A slim cataloguing of the rich diversity of small vehicles that help shape street life in the world’s largest city
Unusually for me, this is a post with little in the way of context. Rather, it is simple, recorded observation. As part of an endless enquiry into what makes good streets tick, over four short visits to Tokyo in 2018 and 2019—during The Days In Which We Flew—I started cataloguing ‘the small vehicles of Tokyo’, recognising them as an ingredient of the city’s beguiling street condition.
I’ve written enough about walking around the city’s neighbourhoods (Ed. Really?) What follows is a quick sampling of a hugely diverse range of small vehicles—the tip of the tip of the iceberg—that also contribute to the quality of the city’s streets. I’ll no doubt update it with each subsequent trip I take.
It’s like a version of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, but with an emphasis on the Things That Go rather than the Cars and Trucks. And set in Tokyo. Imagine the drivers as tanuki rather than cats and dogs.
When visiting Tokyo, if you are attuned to eating the world with your eyes and particularly the layers of urban life bigger than a cellphone and smaller than a building, one of the first things you’ll notice is how comparatively small the vehicles seem to be. Then, the sheer variety of these small vehicles. And then, how these vehicles, by virtue of their humble and appropriate scale and speed, help produce the city’s often delightfully humane streets. And then finally, that these small vehicles are scurrying around the world’s largest city.
By way of comparison, the municipal and commercial vehicles blasting around Manhattan, for example, are more like hulking tanks, built for battle, apparently ready to face off against the army of gargantuan SUVs contesting the same spaces. But in Tokyo, a city three times larger, the small scale of the vehicles makes instinctive sense. I’ve written before about how Tokyo is actually defined by smallness and slowness, drawing from the great work of Keio University’s Darko Radovic and Davisi Boontharm, amongst others.
A touch of dark matter before the matter
I’ve also written about the interplay between Tokyo’s mobility and urban form, generally, as well as touching on the social and cultural overlay that further supports the street as a public space — whether relating to shared privacy, or communal understanding.
Helped by the fact that on-street parking in Japan has essentially been outlawed since 1963, Tokyo’s neighbourhood streets tend to be narrow and slow, and distinctly humane as a result. These on-street parking restrictions are accompanied by proof-of-parking laws, in which prospective car owners have to prove to the police they have off-street parking sorted before purchase:
“It is almost unique to Japan, although a few other limited trials have been made in other countries. In order to register a car, you now needed to provide proof to the local police that you had somewhere to park it. If you had a garage at your home, the police would come to inspect it: the other main option was leasing a parking space from a private off-street parking lot in the neighbourhood around your home, and you could provide a copy of the lease agreement as proof. Only once this was done and you had your shako shōmeisho (literally, “garage certificate”) would you be allowed to take possession of the car.”
—What would a free market for parking look like? It’d look a lot like Japan, Stephen Davis (2018)
Finally, Tokyo benefits from extensive and reliable public transport by train, subway and bus. All of these aspects combine to produce living streets, as a kind of see-saw counterpoint, as well as an endlessly inventive approach to off-street parking, with vehicles of all sizes slid into spaces of all sizes.
As well as a helpful scale, there’s a slow-ness to these vehicles, obviously, which keeps the streets slow in turn. It’s quite separated from the cars and trucks overhead on the elevated freeways, as if the upper plane is all Akira and the ground plane is all Kiki’s Delivery Service. Many cities have tried this separation, but in Tokyo it works, as the separation is enforced by keeping the streets defined around people—a condition that both law and the presence of people themselves seem to reinforce—and the fact that these are human-scale vehicles moving at human speeds.
Here’s a current set, more or less in XS-S-M-L-XL order. Note, I’m not capturing e-scooters (they were not really around en masse when I last visited Tokyo in 2018 and 2019, though I briefly discuss them below), nor niche products like hoverboards, Segways etc. I’m more interested in the humble everyday workhorses that characterise the streets. We will no doubt need to start cataloguing other small autonomous vehicles as they emerge into the streets, as per my colleague Bryan Boyer’s urban robot survey from his courses at UMich. But the framing of these existing ‘things’ below may help position those new ‘things’, such that the quality of the street itself continues to be the guiding outcome.
