January 31, 2007


Using Bicycles Efficiently to Create a Sustainable Society

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.53 (January 2007)

How do you get around in your immediate neighborhood? By car, or on foot? By bicycle would seem a likely choice for many people. Bicycles are said to be the vehicle for a small planet. People from all walks of life, from small children to the elderly, use bicycles for short-distance shopping and commuting to work and school.

In the 1970s, there was a rapid increase in the number of bicycles in Japan, and the number of illegally parked bicycles also proliferated. However, thanks to the efforts of local governments and other organizations in building bike parking lots, this problem has been largely mitigated. In recent years, curbing global warming has become an urgent issue, and bicycles have attracted attention as a means of clean and resource-effective transportation. City planning that takes bicycle use into consideration has been gaining popularity as a way to promote a modal shift and reduce automobile use.

Moreover, from the viewpoint of the efficient use of resources, the focus has shifted from owning bicycles to using bicycles. This month's newsletter introduces problems pertaining to bicycles in Japan, including an initiative for sharing bicycles, and a movement to send recycled bicycles to developing countries to effectively use discarded bicycles as an important planetary resource.

Bicycles are the Greatest Vehicle Ever Invented by Man

Bicycles are said to be the greatest vehicle ever invented by man. There are many reasons for bicycles' popularity. 1) Bicycles do not contaminate the air, or contribute to global warming. 2) Cycling is good for the health. Riding a bike for more than 20 minutes is good aerobic exercise, strengthening cardiopulmonary functions and reducing fat. 3) Bicycles do not require much space. Six bicycles can run on a road width sufficient for just one car, and twenty bicycles can be parked in a single car parking space. 4) Bicycles are cost-effective. The price of a bicycle is one hundredth of the price of a car. Bicycles do not need gasoline, and also they are tax-free. 5) Bicycles are affordable. Compared with cars, bicycles are far more affordable for the billions of poorer people in the world. 6) Bicycles are resource-effective. A bicycle, which weighs only about 17 kilograms, does not use much in the way of raw materials. 7) Both grown-ups and children can ride bicycles.

Illegal Bicycle Parking

According to a survey in 2004, there were about 86 million bicycles in Japan, that is, 2 bicycles for every 3 people. This means that Japan ranks third in its total number of bicycles, following China and the US. However, considering Japan's much smaller area, its bicycle density is extraordinarily high.

The number of bicycles rapidly increased because bicycles are affordable and convenient. However, what is the best way to deal with bicycles that are no longer necessary? Some are collected by municipalities on designated days and others are brought to recycling centers to repair and sell at second-hand shops. Meanwhile, some are illegally abandoned around train stations and shopping malls, and others are stolen and abandoned.

Illegally parked bicycles can lead to problems such as 1) blocking the progress of pedestrians and other vehicles, including emergency vehicles, 2) bicycle theft, 3) moral deterioration, and 4) landscape degradation. To prevent these troubles, local municipalities have bicycle-policy departments empowered to remove such bicycles, under the Bicycle Law enacted in 1980.

According to data in fiscal 2002, 6,490,000 bicycles were discarded nationwide, of which 14 percent were brought from retailers, 69 percent were collected by municipalities as waste and 17 percent were illegally parked bicycles. Among the total illegally parked bicycles, only half of them were returned to owners.

The reasons for so many illegally parked bicycles include poorly equipped bicycle parking areas and bicycle users' lack of morality. Another reason could be the way people tend to regard bicycles as a disposable product. Owing to mass production, people can now get new bicycles at very reasonable prices, especially at mass retailers. Consumers are more likely to buy new bicycles rather than have broken ones repaired, as is also the case for home appliances.

Freedom from Automobile Dependence

The Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997 urged Japan to take quick action to deal with global warming, and in this context, bicycles have been attracting attention as a sustainable means of transport. The "Outline for Promotion Effects to Prevent Global Warming," a plan published in 1998, declared that promoting the use of bicycles throughout the social system was an urgent task, and encouraged improvements in cycling roads and bicycle parking areas. Thus, efforts to improve bike parking spaces have been undertaken under the aegis of urban development.

Nerima Town Cycle Project: Using, Rather Than Possessing, Bicycles

It is said that on average, people actually use bicycles for only about 10 to 15 minutes per trip. In view of this, a new type of bicycle-sharing service has recently been spreading in Japan. This movement also aims to limit the total number of bicycles and reduce the number of illegally-parked bicycles.

In Nerima Ward in Tokyo, where the number of bicycles is almost equal to the number of residents, a bike rental service started in 1992. Nerima regards bicycles as one of its public transportation services, in the same category as trains and buses.

This "Nerima Town Cycle" bicycle-sharing program aims to encourage efficient use of bicycles while reducing the number of bikes being ridden to and left near train and subway stations. This service offers for rent 2,750 bicycles located at seven storage facilities near six train or subway stations in Nerima Ward, as a means of transportation between the stations and users' homes, schools or workplaces. Storage facilities are equipped with a mechanical multistory bike parking system and store bicycles under a unified set of standards. To rent a bicycle, the user inserts his or her registration card at a gate in front of the facility, and a bicycle is made available automatically.

