The magical mystery behind Tokyo’s successful cycling culture

A short film explains why, against all odds and a distinct lack of biking infrastructure, cycling works so well in Tokyo.

In Tokyo, 14 percent of all trips are done by bike, every single day – all on a meager 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) of dedicated bike lanes. The secret? Sidewalks! Just kidding, kind of and kind of not.

As Byron Kidd from Tokyo By Bike explains in The Gaman Spirit: Why Cycling Works in Tokyo produced by Streetfilms, the success behind cycling in Tokyo is decidedly not about infrastructure. And while there is plenty of riding on the sidewalk, there's more to it than that.

One of the wonderful things about cycling in Tokyo, says Kidd, is that everybody cycles:

It’s not just a sport for rich people. It’s not a sport where you have to buy a helmet and Lycra and you don’t need a $2000 bicycle. Everyone cycles in regular clothing. They’re not cycling to get fit, they’re not cycling to save the environment, they’re just cycling because it makes sense.

With compact neighborhoods and car ownership prohibitively expensive and inconvenient, biking in Tokyo is de rigeur. With so little infrastructure, cyclists are allowed to ride on the sidewalks – a scenario which seems ripe for all kinds of slapstick antics (and worse), but which in fact seems to somehow work harmoniously. As Kidd points out, the choice is to battle with cars or ride with pedestrians. From what one can see in the video, it looks like a relatively peaceful relationship, all things considered. (In New York City it would be a cause of constant conflict.)

But what may be the true secret behind Tokyo’s success is the “Gaman" spirit, which seems to an anti-whining, anti-milquetoast attitude. Kidd describes the Gaman spirit as getting things done. “So if it’s raining outside, it doesn’t matter, they just get on their bicycles and they’ll just get it done.” Producer of the film, Joe Baur, adds:

There's at least one thing the rest of the world can take from cycling in Tokyo. That is, the Gaman spirit. Literally, it means "to endure." But when applied to cycling in Tokyo, it also refers to everybody getting along. Whether you're a cyclist, pedestrian or the rare driver, it doesn't matter. We all have a job to get done.

And that, we could certainly learn from. Watch the film below and get a taste of cycling in Tokyo, sidewalks and all.

Tags: Bike-Friendly World | Biking | Japan

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