In urban areas such as Tokyo, efforts are being made to promote bicycles as a great way to get around town. Bicycle sharing (see below) plans centering on the shared use of bicycles are being introduced, and large bicycle-parking facilities are being created.
In addition to easing traffic congestion and helping the environment, these plans could also help users make new discoveries as they take trips through their cities.
Last October, Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward launched a bicycle sharing plan called "Chiyokuru." The ward office hopes people will use the bicycles for sightseeing and shopping, as well as for work errands. The programme is also expected to drum up more interest in the area among users.
Around 300 electric-assist bicycles can be found at rental and return ports set up in 36 locations, including office buildings and parks. Using communication technology provided by NTT Docomo Inc., the bicycles convey such data as remaining battery power and bicycle return information to a control centre.
Bicycle ports are all unmanned and can be used after registering for the service on a smartphone or through other means. Rental costs 150 yen (S$1.64) for the first 30 minutes of use, with every subsequent 30 minutes costing 100 yen. There is also a 2,000 yen monthly plan allowing users to rent bicycles as often as they like provided that use is for less than 30 minutes each time. Payments are made by credit card, and bicycles can be rented from and returned to any port.
"We have a corporate account at the workplace, so it's a handy way to visit clients," said a 38-year-old male company employee who uses the service nearly every week at work. "It's cheaper than taking a taxi and quicker than walking."
The bicycles are currently used for work, sightseeing and shopping, all to an equal degree.
"Bicycles provide tourists with an exciting way to travel freely around sightseeing spots such as Tokyo Station and the area around the Imperial Palace in a way not offered by buses and trains," said a person in charge of the project at Chiyoda Ward.
In addition to Chiyoda Ward, other wards in Tokyo, including Minato and Koto, have introduced bicycle-sharing programs in commercial districts and office areas. Chuo Ward is set to start such a programme in October. Although the four wards will offer a combined total of around 1,000 bicycles, there are plans to add more, taking into account the increasing number of foreign tourists.
The Japan Share-Cycle Association (Tokyo) proposes having 15,000 bicycles on the road ready for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The Tokyo metropolitan government has made an agreement with the four wards to help resolve issues such as securing spaces for bicycle ports.
Other cities have also started introducing bicycle sharing.
Kobe started such a service in March, making 60 bicycles available throughout the city centre. Yokohama, which started bicycle sharing in 2011, now boasts approximately 400 bicycles. The service is popular with many people, who praise its convenience and are happy not to have to wait for buses, according to Yokohama's Urban Transportation Section.
Using bicycles in urban areas used to be hindered by a lack of bicycle-parking facilities, but now with companies encouraging employees to commute by bicycle, and apartment buildings being constructed in city centres, the demand for bicycle parks is on the rise. This has also spurred many office buildings and department stores to provide bicycle parking bays.
Mitsubishi Estate Co. will be providing a 700-capacity public bicycle park at a skyscraper it is due to complete in April 2016 in Otemachi, Tokyo. The Dainagoya Building in front of Nagoya Station, which is currently being rebuilt, will also offer a bicycle park for 950 bicycles. Isetan Mitsukoshi Holdings Ltd. has newly established a 192-capacity bicycle park at Mitsukoshi Ginza Store, which is located in a prominent commercial district. Isetan Shinjuku Main Store has also doubled its bicycle park in size to accommodate 40 bicycles.
The Road Traffic Law was revised in June with stricter measures to reduce bad cycling. For bicycles to be used to their full effect, it is important that cyclists adhere to traffic regulations.
"Making the most of bicycles in urban areas is a global trend," said the board chairman of the nonprofit organisation Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, Shigeki Kobayashi. He added: "In addition to easing traffic congestion and contributing to the reduction of CO2 levels, governments are using cycling to promote fitness and reduce medical expenses. The spread of bicycle sharing should be considered in Japan, too, and thought should be given as to how to make the most of bicycles in cities."
Bicycle sharing is a bicycle loan service that can be utilized via the many ports set up within a service area. In addition to income from usage fees, advertisements are sometimes attached to the bicycles, which helps cover operating expenses. As a measure to ease traffic congestion in urban areas and reduce CO2 emissions, the practice has been spreading in Western countries since the beginning of this century.