November 2023 | Japan Media Review

Car culture and public transport cuts leave more people struggling to get from A to B

Photo by Gene Brutty on Unsplash

In early October, ANN News broadcast a report about reductions in public transport provision in many localities, and not just in rural areas. The city of Chiba, the capital of the prefecture directly east of Tokyo, was cutting the number of buses on two routes from 60 to a mere seven, affecting the lives of the people who rely on those buses to get around. The main reason for the cut was a shortage of drivers, which has become a problem throughout Japan as the workforce ages along with the general population, and more drivers retire without being replaced.

The obvious solution is to offer better pay and benefits to retain current drivers and attract new ones. The ANN report also mentioned a sightseeing bus company in Okayama that had successfully recruited new drivers by advertising a signing bonus of ¥500,000 plus a salary of ¥500,000 a month. The company was able to do this thanks to increased tourist demand since the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. But the drivers they are hiring come from other bus services. Municipal or community buses, whether operated by local governments or by contracted private companies, don't normally pay those kind of wages and have to cut service when they lose workers. 

While the bus driver shortage is one part of the general labor crunch afflicting Japan, the problem of reduced public transport services is systemic. Ever since the former Japan National Railways was privatized in 1987, the central government has relieved itself of the responsibility to provide public transport, with the possible exception of new shinkansen lines, which actually exacerbate the loss of local services, since the ultimate purpose of the bullet train network is to connect all parts of Japan to Tokyo via high-speed trains.

Japan's storied railway network, which used to reach into every remote pocket of the country, has since followed a business model that results in unprofitable lines being downsized or shut down, leaving the municipalities they served without convenient rail connections to neighboring towns and cities. In some areas, this wasn't a serious problem because of increased private car use, which the government encouraged by continually augmenting road infrastructure. But as the population in these areas aged, road traffic became more dangerous, since elderly residents have few alternatives to driving. As a result, there has been a notable increase in traffic accidents caused by senior drivers in recent years, prompting some local authorities to launch campaigns to get them to surrender their driver’s licenses. With further reductions in bus services, older people have become “mobility refugees”.

Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture attracted attention in August when it launched a new Light Rail Transportation (LRT) line. An Asahi Shimbun article in October pointed out that it was the first time in 75 years that a newly built streetcar line had been opened in Japan. The line is 15km long, stretching from Utsunomiya Station to the town of Haga. The plan for the streetcar was initiated 30 years ago, and has cost ¥68.4 billion.

The Asahi asked whether the new line would attract enough passengers to reduce automobile traffic or, more significantly, persuade elderly drivers to give up their cars. The streetcars are designed to sit low to the ground so that seniors and wheelchair users can board easily. Vibration and noise have been mitigated, and because the streetcars are electric, they do not directly emit CO2. The line runs along one of Utsunomiya’s main commercial corridors and retail districts.

However, when Asahi's reporter interviewed passengers in September, he found that many were actually tourists from surrounding prefectures who just wanted to try out the new streetcars. One 85-year-old rider told the reporter he had no reason to use the LRT because he always drives. Another resident in his 80s said much the same thing, adding that walking to the LRT station from his house was more difficult than using his car. He was pleased to see people from outside coming to ride the LRT, hoping that it might reduce the tax burden on the locals who paid for it.

Takashi Hara, a professor at the University of the Air, told the Asahi that streetcars used to be fairly common, but now you mostly see them in western Japan. In 1972, Tokyo removed all of its streetcar lines except one, and then in quick order Sendai, Yokohama and Kawasaki also closed down their lines, reckoning that LRT was a nuisance for the emerging “automobile society,” since it shared public roads with cars. But light rail is making a comeback in Europe and the U.S. Portland, Oregon, for instance, doesn't even charge people to rise its streetcars in the city center, resulting in a substantial reduction in car traffic.

Hara said western Japan still had streetcars because it has always had streetcars. Light rail has been a fixture in cities such as Hiroshima and Okayama for many years, so people are used to them. When cities in eastern Japan eliminated them to placate drivers, they became reliant on cars - a development that had knock-on effects. Developers built shopping complexes on inexpensive land outside city centers because people could drive there and park, destroying traditional urban retail districts in the process. So even if an LRT is built in a regional capital, it could fail to attract a ridership if there is nowhere for them to go. Once cars take over, it is difficult to go back. 

