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Commuters in Japan's big cities take up cycling to avoid infection risk on packed trains

Commuters are seen riding their bikes during the morning rush hour, in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on April 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Yuki Miyatake)

TOKYO -- Many workers are clocking in from home these days as they try to keep indoors and avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, a lot of people do not have that option, and face packed trains and buses ranking high in the "three Cs" the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has advised we all avoid to slow infections: confined spaces, crowded places, and close contact. Now, many in this bind are choosing two-wheeled transportation to get to work.

On April 21, about two weeks after the state of emergency declaration was called in seven prefectures including Tokyo and Kanagawa, there was a palpable increase in the numbers of cyclists in Naka Ward, Yokohama's business district. A 54-year-old woman employed at one local company told the Mainichi Shimbun as she was leaving a bike parking lot, "Normally I take the train, but I changed to riding a bicycle two weeks ago because I'm scared of the coronavirus."

According to a major bike seller in the city, half of its customers who have come to buy cross bikes appropriate for city riding over the last month have said they're worried about the virus and want to use them to get to work.

The trend is also in evidence among bicycle sharing initiatives, which have expanded across the country. Under the systems, bikes can be borrowed in a similar fashion to cars in a car share, and returned to any cycle port in the network.

According to Tokyo-based Docomo Bike Share Inc., which boasts some 750,000 members, new membership numbers per day between April 1 and 15 have been 20% higher than the number of daily sign-ups in March. Although they've actually seen a slight fall in overall usage, they're still recording a rise in first-time users even with government calls for people to make only essential trips outside.

The company's press officer explained, "We think that there's been some influence from the spread of the novel coronavirus. It appears that it's not limited to commuting, with many people also using them for deliveries."

Central Tokyo appears to be undergoing a similar cycling shift. A 40-year-old IT company employee who lives in the capital's Ota Ward recently took up commuting by bike, because his firm's data privacy policy inhibits remote working.

He had been taking the train to the offices in the Roppongi district, but he confided, "While things did improve once the state of emergency declaration was called, the numbers of people on the trains didn't fall enough to eliminate the three Cs, so I worried about being infected."

He said it was then that he happened on the idea of using a share cycle service. The company he chose has bike ports near his home and his workplace, and they also have electric-assist pedal bikes which help him surmount the city's numerous slopes.

A Mainichi Shimbun reporter is seen wearing a helmet while riding a bike in this file photo taken in Tokyo in 2018. (Mainichi)

He first challenged himself to go by bike on the morning of April 18. He got lost, but even so managed to reach work in an hour or so. After the confusion in the morning, he was a little more accustomed to the route heading home, and got it down to 45 minutes. His commute by train is 50 minutes each way.

"Generally I try to ride in the road, so there aren't many points where I'm close to pedestrians. As far as coronavirus considerations are concerned, I can ride while feeling safe," he said. He said he intended to continue riding to and from work.

Some companies don't authorize their employees cycling in major cities due to the high traffic volumes, but some are beginning to alter their policies in response to the coronavirus.

Takara Belmont Corp., a manufacturer and seller of beauty appliances and other goods based in Osaka's Chuo Ward has from April 17 started allowing its employees to ride bicycles to work. The change reportedly came about because employees worried about riding public transport had asked to cycle in.

A manager at the company told the Mainichi Shimbun, "As a result of internal deliberations, it was decided to permit employees to ride their bike so long as they fulfill certain conditions, including registering their bikes against theft and taking out insurance."

It's thought that an appropriate level of exercise is essential to optimize one's immune system. On April 13, the Japan Cycle Sports Promotion Association advised, "We believe that taking in sunlight and breathing in fresh air while cycling is essential for maintaining one's health. Additionally, cycling is a way to travel while avoiding close contact with others." While the association endorses outdoor cycling, it also warns people to "ride alone as much as possible" and to "maintain a distance with other cyclists," among other points.

But what should be taken into consideration when starting to commute by bike? According to Jun Utsumi, 53, the head of the Bicycle Usage Promotion Study Group, having a safety plan is paramount. He explained, "First of all you should be wearing a helmet. Many people who die in bicycle accidents lose their lives from head injuries. It's also important to have insurance just in case. There are incidental insurance plans that come with credit cards, so we advise people to take a look at the options."

More municipal authorities, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, are making it a legal requirement for riders to get bicycle insurance.

Of course, given the current situation it is also very important that cyclists wear masks. Utsumi said, "There's a chance that you could be infected, too. It may be hard to get hold of a mask due to stock shortages, but even if you just wrap a towel or bandana around your mouth, then that makes a big difference. For the sake of others' safety, people must consider how they can avoid causing droplet transmissions."

(Japanese original by Yu Kishimoto, Sports News Department)

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