Public transport triumphs in a Megacity: Tokyo

Tokyo is not only one of the largest cities in the world, but it also has the highest cost of living, which begs the question of how its citizens can commute to work time- and cost-effectively. Business mobility is extremely popular in Tokyo; businesspeople there have, on average, a 60-minute commute to work, with nearly 70% using the train.[1]

Efficiency challenges of Tokyo’s public transport

The major challenges with business mobility in Tokyo are its sheer size, regarding both geography and population. With such constraints, how is it possible to transport so many people to work successfully everyday? And how have the trains in Tokyo acquired a reputation for always being reliable and on time? The solution to these challenges lies in Japan’s privatisation of its railway networks. Unlike the United States and much of Europe, Japan kept a proportion of railways under private ownership after World War II. As it became clear that the state-run public transport networks were operating at a loss, whilst the privately run ones were functioning far more successfully, the government decided to privatise the Japanese National Railways in 1987.[2] This company operated every form of commuter transport, except for trams and inner-city metros. As such, it became profitable and could improve Tokyo’s public transport networks. Competition between different public transport companies, especially those that own the Tokyo buses, keeps fares low. Following such a success, the city’s largest subway network, Tokyo Metro, underwent privatisation. Tatsuhiko Suga, leader of Japan's Foundation for Transport Publications, believes the other subway network in Tokyo, Toei, will also soon be privatised. A reason why Tokyo public transport is so punctual is that, inspired by the triumphs of the privatised networks, public ones have strived to replicate them.

Overcrowding: the issues and solutions for business mobility

Tokyo’s streets are narrow and parking spaces are limited, so public transport is the most viable option for a large proportion of business commuters. Though Tokyo’s public transport system is highly efficient, it can get extremely crowded. To combat the problem, oshiya (pushers) are employed during the busiest times to guide and push passengers onto nearly full trains and metros, and to ensure they enter and exit the carriages safely. Aside from discomfort, another problem with over-crowded carriages is that they facilitate groping and lewd conduct by the city’s infamous chikan (subway molesters). To overcome this problem, an increasing number of train companies have introduced women-only carriages during rush hours and late at night. A downside of the privatisation of Tokyo’s public transport system is that it makes it difficult to change between lines operated by different companies: one has either to pay an additional fee or to buy an interchangeable ticket, at a higher price. Tokyo’s business mobility is not perfect; however the city is constantly tackling its public transport problems. Perhaps it is time to apply its successes to the world’s megacities struggling with poor infrastructure and unsafe, inefficient public transport, such as Mumbai or São Paulo.

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