From Tokyo to Brooklyn: Good Streets and What Defines Them

Wide, tree-lined sidewalks. A row of parked cars to buffer pedestrians from traffic. A physically separated bike lane. These are just a few of the qualities I and other urban design types tend look for when defining a 'good' street, meaning one pleasant and safe for walking and biking. 

Imagine my surprise then, when I returned this past winter to Tokyo, land of my upbringing and pedestrian and transit mecca, and realized that the streets I walked every day as a kid looked nothing like the "complete streets" I had come to idealize. 

First, and most importantly: sidewalks. Or rather, lack of them. Major arterials in Tokyo have raised sidewalks, often with guardrails to separate pedestrians from auto traffic, but most residential streets have little more than a painted lane and a couple of feet of space by the curb. On my five minute walk to school, there was not an inch of sidewalk. In fact, one could walk all the way to the Futako-Tamagawa train station (15 minutes away) and not encounter a single raised sidewalk along the way.

There's no such thing as on-street parking either, except along a few commercial arteries (even then, it's rare). Car owners in Tokyo are required to prove that they have an off-street space to park their car in before they can register it with the city. Often, a street is too narrow for even just one moving lane, so you can forget about a row of Toyotas and Nissans buffering you from traffic as you walk down the side of a narrow street. 

Where I live in Brooklyn, I often walk past the one house on my block that has a carport carved into its front yard. When I do so, I roll my eyes and sigh passive-aggressively, hoping a passerby will ask me "What's wrong?" I'd tell them, in my little fantasy, "These people have taken away an on-street parking spot and replaced what could have been a beautiful garden with a shiny black Escalade, that's what's wrong!" 

But it turns out my parents' house in Tokyo isn't all that different, except that we have a blue-green 1993 Toyota Corona instead of an Escalade. My house's primary interaction with the street is not a front door or garden, but a mailbox and the front bumper of our car. And ours is far from the only house on the block like it. Throughout the neighborhood, cars are squeezed onto tiny patches of pavement in front of houses, sometimes even sticking out into the little space actually allotted to pedestrians. 

Yet, despite all these supposedly less-than-desirable conditions, people in Tokyo walk. A lot. My family was caught in pedestrian gridlock on the day after New Year's, in the shopping district of Harajuku. There were so many people trying to walk through a (admittedly narrow) space that we literally could not move for ten minutes. 

In New York, I complain that the four blocks between my apartment and the subway have no street trees. But in Tokyo, I have no problem walking fifteen minutes basically IN the street to the train station, with nary a street tree in sight the entire way. 

In New York, I rarely ride my bicycle because even on quieter side streets (forget about avenues), I'm in constant fear of being hit from behind by a speeding SUV or doored by one of the cars parked along the curb. In Tokyo, children ride their bikes to school, housewives to the grocery store, commuters to the train station, and nobody bothers with helmets. 

So why the differences in environments? The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason for this is the well-known traffic engineering concept of "shared space." This idea states that having pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers share the space of the roadway with little separation results in improved safety for all because it forces various road users to constantly be aware of each other. Motorists drive slower and round corners cautiously because they expect pedestrians or bicyclists to pop up out of blind spots. Pedestrians and bicyclists have priority, but are aware that cars may be coming at any time, and move out of their way. 

However, while northern European countries formalize this idea by designating certain streets as "shared" (woonerfs in the Netherlands, Verkehrsberuhigter Bereich in Germany), with specific speed limits and traffic codes giving pedestrians and cyclists legal priority over motorists, street-sharing in Tokyo is a decidedly informal affair. Pedestrians and cyclists still try to stay within the painted lane on the side of the road, and children, for the most part, do not play in the middle of the street, as is allowed by law in Germany. Woonerfs commonly incorporate street furniture, special pavings and road markings, or curving road designs to calm traffic, whereas Tokyo streets tend to have a more austere, utilitarian look. 

So what, if not principally the physical qualities of Tokyo's streets, makes them walkable? 

We talk about built environment a lot, but rarely about driver behavior, and when we do, we talk about manipulating that behavior through the built environment. But there are other factors that influence how drivers behave.

Here's my humble theory: I believe that Tokyo's streets succeed as shared spaces in large part because of the quality of driver's education and rigorous licensing procedures in Japan. I'll give an example: when I took my driver's test in Hamden, Connecticut, at the age of seventeen, my written test consisted of 16 questions, 12 of which I had to answer correctly. On my road test, which lasted 5 minutes at most, I was asked to make a loop around the suburban neighborhood surrounding the DMV in little to no traffic. At the end, the examiner asked me to back into a parking space. Marveling at how easy the test had been, I parked my cousin's little Volkswagen Golf and looked towards the examiner, eyes full of hope. "You might want to try that again," he said. I had parked right in the middle of two spaces. Mortified and sure that I had just blown it, I re-parked and got out. "You passed."

Compare that experience with my friends who got their driver's licenses in Tokyo. All enrolled in certified driving schools, where they were given rigorous training in classrooms, at an on-site driver's course, and on local streets. Their road tests took them from highways to busy arterials to narrow local streets. At the end, they were given a 100-question written test, on which a 90% or higher was needed to pass. The exam process is so grueling that almost nobody even bothers to try taking it without enrolling in a driving school, typically at the cost of upwards of 300,000 yen ($3,000). 

The results, at least anecdotally, were clear right away. While I spent my teenage years cutting people off, rolling past stop signs, and weaving in and out of traffic on I-95, my friends were driving at appropriate speeds, using turn-signals religiously, and passing in the passing lane only. Where they knew, from the second they got their licenses, to drive cautiously on Tokyo's residential streets, I took the narrowness of the lanes as a challenge initially, testing how fast I could go on the largely traffic-free roads. Though I now consider myself to be a good driver, I might still need special signs and speedbumps, planters and bollards along the side of the road, and a discontinuous, curvilinear path to get me to slow down. My friends, and, it seems, the majority of well-educated Tokyo drivers, do not. 

It's certainly worth noting that a large part of the reason why shared streets work in Tokyo is that there is a culture of mutual respect among all road users, and, if you want to indulge in stereotypes, amongst people in general. But that culture isn't something that's necessarily inherent in Japanese people. American cities, throughout much of their history, have had successful shared streets. But while the US, especially post-WWII, seemed to shift its entire transportation policy to focus on moving as many cars, as quickly as possible, on roads, and continued to give licenses to pretty much anyone who could reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel, Japan took a decidedly different path.

Strict driver's licensing procedures don't just exist to make it difficult for people to get licenses, they are emblematic of a larger philosophy that values pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers as equal users of road space. A near-impossible driver's test acknowledges the fact that automobiles are multi-ton weapons, not to be put in just anyone's hands. Rigorous driver training aims to ensure that people are aware of the great responsibility they have toward pedestrians, bicyclists and other drivers, as users of those potential weapons. It is because these concepts are institutionalized in Japan that shared streets work in Tokyo. We may not be able to replicate those spaces unless that happens here as well.