And in comparison to a survey or catalogue, which would look to examine and compare these typologies via technical details, this is purely photographic exploration, drawn from direct observation. Unlike true field research, including participant observation where one would work as a courier or taxi driver for a while, this is simply observations of things in places at face value. But cultivating a practice of everyday noticing and thinking is equally important, I would argue, as it triggers a constant, ongoing reflection about things and places that can be practiced everyday, and by most people.
Here we go…
Immediately, the Tokyo difference is clear when we compare how on-street deliveries are handled, particularly with cities under the onslaught of e-commerce, adding to the enormous quantities of goods moving through shops, offices, bars and restaurants in the city. Although these mobility technologies wax and wane, compared to the waves of FedEx, UPS, Amazon etc. trucks now occupying North American and European cities, the last-kilometres of delivery in Tokyo are often handled with simple trolleys, pushed—sometimes with a little tiny-motorised help—by people.
The vehicles effectively follow a swarm model, which I often describe as akin to ‘packet-switched logistics networks’, as large volumes are broken down into smaller units as they approach their destination. The presence of these vehicles—entirely humble, practical and of course highly sustainable, yet unobtrusive, with little or no ornamentation or expression (save the iconic and ubiquitous Yamato logo)—leaves the street open in a way that trucks simply cannot.
In that, it’s a remarkably generous way to get things done. In comparison to the large footprint of deploying a truck-based system at street level, this is an approach to logistics which produces space, almost standing for an absence of matter. I’d be interested in understanding more about the regulatory or commercial ‘dark matter’ involved in ensuring this system, but at the same time, suspect that it could equally be an implicit outcome of a culture subtly attuned to qualities of hierarchy, politeness, transience, and communality.
Bikes feel like they’re actually everywhere, despite Tokyo hardly being set up for cycling like an Amsterdam or Copenhagen. In fact, as the excellent Tokyo by Bike site makes abundantly clear, there is a deeply problematic “lack of commitment to providing the quality cycling infrastructure that Japanese cities deserve.” The author, Byron Kidd, repeatedly skewers the city government for making little or no effort to support cycling—and yet Tokyo often rides relatively high in the Copenhagenize ‘bicycle-friendly cities’ ranking, and cycling is relatively safe, accessible, and highly popular.
“How did Tokyo, a city making little, if any, progress towards becoming bicycle friendly, without leaders who acknowledge cycling’s unique place in the cities transportation network and seemingly without a comprehensive infrastructure plan that would bring safe, continuous and consistent cycling infrastructure to the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan Area achieve such a high ranking against literally hundreds of cities where cycling is being actively supported?”
—Tokyo Ranked 16th Bicycle-friendly City in 2019, Byron Kidd, Tokyo By Bike
To some extent, this institutional negligence is in line with Tokyo being effectively an unplanned, even un-plannable, city—as described in Koh Kitayama’s wonderful Tokyo Metabolizing, which I unpack a little here. That does not mean that the bike should not be planned for; just that it requires a particular approach, quite different to building Copenhagen bike lanes or Oslo bike-share. Kitayama describes the metabolism guiding Tokyo’s development, rather than a plan.
“On a macroscopic level, there seems to be an invisible system, which, while incorporating numerous distinct concepts, provides an optimal solution.”
—Koh Kitayama, Tokyo Metabolizing (2010)
A small thing like a bike will thrive in a metabolism, yet could be suffocated by a plan. As Kidd notes, Tokyo’s relative ‘success’ in those Copenhagenize rankings is nothing to do with far-sighted government support and everything to do with people, and the bike as near-perfect everyday infrastructure. Building a supporting infrastructure of everyday dignity for bikes would not be hard; in fact, it would be working with the grain of the city.
Some of the conditions that would favour bikes—for instance, the lack of on-street parking noted above—inadvertently produces positive effects within this metabolism. As a result, the warrens of small streets that define Tokyo neighbourhoods, clear of parking and often bereft of significant car traffic, turn out to be near-perfect conditions for cycling.