The LRT in Toyama, launched in 2006 on existing tracks, was part of the city’s 2002 plan to realize a “compact” city - a concept formulated in the U.S. in the 1970s, with the idea of concentrating municipal functions in such a way so that people can either walk or use public transportation to do whatever they need to do. The idea acknowledged that suburban sprawl was becoming unmanageable. According to a 2016 report written for Yahoo! News, the Japanese government started studying compact cities in 2005, and in addition to Toyama, Akita, Nagaoka, Utsunomiya, and several other cities took up the idea in their urban planning schemes. The central government subsequently came up with something called the Active City Center Plan, which was adopted by 136 Japanese cities. However, by July of 2016, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications had evaluated 44 submissions and found that “none sufficiently fulfilled the concept”. Toyama may have come closest. Between 1970 and 2010, the population of the metropolitan area surrounding the city center had more than doubled. At one point, the city offered a subsidy of ¥500,000 to any household that moved from the outskirts of the city to the city center, but it didn't work. Out of the 47 prefectural capitals, Toyama is 44th in terms of population density – 337 people per square kilometer. By contrast, the density of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward is 18,300 people per square kilometer. Toyama's concerns were financial. The thinking goes that if population density halves, government spending on infrastructure per capita doubles. The problem for Toyama is that residents, attracted to suburban enclaves with lower land prices, have raised families in the suburbs and aren't interested in moving back to the city center, even if the local government has made it easier and more rational to do so. People with cars feel they are comfortable enough where they are. 

Cars, however, can serve as an alternative to public transport in areas where mass transit is scarce. But for the same reason that private bus and train companies reduce or eliminate services in rural areas – a lack of profitability - taxi companies don't usually set up businesses in places where they can't make much money. 

That is why local governments have endeavored to initiate ride sharing systems, in which people with private cars offer themselves as for-hire drivers on a needs basis. A September 28 article in the Asahi Shimbun discussed a plan being studied by the Kanagawa prefectural government to allow ride share services for certain municipalities at certain times. Originally, the idea was to allow ride share services in sightseeing areas frequented by foreign tourists, but the Kanagawa governor, Yuji Kuroiwa, has said that the endeavor could be expanded to areas suffering from population decline and is labor shortages. Since 2020, the number of taxis in the prefecture has fallen by 700, and the number of drivers by 3,000. Nationwide, there was a 40% decrease in taxi drivers between 2008 and 2021, with the average age of working drivers increasing from 55.3 to 60.9. More significantly, in 2014, 1.06 million people held class 2 licenses, which are necessary to drive a cab. Now only 780,000 have the license.

The prefecture plans to put existing taxi companies in charge of interviewing, registering, and training drivers for the ride share service. These companies would also manage their operations, take responsibility for safety, and ensure that drivers are insured. These provisions point to a stark difference with conventional ride share services in other countries, such as Uber, wherein the drivers themselves carry much of the responsibility, regardless of whether they are nominally employees or independent contractors. The only point of intersection is that in both ride share models the drivers use their own cars. That could be the main sticking point in Japan for the general population, whose image of “white license plate” taxis – private, uncertified cars that act like taxis and which are illegal – is invariably negative. One think tank researcher told the Asahi that in a survey of 1,000 men and women, 48% said they approved of allowing ride share services, 34% disapproves, and 20% had no opinion. However, when asked if they would use a ride share service, more than half said they would not, citing a fear of accidents, problems with drivers, and an uncertain quality of service. These are the same misgivings that people have about unregulated white license plate taxis (certified taxis have green license plates). Only 5.4% of the respondents said they had used a ride share service overseas, but those who did said that Japan's lack of a similar service makes life “less convenient”. The problem, the Asahi said, is that people mistrust ride share without really knowing what it is. 

The taxi industry is a major factor in preventing ride shares from taking hold in Japan. So far, it has successfully kept Uber at bay here, although more lawmakers, including the former prime minister, Yoshihide Suga and IT minister Taro Kono, have advocated for relaxing regulations to allow for what they call a “Japanese” version of ride share, following the Kanagawa model. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida even included a proposal for ride share in his recent policy statement speech. In response, taxi companies have proposed relaxing regulations for themselves. An October 4 article in the Tokyo Shimbun reported that the transportation ministry was thinking of raising the age limit for taxi drivers in some regional areas to 80, which would seem to contradict the general campaign to get elderly drivers to surrender their licenses. Another proposal would mandate yearly cognitive tests for drivers over 75. What the ministry really wants is for experienced taxi drivers in the big cities to retire to less populated areas (perhaps their home towns) where taxi services are scarce and continue working as cabbies. But as an expert on local governments told the newspaper, taxis are an expensive option for rural communities, which really require regular public transport services with fixed timetables. Just increasing the age limit for taxi drivers in specially designated areas is not going to assure mobility.

The government's proposals rely on the existing taxi industry's usual dispatch system to allow some private car owners to carry fares, thus contradicting the whole concept of ride share, which is to provide more direct contact between fares and drivers depending on need. So far, the government is only willing to revise existing laws to implement ride share. But it is clear that a new set of regulations is needed to make such a system effective for those who really need it, including the elderly, the disabled, and anyone without a car who happens to live in a place where public transport is no longer readily available.

Philip Brasor is a Tokyo-based writer who covers entertainment, the Japanese media, and money issues. He writes the Japan Media Watch column for the Number 1 Shimbun.