Niigata cities develop cycling route

The Yomiuri Shimbun
People work on setting up a bicycle station in a parking lot of a convenience store in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture, on April 25.

MINAMI-UONUMA, Niigata — The cities of Minami-Uonuma, Uonuma and the town of Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture are developing a cycling route that stretches across all three municipalities to promote both public health and tourism.

The prefecture already attracts many tourists with its winter sports, but the new project aims to attract more people during the “green season.” In the future, the municipalities are looking to have the route become designated as a National Cycle Route by the central government.

The council for the promotion of bicycle utilization, which is made up of the three municipalities and other entities, has already laid out a tentative plan for a 185-kilometer model route from the Irihirose area of Uonuma to the area around JR Echigo-Nakazato Station. The course has an elevation difference of about 400 meters and offers views of the Echigo Sanzan trio of mountains, as well as the Uono River, a tributary of the Shinano River, where riders can see and feel the grandeur of nature. Members of the council will ride bikes along the course to ensure its safety, and the route will be finalized by autumn.

Bicycle-friendly city

The three municipalities see some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan and are far from the typical image of cycling destinations. However, Minami-Uonuma, which is leading the council, has hosted cycling events almost every year since it became the venue for the national athletic meet in 2009.

The city has also launched the Ride on Minami-Uonuma Project, which is a community development project using bicycles that also involves private organizations. Last year, to make the city more bicycle-friendly, bike stations were set up at convenience stores and popular tourist destinations around the city. The stations have bicycle racks as well as restrooms and air pumps.

This year, bike stations will be established in Yuzawa, too, increasing the number of the stations to a total of about 40. The city government has received requests from restaurants to set the stations in front of their establishments.

Efforts are underway to increase residents’ interest in riding bicycles. To have children get used to riding bicycles from an early age, the Minami-Uonuma city government is lending nursery schools in the city pedal-less bicycles that children ride by kicking the ground. This summer, the city plans to start a free bicycle-lending service at sports facilities.

National Cycle Route

The central government has been working to promote “cycle tourism,” in which people visit tourist destinations by bicycle. It is encouraging the development of cycling routes that span multiple municipalities and began certifying the National Cycle Route in 2019.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry lists model routes in 56 regions nationwide on its website, and three have been designated as a National Cycle Route.

There are still no model routes in Niigata Prefecture. However, in March, Minami-Uonuma called on Yuzawa and Uonuma to set up the council with the Prefectural Cycling Federation, as well as the central and prefectural governments that manage roads. The same month, the prefectural government formulated a plan to promote the use of bicycles for five years starting in fiscal 2021 to support municipalities in the prefecture.

During winter, roads are unsuitable for riding bicycles in the prefecture because of heavy snow. However, during the rest of the year, the wide roads are easy to ride on. With the aim to earn the designation of a National Cycle Route in the future, the council plans to create road markings, signs and rest areas along cycling routes to ensure safe cycling.

“The use of bicycles is compatible with the promotion of healthy living and the realization of a decarbonized society,” said Shigeo Hayashi, mayor of Minami-Uonuma and chairman of the council. “However, eastern Japan is lagging behind western Japan, and in some eastern areas, no cycling routes have been set up. We would like to establish model routes and promote this project.”