Given the size of the city, with a mode-share for cycling of around 14% (noting that Tokyo’s incredibly effective public transport will always take the lion’s share of all mobility in the city) that means the numbers of cyclists are extraordinary. And if you walk these side-streets, bikes feel the dominant mode, outside of walking. There’s such a pleasingly diverse array of bikes around nonetheless. Perhaps it’s so appealing due to the counterpoint between the often humble, small yet well-maintained bikes and the scale of the city around. And perhaps implicitly, this suggests another counterpoint: the broader everyday resilience and inventiveness that Kidd points to, in the face of little or no coherent government guidance and support.
Cycling here works because of the city of Tokyo, meaning its people and its sense of place, rather than the city of Tokyo as an administrative unit and a jurisdiction.
There is a particularly distinctive type of bike you see in Japanese cities, and all over Tokyo: the mamachari. Byron Kidd again:
“The mamachari is a cultural icon, it’s the Japanese equivalent of the family station wagon. Its the family workhorse used on shopping runs, for riding to the local station, taking the kids to school or picking them up from sports practice. Without it families around the country would be in a right pickle. The defining features include, a top tube bent low that is easy to step over, a shopping basket on the front, a luggage rack on the back, mudguards, chain guards, dynamo lights, an integrated lock, a bell and a hefty rear stand that keeps the bike stable and upright when parked.”
—Introducing the Mamachari, Byron Kidd, Tokyo By Bike
The gendered language in the name might need a bit of work, translating more or less as “Mum’s bike” — though as this articles, they are heavily used by everyone. Either way, it’s a wonderfully practical, humble everyday bike, for carrying shopping, kids, or pretty much anything else. The lower centre-of-gravity and long frame is quite different to the archetypal European ‘sit-up’ city bikes. It is no low-rider, but it has a gawky charm, as well as the practicality of loading up the front and back, and incredibly easy access.
As with cars—see below—bikes are parked in every possible nook, slid into gaps and sidling up alongside façades, again ensuring the street, or passageway, is left clear and open. They often become part of the informal assemblages of objects—plants, storage boxes, chairs, signs, stools, air conditioning units—that line the property boundaries of buildings. Being Japan, there are of course hi-tech commercial services for bike parking, like these well-publicised underground bike parking ‘robots’, but I’m more interested in the informal adaptive design of the following approaches.
Aside: It’ll be interesting to see what happens with scooters here, once they are added to the mix, given the travails elsewhere about their parking in public life. The lack of a meaningful culture of care for the street — civic or collective — has meant that the public parking of shared scooters in North America and Europe has caused chaos, frustration and anger in roughly equal measure to joy, vitality and freedom of movement. I would argue that this is partly because most city authorities have shown little initiative in terms of creating parking infrastructure, or even having constructive discussions with scooter services (which is quite different to their response to a much greater nuisance, that of privately-owned cars.) And it is partly due to the scooter startups following the wrong technology models i.e. blitzscaling (though in my experience, having spent days and weeks working with some of them, many want to solve the problem rather progressively, and would loved to have done so before it became a problem!) And it is partly due to highly individualised social and political norms playing out on pavements (Or, the 'why we can't have nice things' argument.)
In Tokyo, one can imagine scooters being parked carefully in these nooks and crannies as per bikes, not because there will be beautifully-designed municipal parking infrastructure offered, but because of unwritten and complex social norms and hierarchies covering care, humility and respect for shared space — just as those bikes picture above do not encroach on the street, despite the lack of sufficient bike parking infrastructure. People find a way to make it work, to let the street breathe. But let’s see. And it would clearly be better if there was also decent bike parking infrastructure (again, as Byron Kidd makes abundantly clear) and make that work for scooters, e-bikes, e-commerce drop-off too, as new social and natural environments. Equally, social fabric is in tension here, perhaps just as much as political fabric is in flux elsewhere.
Of course, bike couriers and delivery bikes supplement the hand-pushed trolleys described above, as elsewhere. During these 2018–19 visits, e-bikes were not particularly prominent (certainly not as much as in Stockholm, where I was living at the time) and it’ll be interesting to see how they take over the delivery functions. Hopefully, the speed will be calibrated so as not to shift the condition of the street too much, whilst offering even more possibility for two-wheel-based tasks.
