Pedal Power

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has been quite vocal about his party’s pledge to cut carbon emissions in Japan by 25 percent over the next ten years. Offering tax breaks for eco-friendly companies, households and cars are amongst his policies to achieve this. However, it would appear the PM has neglected one sure-fire way to achieve his goal: get people out of their noxious, gas-oozing clunkers and onto bicycles.
In fairness to Hatoyama, he does in fact want more people behind the wheel, hence another directive to reduce toll fees on highways has been put forward to jumpstart Japan’s sluggish automotive industry and the economy in general. It all seems a tad paradoxical, though, considering his environmental preaching, but at least his heart seems to be in the right place(s).
Politics and contradictory policies aside, the facts remain thus: The emissions from your average car include, but are not limited to, the following: nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone – the combination of which adds up to your average driver kicking mother nature where it hurts and leaving their irreparably damaging carbon footprint stamped deep into her fragile backside.
Conversely, the by-products of cycling are as follows: water (99 percent), sodium, potassium, Vitamin C, uric acid, urea, ammonia, lactic acid, chloride, and electrolytes – that’s right, sweat! This eco-friendly emission will not only evaporate of its own accord, but adding soap and water can even speed up the process, leaving no trace elements of the effusion.
Indeed, the merits continue. If more people were to opt for bikes for their daily commute, or some part thereof, aside from no harmful toxins being produced, trains would become less crowded and, at least in theory, could run less frequently. The nation’s soaring medical expenditures would be slashed too, as people would become fitter and healthier; less obese and less prone to a whole range of lifestyle-related illnesses.
In short: cycling is healthy, which is good. Cycling doesn’t harm the environment, which is doubly good. The patently obvious merits of this mode of transport haven’t gone completely unnoticed by Japan’s administration, as a series of pilot projects in local municipalities were launched around Japan called ‘Community Bicycles.’
Japan’s Ministry of the Environment joined forces with Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) to set up ‘Eco-Ports’ at convenient city locations, often near major commuting hubs. Eco-Ports are essentially fully automated bike rental stations. In Tokyo, five Eco-Ports were initially set up at about 300 meter intervals in an area covering parts of the Otemachi, Marunouchi, and Yurakucho business districts in Chiyoda Ward.
Fifty bicycles were made available for rental and could be dropped off at any Eco-Port lot. Following Tokyo, similar projects were subsequently launched in Hokkaido, Osaka and Nagoya.
Before saddling up, riders first register at JTB with their credit card. Should the bike not be returned within 24-hours, the cost of the bike gets charged to the card. JTB issue riders with an IC card (similar to Suica or Pasmo IC cards used for trains and buses), and FeliCa-equipped mobile phones can be used to swipe over the terminal to release the bike. Cyclists only intending to use the bike for a short time can do so at no charge as the first 30 minutes are free. Following this, it’ll set you back 100 yen for every 10 minutes, rising to 100 yen for every 5 minutes if the bike is kept for more than 3 hours – which is a little discouraging for Tour De France wannabe competitors.
Although the feedback from the project was generally positive, there were some minor teething problems such as not being able to adjust the height of the saddle, and perhaps the slightly more irksome issue of the bikes being predominantly returned to only one or two of the Eco-Ports, leaving the other ports bike-less, which rather defeats the object now, doesn’t it?
In Nagoya the local government and Nagoya University launched a similar experiment involving 300 refurbished, abandoned bicycles. People who register beforehand can borrow them free of charge from 30 stations.
“The main aim is to reduce both the number of abandoned bicycles and carbon dioxide emissions,” said Tsuneo Takeuchi, professor of environmental policies at the university’s graduate school.
“We want to track problems with the program so that we can fix them and increase the role of bicycles in public transportation in Nagoya, which is basically built on flat land,” he added.
Fully fledged community cycle programs are currently flourishing in nearly eighty cities in Europe. Japan’s Environment Ministry, along with its European and U.S. counterparts, are hoping that their environmentally friendly bike project will expand to levels seen in the world’s community cycling capital: Paris.
The famed Velib (short for (velo libre – free bicycle) system in Paris, which began in 2007, offers an automated cycle station every 300 meters at 1,451 locations throughout the city. Chic Parisians often opt to rent one of the 20,600 bicycles, rather than take a cab, bus, or ride the metro and if pedal power is à la mode in Paris, then it’s only a matter of time before forward-thinking-and-moving urbanites in Japan follow suit.

Story by Jon Day
From J SELECT Magazine, February  2010