I committed a faux pas in Tokyo last week. I was at a conference of the International Sociological Association, listening to a presentation by John Mock, an anthropologist at the University of Tsukuba in Japan. Professor Mock was explaining his findings from a study that showed how little provision there was for cyclists on the streets of Tokyo.

Cycle lanes are either absent altogether or inadequate. Some dead-end into barriers. As a result, pedestrians tend to ignore the cycling lanes, and cyclists ignore the rules, endangering pedestrians by riding on sidewalks, or riding on the wrong side of streets. I was amused by Professor Mock’s presentation, and, from time to time, I laughed, a bit obtrusively, I’m afraid.

After the presentation, it occurred to me that my Japanese colleagues might well have well have thought me to be amusing myself at Tokyo’s expense, laughing at the city’s failures. In, fact, I was laughing in recognition of the fact that Professor Mock could have gone through his notes, substituting “Winnipeg” for almost every reference to Tokyo, without any loss of factual accuracy.

Tokyo’s failure to make appropriate accommodation for cyclists has nothing to do with any peculiarities of either Tokyo or Japan. It is rooted in something I have observed everywhere I have gone, except parts of western Europe — the prioritization of speed in the movement of automobiles over every other consideration, even the safety of pedestrians.

I have done a series of studies on the politics of urban transportation, and, if my experience is any guide, Tokyo’s decision-makers may well have raised the issue of an unacceptably high level of deaths from bicycle accidents and been told by their civil engineers that any action leading to less freedom of movement for automobiles would cause unacceptably high levels of congestion and harm Tokyo’s economy.

The idea that all other considerations should be swept aside in favour of freedom of movement for automobiles is deeply entrenched, not only in conventional wisdom, but also in the profession of civil engineering, which is supposed to serve science and the public good, not a narrow interest. Our apparent determination to favour the automobile over all else exacts a heavy price.

The old, the young, the poor and the disabled lose their independence, because they must wait for others to drive them wherever they wish to go. Parents, for their part, are forced to waste hours each week chauffeuring their children, because we have built an infrastructure that leaves most people solely dependent on automobiles for mobility.

And, of course, there is also the slaughter on the highways – which has become so routine that it isn’t even considered a cost – and the damage to the environment, not to mention that, in many parts of the world, we don’t have enough money to maintain all the roads we have built.

When the automobile first entered our lives, it opened up a new world of opportunity for mobility, but the dream has turned into a nightmare. As is so often the case with human behavour, we have got ourselves into a great mess by continuing unreflectively along a path that seemed reasonable at first. It will take some doing to change course and repair the damage.

Professor Mock’s paper:
John Mock, Contested Borders—Tolerated Mayhem: Contested Space on the Streets and Sidewalks of Tokyo. Paper presented at a conference of the Research Committee on Urban and Regional Development, International Sociological Association, Tokyo, 17-20 December, 2008.
An excellent source of intelligent and environmentally aware reflection on transportation issues is a journal entitled World Transport Policy and Practice, available for free on the internet.

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