportation Alliance, notes that the Chicago Department of Transportation has made great strides in the past year to improve biking conditions in the city, but in order for there to be more advancements, the meaning of safe bicycling is something that must be constantly evaluated.

"We believe that continued investment in building bike infrastructure, such as protected and buffered bike lanes, along with building a movement of people supporting better biking, are key to moving Chicago to being the most bike-friendly city in the U.S.," Spotts wrote in an in e-mail.

As a step forward, Chicago launched a pilot bike-sharing program in July 2010 and a larger plan was recently approved by a City Council committee. Spotts adds that Chicago is one of six cities involved in the Green Lane Project, which will connect the Chicago Department of Transportation and Active Trans with five other DOTs and advocacy organizations in order to create "innovative bike facility infrastructure like protected bike lanes."

"We've also found out from cities like Minneapolis that winter isn't what scares people way from biking. Poorly designed streets are what people fear," Spotts said. "We can learn from other cities that we need to provide bike lanes that will be safe and comfortable for an 8-year-old child or 80-year-old grandma. This means more protected bike lanes and trails."

In addition to the push for more protected bike lanes in the city, more and more Chicago suburbs, such as Evanston, Oak Park and Schaumburg, are also creating bike networks. Spotts notes that statistics about cycling in the suburbs are hard to come across, and suburban or rural areas pose many more challenges for cyclists. In fact, a recent report suggests bicyclists are often involved in far more serious crashes than riders in the city.

"Highways and high-speed arterial roads are challenges people might encounter more in the suburbs," Spotts notes. "Our recommended solutions are to spend more time planning your route and potentially incorporate transit into your bike ride. For example, you can put your bike on any Pace bus and Metra trains (with some rush hour restrictions) to extend your trip or navigate a difficult section."

All of this is not to say, however, that everything in Namerikawa and Toyama is a bicyclist's dream compared to daily life in the Chicago area. Although bicycling is widely accepted as a way of transportation for many people in town, drivers can sometimes seem oblivious to the damage 4,000 pounds of steel can do to a cyclist whose only true protection is the hope that all drivers will follow the rules of the road (and that fellow bicyclists do the same). Helmets are also rarely worn by adults, though it is required that all school children wear one to and from school.

In addition, Namerikawa is in one of the snowiest parts of Japan, and last winter was incredibly snowy. On several occasions, I was forced to walk to school or get a ride because the bike paths were rarely cleared in time for me to make my commute. This summer, I was back to my normal routine and rode my bike everywhere around town, even in the rain. I hope I can say the same thing when I move back to Chicago for good.

Chris Cobb / October 1, 2012 9:12 AM

I really enjoyed your post! Please keep this up. Life in Japan has always been a fascination of mine. So a regular column comparing and contrasting with live in Chicago is right up my alley. Thanks!

Kimberly Burnham / May 31, 2013 8:13 AM

Hi Sheila,
Love this post. I lived in Japan for nearly 5 years in the 1980s.
Currently I am working on an anthology called Bicycling for Food stories from the intersection of bicycling, food, and health. Would you be interested in writing a chapter? Contact me if so. Kimberly Burnham

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