Sunday, August 9, 2009

Cycle fever in Japan as companies offer special benefits to bicycle commuters

Commuters who would rather not be trapped in jam-packed trains, which may increase the risk of exposure to the swine flu, are recently choosing a different option – bicycle-riding to the office.

Men in suits and ties with a backpack traveling to work have become the new trend, and there are several benefits besides the most obvious – escape from enduring train rides overcrowded with passengers.

“Although I have to wear a mask as soon as I get to the office, at least I don’t have to worry about it on the way to work. I bike about 40 minutes, 10 kilometers every day. I don’t go out drinking as much and I’ve lost 10 kilos in a year. My cholesterol level is better and medical exam results are great,” says one Osaka company worker.

Another company employee, a 10-year veteran as a bicycle commuter, explains he’s built stamina by traveling an hour and half to cover the 30-kilometer distance between his home in Kashiwa City and the office in Shinjuku. “I’m also earning extra money from the monthly transportation fee of 15,000 yen provided by the company.”

According to the Japan Bicycle Association, domestic bicycle shipments in 2008 reached 73.4 billion yen (a 21% increase from the previous year), of which sports-type cycles for town riding accounted for nearly 3 billion yen, a 68% increase. Bike related products are drawing attention as well, such as business suits using materials with enhanced breathing-stretching qualities.

Due to the economic downturn, more individuals are selling off their cars and switching to bike riding, according to the Association.

New businesses are following the trend, such as the “Runners Station Plus Bike” which opened in Chiyoda-ku this February, catering to bike commuters’ needs with locker and shower rooms. For the monthly fee of 23,000 yen, members can use the facilities and leave their expensive vehicles in a secure parking area.

Furthermore, an increasing number of companies are encouraging bicycle commuting as a part of the corporate “Eco” policy. For example, since 2006 Sanyo’s manufacturing facility in Gunma has offered continuous payment of commuting allowances to employees who switch from car to bicycle, provided that the distance is between 2 and 5 kilometers one way.

In the case of Yamaha Motor Company in Shizuoka, employees receive special benefits when they change their travel method from car to motorcycle, bicycle or commute on foot. The system has been implemented since 2004, and currently bicycle commuters are paid 1,000 yen per month from the company.

Last August, shochu manufacturer Okuchi Shuzo in Kagoshima introduced a system to encourage bike commute by offering 10 yen per kilometer. More than a third of its employees now ride bicycles to work.

Journalist Tsuyoshi Maeya, who lost 7 kilos in one year by switching to bicycle commuting advises, “You can avoid overcrowded trains, there’s less exposure to the flu virus and you’ll be able to build stamina and strengthen your immune system. But try to take it slow and easy – don’t attempt riding 20 kilometers to the workplace without giving yourself the chance to practice over weekends and gradually increase the distance you can handle.”

Needless to say, please follow traffic rules and remember that riding the bicycle under the influence of alcohol is a no-no.


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