Finally, municipal functions also occur on bike (as in other cities).
Motorbikes and mopeds
Again, the details to observe may not be the presence of motorbikes of all scales—trips to Turin or Taipei, Beijing or Bogotá would probably reveal even more diversity there.
Rather, with the street as an open system in mind, it’s the secretion of bikes into the fabric of the buildings that is more interesting, tucked down alleys, under awnings, inside lobbies. There is much more to capture here, perhaps building a kind of thing-oriented counterpoint to Atelier Bow-Wow’s building-oriented concept of Pet Architecture.
Bow-Wow catalogued the extraordinary spatial diversity in the built fabric, positioned as ‘architectural behaviourology’, whereas this would be a catalogue of the every-shifting menagerie of parasitical creatures—bikes, motorbikes, plants, A/C units, storage boxes—that exist in and around that pet architecture. It’s clearly a symbiotic relationship, parasitical in a positive sense. Such work would hover precisely in this interesting grey area (actually colourful) between design (objects, things and services) and architecture (buildings, spaces and infrastructures), between inert and living, fixed and transient, slow and fast, shared and the personal. Moving between these modes suggests a new urban design discipline.
Delivery trikes, ‘urban mobility vehicles’ and equivalent
When parked, these too must slot into tiny spaces, but they also appear to be a more distinctive presence in East-Asian cities like Tokyo, buzzing around delivering everything, all the time.
This sector may be one of the more interesting to follow, as the development of small affordable and resilient electric motors explodes this fertile ground between car and bike. This article by Lavender Au at Rest of World about the rise of tiny cars in China—amongst the best recent urban technology writing— is clearly cataloguing this section of the menagerie.
Au’s article provokes many thoughts, not least about the extraordinarily inventive infrastructure of Chinese craft and manufacturing that produces such vehicles, and the sheer scale of those supply chains. Au also notes the complex institutional response to such tiny cars in China. Elsewhere, there will no doubt be high-quality versions of this category emerging, as well as these super-cheap, everyday, almost disposable options. But what would this mean in Tokyo, such that it reinforces street as open, shared and co-produced space? These delivery vehicles are worth watching, for details of size, noise, emissions, function, ownership, service models, identity and aesthetics, both when moving and tucked into building envelopes.
Taxis are not necessarily much smaller than their equivalents elsewhere, although the archetypal Tokyo taxi, the Toyota Comfort Classic, is not a large car at all. The new hybrid Tokyo JPN taxi has both more space and less elegance. What is also obvious immediately is that the both old and new taxis are immaculately maintained and cared-for, polished to within an inch of their life as if there’s a tacitly agreed aesthetic relationship between the shimmering beauty of Tokyo’s built fabric at night and its gleaming reflections in the curved bodies of the taxis that weave through it.
Their nominated urban role seems to be artistic as much as utilitarian.
Private cars are present in Tokyo, of course. But perhaps the parking strictures mean that Japanese cities can resist the tide of SUVs washing over most other large cities, with utterly disastrous impact. (Not simply in terms of their impact on street space and condition, but SUVs were the second largest contributor to the increase in global CO2 emissions from 2010 to 2018; not just in terms of mobility, but all categories, coming in just ahead of heavy industry. This, as well as being increasingly lethal in accidents.)
The key to Tokyo street life is not its moving cars, but its stationery cars. In most other cities, car parking is perhaps the most obviously problematic ‘privatisation’ of public space of the street. Yet here, given the Tokyo’s parking laws—no overnight on-street parking; proof-of-parking before purchase—cars are ingeniously wedged into all kinds of spaces, unable to encroach into the shared space. Parking spaces sliced across building envelopes, scooped out from underneath stairways, tucked under eaves and awnings …
What that proof-of-parking also produces is a market for small parking lots in neighbourhoods (as the cars can’t sit outside houses on the street, as in many European cities). These are often built in the gaps where buildings once stood, and so they are also likely to be small units, serving a block, a street or a neighbourhood—vertically-stacked ‘parking robots’, or simple, crude cut-out spaces on street corners or between buildings—rather than large garages elsewhere.
