The Mamachari, Bicycle Neighborhoods, and Public Transportation: Sustainable-Infrastructure Lessons from Japan

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Event Date: 
Friday, February 6, 2015, 12:00pm to 1:00pm PST
Speaker(s): 
Chester Liebs, Professor Emeritus of history and historic preservation, University of Vermont

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Slides are not available for this presentation.

During the March 2011 earthquake/ tsunami/nuclear disaster, the internet filled with stories of how something quite ordinary in Japanese life became an important lifeline—the bicycle. For example an 83-year-old woman escaped the tsunami by bicycle, and due to public-transport disruptions, bicycle stores sold out of bicycles as quickly as supermarkets sold out of food. However not just in disasters, but in daily life, the most reliable, sustainable form of transportation, next to walking, is via Japan’s estimated 80,000,000 bicycles, affectionately called mamachari.

This illustrated presentation, based on four-years of cultural-landscape research culminating the publication of世界が称賛した日本の町の秘密 (Secrets of Japanese Cities the World Admires. Tokyo: Yousensha, 2011), begins by discussing why mamachari are perfect for local transportation and the many practical ways Japanese use them. It then explores why many of Japan’s densely populated, fine-grained neighborhoods with auto-resistant narrow streets and nearby shopping, make ideal bicycle neighborhoods. Issues explored will include the mamachari’s impact on: neighborhood livability; sustainability; public health through active transportation; fostering direct human contact not possible with motor-car travel; and maintaining the compact human scale of communities by limiting transport of daily necessities to the size of a bicycle basket. The presentation will also address how the design of the mamachari -- dozens can be parked in the same space it would take to beach a few Toyota Priuses-- makes it a miracle of sustainable urban land use. Discussion will conclude with a look at current threats to the mamachari lifestyle and Japan’s bicycle neighborhoods, and possible lessons for other countries including the United States.


Chester Liebs is professor emeritus of history and historic preservation at the University of Vermont and adjunct professor of preservation and regionalism at the University of New Mexico. A two-time Fulbright fellow to Japan, and former visiting professor at the University of Tokyo and Tokyo University for the Arts, he is author of Secrets of Japanese Cities the World Admires, published in 2011 in Japanese as 世界が称賛した日本の町の秘密.