Friday, 12 February 2010

Tokyo transport

People wax lyrical about Tokyo transport: extensive, efficient, reliable, clean, safe and relatively easy to navigate.  I concur.  The longer I am here, the more I appreciate it, no doubt aided by the constant lamentations in the Sydney papers about public transport there.

It is extensive.   Extensive to the point it doesn't really fit on one map. Below are the JR and subway maps, but neither includes many of the private lines that branch out from Tokyo. Aside from Japan Rail which has more than 10 lines running into central Tokyo,  there are 13 subway lines - some owned by the National Govt. some by the Tokyo Metropolitan Govt,  at least 4 monorails, 7 or so private rail companies with varying numbers of lines*, at least 2 trams, 2 bus systems and local govt buses that do loops from the train stations to key points like libaries and sports centres, a river boat.... have I remembered everything?    There is a map that manages to integrate all system - but it only shows very central Tokyo.

The link below is the most comprehensive transport map I have seen of greater Tokyo. It's phenomenal. I can't say it's the most useful, because it's so big, but if comprehensive is what you want, it's probably the best.

In theory it sounds dificult to navigate, in practice it's easier. There is a plethora of websites and mobile phone websites where you can enter place A and place B and it will give options for how to get from one to the other.  (including ) There is the flexibility to search by the cheapest, the fastest, the least walking, by excluding private lines, excluding express etc.    It also can tell the time of the first and last train.  Most lines stop around midnight and start again around 5, which can be an irritation.  People generally know their own trainlines first and last train time as well as which stations they can change for other lines.   Navigation is also made easier by colour coding.  Each train line has a designated colour that is evident from the outside of the train, as well as on maps and on platform signs. Trains only travel on the one route. Signs and announcements on the train also inform, often but no always in English as well,  which lines intersect with each station.

The convenience of the system increased dramatically about 5 years back with the introduction of the SUICA - a pre paid  rechargable card that can be used across almost all forms of public transport (the ferries, and the monorails inside Disneyland and Ueno Zoo are the only exceptions I can think of.)  Touch the card to the card reader on the ticket gate and the gates remain open.  Don't touch and the gates jam shut (much more efficient than the train systems in Sydney, Bangkok and London).  The Suica also has the capacity to be integrated into a mobile phone.
The railways have started to prioritise accessibility to ensure they sill have customers as the population ages.  There is some way to go, especially with the subways, but lifts and escalators are, station by station, beginning to make the system more user friendly.
I am not sure what the on time running rate is for trains here.  Pretty good.   For the subways close to 100 percent I expect.  JR and above ground lines are more vulnerable to the elements, sometimes stopping due to wind or flooding.  Rates of stoppages due to "human accidents".  JR's tracks are exposed whereas the new subway lines have gates on the platforms that open when the train arrives, effectively preventing people from getting onto the tracks.

People often give high population density as the reason for why good public transport is possible.  Very true however Tokyo has  several other background conditions that facilitate having a good transport system:  employers pay for employees train ticket to and from work which guarantees passengers on the train;  low car ownership necessitating public transport use, in part because to own a car in Tokyo, you need to have a parking space  - usually rented separately from an apartment and to drive to work you would need a day time and night time car space;  company executives as well as workers catch the trains to work - though from what I can see, this is not true of politicians; and to some extent having numerous urban hubs.

These are just background conditions though.  From what I can see, there are two main reasons why Tokyo's transport is good.  The first is that there is a belief that public tranport is the backbone of people movement. There is no sense among people that they should be able to drive to work in central Tokyo. In daily life, cars and trains don't compete much.  Secondly, government - perhaps with private rail lines as well - has a very far sighted plan for the whole city and transport is part of that.    The Fukutoshin line  is the newest  to open in Tokyo. The initial planning for it began in 1972 and has been opened in various stages since 1994.  By 2012 it will be completed as a through train from Saitama, north  of Tokyo, to Yokohama, south of Tokyo.     Apparently, when the Shinkansen lines were built into Tokyo station 40? years ago, there was space left to enable the long distance commuter lines that terminate at Ueno, several km north of Tokyo station, to be extended at some point in the future.  The extension has started recently and will be completed by 2014.   As far as I know, no more major lines are planned, though numerous tweaks and extensions  are planned and on-going. 

It's a good system and worth studying by anywhere that wanted to improve public transport. Writing off comparison based on different population density ignores the reality that population density is only one of many factors that make it work.

I am not sure if this will work in animation, it shows the historical development of subways in Tokyo.  If it doesn't work, the hyperlink will take you to it.

* many of the subways extend into privately run lines  outside of central Tokyo.
**I am not sure when this planning and co-operation began, probably at the end of the war with a planning surge at time of the Tokyo Olympics - pre war I don't think transportation planning was centralised at all.

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