Tokyo is a patchwork city-of-cities, home to 13 million people (the greater urban agglomeration has a whopping 38 million). It is composed of multiple, distinct communities, a megalopolis designed from the scale of the tatami mat outwards.
The self-contained neighbourhoods are well organised around daily, weekly and monthly needs. Housing is mixed tenure, low rise and high density, which creates socially cohesive communities with people of all ages and stages living together.
In many places, even remarkably close to the main centres, Tokyo streets have the feeling of being in a small town. That special quality comes from the social and functional diversity of each neighbourhood, the tightly packed buildings (each different to the other), the narrow streets and lack of traffic.
Tokyo was rebuilt twice in twentieth century, once after the 1923 earthquake and again after WWII – each time to the same fine-grained underlying pattern. In an an urban design sense, it is almost totally unplanned. But the fine grain is remarkably coherent and consistent, and small scale development is guided by a constant set of practices and rules of thumb that have made it very adaptable to change.
Being vast, flat and dense, Tokyo is ideal for cycling. I cycled in big loops through and around this city of cities over three days, with my daughter Frances. We hired two bikes for a ridiculously cheap $3 a day each from a well organised municipal hire office and bike storage place. They had a basket on the front, a stand, integrated lock, front dynamo light and one gear.
Tokyo’s streets are not noisy, dirty or dangerous. Apart from some of the new commercial and industrial areas and the arterial routes we found, the streets largely belong to pedestrians and bikes. They are naturally calmed, narrow so it’s difficult for two cars to pass. Footpaths are uncommon – the road space is shared between pedestrians, cyclists, and the occasional car. Under these conditions, and with strict liability laws which hold the larger party financially responsible for accidents, motorists tend to drive cautiously.
Once off the arterial roads there aren’t many cars anyway. Car ownership in Tokyo is very expensive, and really, you don’t need one; there is a station five minutes walk from anywhere and an amazingly efficient system of cross city trains. For local trips, cycling just makes sense, and the suburbs are full of bikes.
14% of all trips in the city are made by bike. Literally everyone is a cyclist. From mums portaging two pre school kids to kindergarten on a electric two-wheeled family wagon to grey-haired ladies picking up their vegetables on a tricycle. Most use their bicycles for short trips around their neighborhoods where almost all daily conveniences can be found within a kilometer or two. Tokyo bikes are nothing special; more like a pair of sensible shoes than a set of Nike trainers, made in China and designed for utility. Not many are electric; there are no hills, and no one seems to be in too much of a hurry.
Who’d have thought that cycling around a megalopolis would feel so safe and relaxed.