Out of Disaster, a Burst of Enthusiasm for Bicycling

By Miki Tanikawa
The New York Times
April 18, 2011

TOKYO — Whenever Shigeki Kobayashi spots a salaryman on a bicycle with his bag in the front basket, he knows that he is watching a novice bike commuter: putting the heavy load up front makes steering harder, an elementary mistake.

Mr. Kobayashi also realizes that someone is new to street cycling when the rider is on the sidewalk. “Some people mistakenly think it is safer on the sidewalk,” he said. “That’s wrong, because on the sidewalk there is grater chance you’d bump into someone or something.”

“Mr.Kobayashi is director of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, a nonprofit organization that promotes usage of bicycles in Tokyo. Since March 11, when an earthquake devastated northern Japan and rattled the Tokyo metropolitan area, the streets of Suginami ward, where he lives, have teemed with wobbly bikers pedaling their way to work.

“The increase was sudden and visible,” he said during an interview.

Over the past 20 years, more commuters in urban areas like Tokyo have been switching gears and choosing to bicycle to work instead of using trains and cars, citing concerns for health, environment, costs and an escape from packed trains. The catastrophe last month has now converted some of the holdouts by proving one more benefit to cycling: you have a means to go home when the trains stop moving.

On that fateful day, millions of workers were stranded in the middle of the city when virtually the whole Tokyo train and subway system — which together shuttle nine million people in and out of the megalopolis daily — ground to a halt. Railways stopped trains for fear of aftershocks. While most of the trains and subways resumed service toward midnight, hundreds of thousands walked home or took shelter in their offices or public halls.

Amid worried colleagues wondering how to get home, Masataka Isashiki, 32, a government worker in downtown Chiyoda ward, wowed his colleagues when he announced he was going like he always did: He put on his helmet and headed for his bike. The street was jammed with traffic, “but I simply found my way between cars which were stuck,” he said. “My colleagues were impressed.”

That night, hordes of workers trailing home, sometimes as far as 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, on foot, swarmed any bicycle shops they found on their route.

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