I visited Tokyo recently, took the opportunity to cycle there. Riding through Tokyo city centre feels quite different compared to Singapore. It feels safe! The same exercise could be deadly, especially for a traveller who is not familiar with the driving culture in Singapore. I’m not suggesting Singapore drivers are maniac, in fact, given the chance, many are very polite and courteous. However sometime they have to endanger others in order to be safe. The design of the road greatly affected their choice of action.
Despite there are many cars and I have to share the roads, I feel drivers in Tokyo are more careful when they need to overtake cyclists. They give cyclists plenty of room or they will slow down and overtake carefully. The number of people on bicycle is much more than I expected. All walks of life, including office workers, students, old people and even mothers with their kids (one front, one back) on bicycles. There is something in Japan that makes cycling easy and safe. I was reflecting my experience in the Netherlands many years back, it was quite different from the Dutch cycling experience, although both are safe. One of my good friend LCH suggested:
- Dutch cycling is a culture of the mind i.e. a result of rational thinking (typical Dutch) that lead to investments in cycle-infrastructure
- Japan cycling is a probably more of the heart, respect for each other as part of total society inherent in the deep rooted Japanese value system.
There is no doubt that, respecting each others is a core value system in Japan. I can understand how it contributed to road safety. However, is this “culture of respect” the only factor for the safety I experienced when riding in Tokyo?
Apart from riding a bicycle, I had the opportunity to sit in a car, next to the driver, my friend Tsuneki San, who drove me to his office during a morning peak hour. He said that most of the roads in Tokyo are limited to driving speed of 40 km. Only a few main roads are 50 km. Expressways are 80 km. When I cycled through the heart of Tokyo, I passed through many smaller streets with 30 km and 20 km clearly marked on the road. It suddenly daunt on me that, Tokyo, despite being one of the biggest city in the world, is fairly free from loud traffic noise. The overall slower speed must be the key reason for the relatively quiet and calm atmosphere.
I also noticed that Tsuneki San slowed down whenever he drove passed a junction. This greatly enhanced his ability to stop in case of any emergency. Likewise, pedestrians and cyclists who approach the junction can see our car clearly. I noticed a number of visual element may contribute to the “calming effect” around the traffic junctions.
(1) Dotted lines define the lanes changed to solid lines, about 30 meters before a junction. This helps to prepare the driver to slow down.
(2) Sometimes the lanes narrow down a bit in order to add a right turning lane. Driving within narrower lanes require more care and has to be slower.
(3) The zebra crossing is visually bold and striking. The “STOP” line is about a car’s length away from the actual zebra crossing.
The overall visual effect is that you intuitively feel the need to slow down and drive more carefully before approaching a junction and pedestrian crossing.
Like many bicycle users, I cycle on the roads as well as pavements. When I need to cycle or walk across the roads, It is easy to judge if it is safe or not. In Singapore, I’ll have to constantly check my back while crossing the road because turning cars may intrude into the pedestrian crossing from behind. This is due to the fact that, in Singapore, the crossing is drawn at the turning radius. There is no buffer space for the driver to “pause” before entering into the “conflicting zone”- the Ped-crossing. Tokyo drivers always stops if there is someone riding or walking on the ped-crossing. Right turning cars does not intrude into the pedestrian crossing, they have a “buffer space” to pause and wait. Driver in Singapore don’t have such space, they have to enter into the pedestrian crossing in order to avoid being crashed by on coming traffic.
It seems what makes cycling safe in Tokyo is not only the culture, design of the road and infrastructure must also play a part to support and sustain safe road user behaviour. At this point I wonder how would a Tokyo driver behave in Singapore? or vise versa?