This city’s lenience with bicycle riders and their many sins is legendary. While punishments for causing serious accidents are (apparently) harsh and the laws are (apparently) strict, it’s otherwise OK to tear down the middle of a crowded sidewalk at top speed, after dark with no lights or reflectors, or loaded up with a kid seat on the front and back and half a day’s grocery shopping. Ride on the road, like cyclists in other countries? Why that would be madness. Many times I’ve had to jump out the way of a cyclist on the sidewalk while the road itself was completely car free.
Have I mentioned that I hate cyclists? OK, I’m coming out with it: I hate cyclists. I don’t mean the rare kind who behave like road vehicles, ride safely, park out of the way and acknowledge red lights. I mean the ones who act like pedestrians with superpowers, who think it’s their right to push to the front of any crowd by ringing their bell and race around blind corners while looking at something on the 20th floor and reading a text message. One of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen was two cyclists doing exactly that, who met each other at high speed at a 90 degree angle (the other was a rider who tried to rip between two concrete posts without noticing the chain link, but I kind of felt sorry for him).
There are two kinds of people in Tokyo (yes, only two): those who ride bicycles, and those with a closet loathing for those who ride bicycles. Most people don’t express their views in daily life, but get them started on the topic, and oh boy.
I should disclose something here, too: I ride a scooter. Motorbikes are awesome and everyone should have one. But I hardly ever ride it, since parking on a sidewalk will earn you a ¥9000 fine (around $80) and two points off your driver’s licence at the next review. Not so for bicycles. A common feature here is the ‘no bicycle parking’ sign, which is almost always surrounded by about a hundred bicycles. (So before anyone accuses me of having double standards, I want to point out that one scooter parked outside a building is easier to walk past than 100 bicycles, many of which are parked right across the walkway. I have no beef with bicycles parked discreetly or alone.)
A hundred bicycles, that is, until these guys show up. Long rumored to exist, most folks can go years without ever seeing them. They are my heroes. It’s their job simply to remove bicycles from the sidewalk and take them away in a big truck, to be impounded and hopefully poured into the crater of Shinmoedake. I sat and had a coffee while I watched them turn an impassable street corner into something clearer and more civic-minded; it was magical. See how those two girls are now able to walk down the street without dodging or barking their shins on a kickstand?
But even then, bike owners were cut too much slack. Several of them returned to their vehicles while they were being removed, had a polite conversation with the removers, and received their bicycles back. What? Where’s the gung-ho, wheel-clamping spirit of parking contract workers in other parts of the world? In any Western country, the likely scenario would involve a screaming match, possibly tears, and you not getting your bicycle back without visiting an impound lot and paying a fine. Don’t these guys have quotas to fill or something? Obviously, as government workers there’s no profit motive for them. The solution would be to turn their jobs over to the private companies who regulate motorbike parking (yes, I’m bitter). The streets would become both safer and easier to navigate overnight.