With this service, two or more persons can share the bicycle on the same day; one person might ride it from home to the train station, and another might pick it up at the station and ride it to school, work or some other destination. According to a report published in 2005, about 80 percent of these bicycles are regularly rented, and the service also helped reduce the number of illegally parked bicycles during the same period. It is therefore anticipated that rental bicycles could serve as an alternative means of transport that could replace buses, particularly for destinations not easily reached by bus.

Donating Secondhand Bicycles to Healthcare Volunteers in Developing Countries

Secondhand bicycles are also being treated as part of the Earth's finite resources; for example, the Municipal Coordinating Committee for Overseas Bicycle Assistance (MCCOBA)--a joint committee of 13 municipalities and the Japanese Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning (JOICFP), a nongovernmental organization (NGO)--is promoting a campaign to send used bicycles to healthcare volunteers who work at the grass roots level in developing nations, as a way to make effective use of secondhand bicycles overseas.

Starting in 1988, when it first sent secondhand bicycles overseas, through 2006, MCCOBA has so far donated a total of over 52,000 bicycles, each with a kit including spare tires, inner tubes, a flat tire repair kit and a bicycle pump, to 90 countries in Asia, Oceania, the Middle and Near East, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Secondhand bicycles are greatly valued by people in these countries; if a health nurse, a midwife or a JOICFP staff has a bicycle, he or she can offer basic healthcare to a village of 500 to 800 people that does not have a resident doctor. Secondhand bicycles, which villagers in various places call "a gift from God," "a two wheeled ambulance," "a running signboard" or "the iron horse," are playing a significant role in such areas.

Year by year, the number of countries requesting donations of used bicycles continues to grow, together with the number of bicycles requested. As of April 2004, MCCOBA had received requests from 45 countries for the donation of about 40,000 bicycles. However, member municipalities were only able to offer 2,956 bicycles in fiscal 2005. MCCOBA recognizes that it needs to intensify its efforts to gain public understanding and support. However, reflecting the current tight budget situation for municipalities and grant organizations, MCCOBA's operations have in face been downsized.

"What prompted us to found the MCCOBA was the strongly expressed request of a woman we met during a visit to Uganda, Africa in 1986. She begged us to bring even one bicycle from Japan," says Hideyuki Takahashi, executive director of JOICFP. "She pointed out that a lot of people would not have to die of their illnesses if they had bicycles that allowed them to reach their destinations on their own initiative. There is no doubt that bicycles can change their lives of people in villages. In developing countries, the absence of transportation results in many deaths because people do not receive medical treatment in time. For them, bicycles - human-powered vehicles - are more useful than gasoline-powered vehicles. The key is to give bicycles only to those who really need them."

In 1988 Takahashi learned that the municipality of Toshima Ward, Tokyo, had donated secondhand bicycles to the Philippines and Malaysia, which encouraged him to start contributing used bicycles overseas in partnership with various municipalities and JOICFP.

In the MCCOBA program, municipalities and JOICFP each play specific roles. The municipalities check and repair abandoned bicycles, and bring them to a bonded warehouse for export. Meanwhile, JOICFP, which operates internationally, chooses the destinations, arranges for shipping, and carries out on-the-ground operations such as international coordination, correspondence and communications. The NGO also reports to the municipalities on how the bicycles are being used.

Before being shipped to developing countries, the bicycles are disassembled into parts; this makes it possible to load 200 bicycles into a 20-feet container, as opposed to only 75 fully-assembled bicycles. When they reach their destinations, local JOICFP staff reassemble the parts into bicycles, which also helps teach assembly techniques. Indeed, this practice has effectively helped local people gain repair and maintenance skills.

Financial support for overseas shipping is provided by two Japanese organizations, the Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute and the Tokyo Metropolitan Public Corporation for Road Improvement and Management. Meanwhile, the Nippon Yusen K.K. group, one of Japan's major shipping companies, offers used containers to carry the bicycles, and one of the group's companies provides the trans-oceanic shipping--both at no charge. Citizens also support the project by offering mis-printed, unused postcards, used stamps and used telephone cards, which help fund transportation costs overseas.

JOICFP plans to continue working with the MCCOBA to foster regional development at the grass-roots level, while searching for other multifaceted approaches and opportunities for mutual cooperation. Its goal is to solve environmental problems in civil society and help deal with issues of the earth's limited resources, while promoting sustainable international cooperation at the civic level, education for international understanding and compassion for people in developing countries.

Riding a bicycle in the breeze is refreshing, and gives you the extra satisfaction of not using fossil fuels or emitting carbon dioxide. We hope this useful vehicle will play a more important role in society and bring happiness and comfort to many more people.

(Written by Junko Edahiro and Eiko Yukawa)