Commuting by bicycle benefits more than just your health

April 24th, 2010 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

fun ride station in Aoyama. They also operate two stations for runners.

Fun ride station in Aoyama. They also operate two stations for runners.

One of the components of Japan’s embattled lifetime employment system that remains firmly in place is compensation for commuting costs. In almost every other industrialized country, full-time employees pay for their own transportation to work, but in Japan your employer pays, regardless of how far you live from your workplace. It’s a great deal and certainly Japanese workers take if for granted.

However, it does have its drawbacks, at least for those who don’t work full-time. For one thing, this money is not taxed. Companies can declare it as an expense, but the government does not treat it as taxable income or benefits, unless the worker spends more than ¥100,000 a month for transportation. As a reference, someone living in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, would spend ¥83,000 a month to take the Shinkansen to central Tokyo to work every day.

In a sense, we are all subsidizing these workers’ commutes, which means we are subsidizing the public transportation or automobiles they use to get to work. These costs are also reflected in the prices of goods and services. In addition, the practice of subsidized commutes has fueled past real estate booms in suburban areas, since people who lived far away from their jobs didn’t have to worry about commuting costs (commuting times are quite another matter and warrant a separate study of a more psychological nature). If everybody was a full-time worker it would all be fair, but the ranks of part-time and contract workers are increasing, and they get no such benefits.

The attitude toward commuting by private car, however, does seem to be changing. Unlike benefits for public transportation commutes, benefits for automobile commutes tend to be fixed regardless of how far the commute is or how much fuel is consumed. Now, some companies and public offices are compensating employees who commute to work by bicycle. The Toyohashi city government in Aichi Prefecture, for instance, has added an allowance for workers who bike to work: ¥4,600 a month if you travel between 2 and 5 km, and ¥7,100 a month if you travel more than 5 km. At the same time, Toyohashi has reduced the allowance for car commutes to ¥2,000 a month for less than 5 km and ¥4,100 for more than 5 km.

Obviously, this trend was prompted by environmental concerns. The environment ministry is actively encouraging more people to bike and pressuring local governments to reduce their carbon footprint, but some private companies are doing the same thing.

The most prominent is the Web service Hatena, whose founder famously traveled the world by bicycle. Hatena pays employees ¥20,000 a month if they bike to work, regardless of how far they travel. Hatena provides special parking spaces for bicycles, which is important because the office is located in central Tokyo where bike parking is at a premium. It also provides showers, an amenity that many train commuters, especially in the summer, may look upon with envy.

According to the Japan Bicycle Association, bicycle sales have increased markedly for the last five years despite population shrinkage. Sales in February 2009 were five times what they were in February 1999. It’s difficult to say if this increase is due to the greater popularity of jitensha tsukin (bicycle commuting) — jitetsu for short — but there certainly seems to be at least a cottage industry forming around the idea. Privately run bicycle stations have started to pop up in urban areas. These are places where members can park their bikes for the day and even take showers for a monthly fee. There’s one in Aoyama called fun ride station that’s tucked away on a side street, another in Yokohama called The Space; and Kyoto also seems to be keen on the idea.

In the past, most bicycle commuting was limited to people riding a mama-chari (family-type bicycle) to the train station, a practice that is notoriously abused. It’s common for employees to claim bus fares from their home to stations, and the reimbursement is just gravy if they’re biking instead. Let’s hope they at least pay for parking.

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