Bike share schemes have been a big hit in major cities in Europe and you’d think Tokyo with its high density and scarcity of space was made for the sharing economy. It’s never quite that simple, but Docomo Bicycle Sharing (it seems to be sponsored by the phone company) offers a relatively convenient, relatively cheap service to residents, workers and tourists.
What exactly is bicycle sharing?
To encourage people out of their cars and provide a healthy alternative to jumping in a taxi, various cities around the world provide a pool of bikes for communal use. Typically, there are stations or hubs dotted around the place with multiple bikes in docks. Members use a card or smartphone app to check the bike out. They usually have the option to return the bike to a different station, so you can use the bikes for one way trips*.
What is the Docomo Bicycle Sharing approach?
Docomo Bicycle Sharing currently operates separately in four wards and cities in the Kanto area. Minato ward, Chiyoda ward, Koto Ward and the Bay Area of Yokohama. All of the bikes (except those in Koto ward) are “electric assist” bikes. If you switch it on, it will kick in as soon as you start up any kind of incline.
To check out the bikes, you first need to sign up on their website. Unfortunately the site for sign-up and checking out the bike is exclusively available in Japanese. Anticipating some interest from foreign residents and tourists, Docomo Cycle have provided very detailed instructions in English on how to sign in using the Japanese site. Doing this on a phone is quite fiddly, so if you can, try to complete the sign-up at home or at your accommodation first. After sign-up, you have options for getting your bike.
1. Search for the bike or station using the website (why don’t they have an app??), select the bike you want to rent then enter a code provided by the website into the keypad on the bike to unlock it
2. Pre-register a Japan issued IC card (one that uses the felica chip—like Nanaco, Pasmo or Suica), touch it to the panel and enter your membership verification ID.
The second method is probably easier if you plan to use the service regularly.
Similar packages are offered in the four cities where Docomo Cycle operates, but the actual fees vary. With a couple of exceptions for the tourist-oriented 1-day passes, payment must be made by credit card. The monthly plans provide you with free use for the first 30 minutes, so to get your moneys worth you would need to use the bikes more than 10 times a month on average.
|Ward/Area||One Trip Member|
(Per 30 minutes)
|Monthly Member||One Day Pass|
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Problems with Docomo Cycle
While Docomo Cycle is a useful service, they unfortunately haven’t got everything right. Here are some of the problems.
- You can’t rent multiple cycles from a single account. If you’re a group of 4, you all need to go through the sign up and booking procedure
- (*) You can’t return the bike to a different station—you have to return it to the same place as you started. This negates one of the major benefits of bike sharing
- The app is hard enough to use for someone who can read Japanese, expecting people with no Japanese to use it is unrealistic
- Each city operates independently, so if you’re in Akasaka and you want to take a bike from nearby Nagatacho, well you can’t—unless you sign up there too. Sign up for the “one time member” of each is free, so it’s not the end of the world.
- It could be a bit cheaper. Electric assist is a nice feature but without the flash tech it might be a bit cheaper to maintain the bikes.
Important things to note
Although the bikes have electric assist, they are big and bulky. The rules for use state that the rider needs to be at least 140 cm tall. I’d suggest a child of around that height still might struggle with the bike when they come to a stop so if you’re considering renting a bike with the family, you’ll be out of luck if the smallest member is under 140cm.
On the plus side, this is Tokyo, so at least Docomo’s bikes are unlikely to be vandalised out of existence—a fate that has befallen some other programs around the world. The bikes are in good repair and the electric assist feature is actually pretty good fun.
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