This more intimate size, and tight adjacencies with other buildings like restaurants and offices, makes them almost like a highly informal micro-plaza, rather than decked parking garage. As a result, they are used to idle away the time on your phone whilst waiting for a ramen order, or to have a smoke in, or a chat. They’re not exactly like a courtyard, but their size, and positioning within relatively dense environments, means they have almost the same function. As car-use begins to fade, these spaces are also more easily adaptable than large parking garages. (Perhaps in the same way that the spaces left by previous wars in European cities like Amsterdam, created the opportunity for a vast network of playgrounds.)
In Ila Bêka & Louise Lemoine’s recent film Tokyo Ride, the architect Ryue Nishizawa drives the film-makers around Tokyo in his vintage Alfa Romeo, which is an excellent match of car and city in many ways, not least its size. In line with the idea that cars are the new horses, and thus no more than an occasional leisure pursuit, it may be that a handful of old beauties, like Nishizawa’s Alfa, are the only private cars we might happily see in future cities. The emissions from such cars will always be problematic, but in low-enough numbers, perhaps the trade-off is manageable (ironically, the real danger is of course elsewhere, in the newer cars, like those SUVs).
This repositions the private car as art rather than tool, craft rather than product, self-expression rather than utility, and thus gives it an entirely reasonable walk-on part in the broader drama of the city—whilst also limiting its numbers along the way. I’d love to see the policy design sessions for such an outcome…
Moving up a notch, another immediate difference is in the array of small vans—or microvans—that also share these streets. Scaled-down versions of Hiaces, Hijets and their ilk are everywhere. With European and American versions in mind, it’s as if a shrink ray has been briefly pointed at them, and if you look at the size of the driver, you’ll get a sense of how small these vans are. Stand alongside them, and they feel like they’re shoulder-height, somehow. They fit perfectly into streets large and small, and reinforce a networked model of small pieces, loosely joined non-grid networks.
Of course, there are also food trucks, as in most other cities now. But these also have that distinctive boxy and humble sense of discretion (even given the skirts and fake brick adorning this example).
Even the largest vehicles—the emergency services, construction trucks and garbage lorries—also feel scaled down, compared to other cities. They are big—perhaps still too big—but smaller than elsewhere. Again, garbage trucks are squashed down to shoulder-height. Fire engines are vans. (This perhaps could be the future of fire service mobility; if good fire prevention is the norm and fire-fighting equipment is built into buildings and streets rather than trucks, firefighters can turn up in a small Honda, frankly.)
Police vehicles are often small vans, too, rather than hulking battle-ready cruisers, perhaps subconsciously following the model of small-but-perfectly-formed neighbourhood koban rather than over-scaled police headquarters (see Studio Gang’s Polis concept for a North American take on the idea of neighbourhood police stations—I’d love to see a distributed network of koban seedlings supporting such a ‘mother tree’ station.)
Tokyo’s public transport system is the mass transit counterpoint to all these small vehicles above. Tokyo’s subway is vast, producing the concentrations of density that enable the polka-dot pattern of the city. But around those concentrations, the small vehicles scurry. Each pattern enables the other, covering most of the city’s needs. Mass transit runs to grid network models — fixed hubs and spokes and rings and timetables — whereas the small vehicles are what I call non-grid networks. One is large and fast and fixed, the other small and slow and ad-hoc. This distribution reveals that the car is the awkward odd-one-out in the mix, the largely unnecessary irritant caught between the massive and the micro.
Yet we should note that some of the buses are often scaled appropriately for Tokyo’s streets, such as this little gem gliding up the hill from Nakameguro to Daikanyama.
And finally, as with other cities, there are other fleets of small vehicles, purpose-built for small people, of course. Someone else can document those.
Ed. See also the follow-up: Small Vehicles of Sandhamn, on the unlikely similarities between the above vehicles and those found on a tiny island in the Stockholm archipelago. These are clearly two poles of a similar approach, revealing the potential breadth of diversity in-between:
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