By Paul Richards
This post is not for people who live in Japan. Long-term Japan dwellers already know this stuff. I’m sorry. If you want to step out of the room for a bio break or to get a drink, now is a good time. If you want to spin along with us, that’s okay too.
Much to do has been made about the automated bike lot in Kasai-Rinkai Station. One of several YouTube clips has got over 700,000 views (In Japanese, in English) as of this writing and the link has been flying around Twitter like a sparrow with caffeine jitters. I’m afraid that people will get the wrong impression about bike parking in Japan from this video. The roborack is an aberration, an exception to the rule.
When I first arrived in Japan in the fall of 1990 many train stations did not have sufficient bicycle parking infrastructure (many still don’t). The lots were often unattended and you risked serious damage to your bike by using an official lot. For the most part bike lots were a plot of land with a fence around where bikes were parked in ragged rows. Unfortunately, the alternative was to park illegally on the street or stuffed in the gap between two buildings. You ran the risk of having your bike hauled away by the city. If you took your chances with this on-street parking. Near my home station there aren’t any sidewalks so on-street parking is really “on” street. The concept of a bicycle being impounded in North America is a truly foreign idea but in Japan it is a regular (and expensive) occurrence. The number of bicycles littering the neighborhoods around train stations reached critical mass by the late 90′s. Besides being eyesores they caused many problems. They blocked businesses, congested streets, impeded the flow of traffic for all road users and the large number of abandoned bicycles was also a public safety hazards.
What were communities to do? It was clear that no matter how many bicycles were impounded bicycle riders would continue to illegally park. Plus impound yards were filling up. Impounding bicycles at train stations was like raking fallen leaves in a strong wind. As soon as you have cleared a section of street a gust of wind kicks up and more bicycles fill the space.
The logical course was to make more bicycle lots. In many communities, these new lots were managed, at least part-time, by old men whom I have dubbed Jitensha Jijis (jitensha means bicycle and jiji is colloquial and impolite way to refer to old men.) These seniors would make sure users parked their bike in an orderly manner so you don’t have bicycle chaos. As the lot filled up they would direct users to open spots. Finally, at the end of the day they would move unclaimed bikes to a corner of the lot to make room for the next day’s horde of bikers. These lots were nothing more than a gravel or paved plot with a fence surrounding it. No racks, no infrastructure per se. These lots helped relieve the pressure of the cycling masses but land in Japan’s cities comes a premium, especially around train stations, and, though those silver haired gentlemen do their duties for a pittance, they don’t work for free. The cities began to charge users 50 to a 100 yen per day to use the lots. In the beginning, you gave your coin to the Jitensha Jiji on duty and he stapled a dated slip of paper to your handlebars or cable housings. Occasionally, you got a receipt of sorts but nothing that proved any particular bike was your own. When you collected your bike at the end of the day if the Jitensha Jiji was still on duty you may or may not give him your receipt on the way out. Not exactly high security. There are many variations on this theme.
Over the years, perhaps in an attempt to further reduce costs or to get users to pay for more of the infrastructure, gadgets and technology has been added to bicycle lots.
There are three payment schemes available. The first is simple, per per day. These range from 100 to 150 yen per day. Usually, you go through a turnstile that issues a parking receipt. At the end of the day you use the barcode or magnetic stripe on the receipt to calculate how much you pay and to unlock the turnstile which allows you to leave. The second payment scheme is per month. many of the pay per day lots have a certain number of parking spots allocated for monthly users. In this case a rider registers for a spot and receive a sticker that goes on your bike and oftentimes a dedicated parking spot. The racks are numbered and the number of the rack matches the number on the sticker. Sometimes you will also receive a magstripe card to open the entrance and exit turnstiles. The advantage to paying per month is that you are guaranteed a parking spot and it is cheaper than paying per day for daily commuters.
The final payment scheme is the most recent and most expensive. These are the pay per hour lots that can be found in some very busy locations. Sometimes these lots offer free parking for the first half hour and then charge for increments of one, two or three hours. For daily commuters these lots can become very expensive. The cost for a day of parking at one of these lots has cost me 450 yen for a long day. These lots tend to have the most sophisticated parking systems. These lots are usually run by the private sector and they are intended to make money. Like many private parking lots for automobiles these lots are self-operating and only need periodic checking my attendants.
Lately, Japan Rail (JR) has opened up their Suica pre-paid card system to the private sector. Many businesses, including bicycle parking lot owners, have adopted the system to accept payment for goods and services. You can charge your card up at the station. When it comes time to pay for your bike parking you enter the rack number into the payment machine and flash your Suica card over the sensor. No need to worry about having enough money in your pocket after a day of shopping. At the beginning of every month I calculate how much money I need for train fair and bicycle parking and load up my Suica card with sufficient funds.
Lots that offer pay per day or pay per month may have open racks at the simplest. They control payment and exiting at the gate. These systems can be smart enough to know when the lot is full because they are able to keep track of how many bicycles have come and gone and the exact capacity of the lot. More advanced racks have clamps that automatically close around the front wheel of the bike. The rack is numbered and the wheel lock is integrated with a payment machine at the entrance of the lot. When you are ready to take your bike out you enter the number of your rack. The payment machine will tell you how much your parking fee is. When you make the payment the machine sends a signal to the rack to release your bike from the wheel lock. Be careful that you don’t enter the wrong number into the payment machine. I have accidentally given some stranger an early Christmas present in this way. Though the bicycle is locked into the rack it is by no means secure because anybody with some loose change can pick a nice bike out from the racks and pay a few coins to release the clamp and voila! they have a new bike. Self-locking racks do not eliminate the need for locking your bike up with a chain or cable. The locking clamps are to ensure that bike lot users don’t leave without paying the parking fee. Two story or double-decker bike racks are becoming more and more common at both pay-per-day and pay-by-the hour bike lots. The upper rack can be pulled out and angled down to mount your bike on it. Though the upper rack is not that heavy I think it is courteous for stronger riders to take the top racks and leave the lower racks for older riders with less upper body strength or riders with small children.
Though none of this is as glamorous and as the high tech as the robot bike rack at Kasai-Rinkai it is based on years of accumulated traffic and vehicle management experience. The innovation is not in glamorous technology but in sustainable and cost effective systems. Other countries should take these as examples and case studies for urban planning. Much is heard in the bike industry media and even then general media about bike activism and pressuring local, state and federal governments to develop more bicycle infrastructure. What’s stopping the private sector from getting involved? The most innovative ideas almost always comes from business not government.
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