Lessons from the Streets of Tokyo
October 2, 2019
Urban biodiversity

I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Tokyo, Japan. I loved seeing the urban biodiversity of the different neighbourhoods and streets;

Segregating street space by speed

The Toronto proposal from Sidewalk Labs threw around the idea of segregating street space by speed, rather than the more common approach of by vehicle class. We like to segregate our streets by giving dedicated space to pedestrians and dedicated space to motor vehicles.

Often on narrow streets, the result is very uncomfortable. We build streets with skinny little sidewalks (often with tree trunks in the way), because we believe the asphalt in the middle is for cars, and to accomodate people we need to build dedicated sidewalks.

Sidewalk with a tree trunk in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Tiny little sidewalk in Boston.

I have criticized this approach before in my article on Complete Streets, because under this framework of giving every mode of transportation its own dedicated space (wide sidewalks, bike lanes, parking, car lanes, bus lanes, benches, etc.), the result is what I call a "fat street"; a very wide (and expensive to build and maintain) street that tries to do too much.


A fat street that tries to fit in as much as possible.

The Japanese take an alternative approach to this. Narrow streets are uncomfortable to drive on, so cars do not drive fast. When cars do not drive fast (less than 20 miles per hour), people and vehicles can safely mix.

It makes sense to separate cars and people on wider streets where cars can go faster and would be dangerous to pedestrians.

The narrow streets are safe were safe and pleasant, both because they felt very human-scale, but also for how few cars you did encounter. These streets did not have to ban cars, but because they were uncomfortable and inefficient to drive through, and there is often nowhere to park unless you lived on the street, you would avoid driving on these streets unless this is where your journey started or ended.

I was impressed with how quiet the city was, especially for a dense urban area in one of the world's largest cities;

This following scene is particularly interesting. This is a sidewalk near a major road. Yet the cyclist is cycling alongside the people on the sidewalk, rather than among the fast and dangerous cars. I like this, because it makes more sense for the cyclist to be grouped with the “human-scale” speed of pedestrians, rather than the high speed cars.

I am sorry that the cyclist is so small (in the distance, to the left of the ramp. His bicycle has a light.) I could not capture the photo fast enough when he cycled past me.

This would not work in New York City for how narrow our sidewalks are in relation to how many people use them.

Try to cycle on the sidewalk here and you would bump into everyone. For how wide the avenues of Manhattan is, very little space is allocated to people; they are even overflowing into the bike lane!

Off-street parking

When you have sidewalks, having a lot of off-street parking is generally considered a burden because it results in a lot of curb cuts - interruptions to the pedestrian-only space that often feel like an intersection crossing.


A sidewalk with many curb cuts.

I was surprised at how many residences had off-street parking in Tokyo. When people are free to occupy the entire street, there is no curb to cut, and when granularity of the street is maintained there is a front door every few dozen of feet that is flush against the street, so the off-street parking was not as invasive as it would have been in an American city. Often I did not even notice it I was walking past a parked car.

Utilizing every inch of land

I hate seeing wasted space in cities. Space that could be put to productive tax-generating use; providing us with more housing, more amenities, more businesses. It was wonderful to see how in a place such as Tokyo, where land value is high, the Japanese utilized every nook and cranny. This is the space between two elevated rail lines;

I loved how safe and inviting it felt. It did not feel as if the elevated structure (be in a rail line or a road) divided the neighbourhood in half.

And land that could be built on, was built on. These buildings fit nicely in this shallow triangle of land up against a major highway;

This makes me think of the untapped potential of all of those useless patches of greenspace around highway ramps in urban areas, the space we waste by ultra large setbacks, with minimum lot sizes, and lot coverage limits. I made this image 4 years ago, and I feel that it is appropriate to reshare it here;

I took the bottom photo while walking down the street thinking about how I have seen businesses take up less space than width of the sidewalk and setback.


The Japanese have really taken to heart that one size does not fit all, and there is an obvious division between streets (which are the platform for building community and wealth) and roads (which are a tool for getting from A to B).

My trip to Tokyo was fascinating. I loved exploring the diversity of the neighbourhoods. There is a lot we can learn from the Japanese on how to build great cities. As much as I adored the city, there would be a lot I would struggle with if I lived there permanently (such as the lack of old traditional architecture and older buildings), which also helped me appreciate where I live more.

  1. https://ced.sog.unc.edu/the-state-of-american-transportation-and-complete-streets/
  2. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/3/9/is-your-city-pedestrian-unfriendly
  3. https://www.google.com/maps/place/35%C2%B039'30.2%22N+139%C2%B042'35.7%22E/@35.6584976,139.7093739,158a,35y,305.36h,9.16t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d35.6583778!4d139.7099167