Japan’s transportation is extremely different than the U.S.; while you can find the same types of transit (buses, cars, subways, monorails), their infrastructure and usage vary wildly. The U.S. mainly uses motorized personal vehicles to travel from place to place. Most households have at least one car and many households have multiple. I know my family has always had at least two cars, with that number increasing to 5 as my siblings and I grew up and began to drive. Japan, however, has many fewer motor vehicle usage, instead relying heavily on nonmotorized transport such as walking or biking, and public transport, like buses and subways. Public transit exists in the U.S., but it is much less used that public transit in Japan. Japan’s use of space and transportation infrastructure makes their public transport more available and convenient, increasing the sustainability of the transit system. Tokyo’s sidewalks on busy roads are either fenced off from the street, or in most places, raised above the street. This prevents pedestrian traffic from interfering with road traffic, allowing for more efficient and reliable bus systems. The railways are kept away from the roads and sidewalks for the most part, being raised above or below the streets. In the U.S., pedestrian traffic is usually not kept separate. Buses sometimes have their own “bus lane,” but I have found that in Atlanta, that rule is largely ignored by personal motor vehicles. Comparing a map of MARTA to a map of Tokyo’s subway system, the difference is extremely clear. MARTA is a small cross of just 4 lines while Tokyo is an intricate web of lines. This all leads up to the fact that Japan has 1/7 of the emissions per capita than America, making their transportation more sustainable.
But there is more to transportation than just emissions. People in Tokyo and Japan eagerly use the public transit systems; they rely on it. People in America generally tend to avoid public transit systems if they can help it. This difference is explained by what makes a transit system good. A good transit system is convenient in location, timely, financially efficient, trustworthy, and comfortable. A good and sustainable transit system adds equity, safety, heath, and environmental impact into the mix. Japan’s transit systems were built in such a way that buildings and neighborhoods developed around the railway stops, inherently making them convenient. America built the railways where the population already was, making it less direct. The Tokyo transit system is frequent, reliable, and efficient. I haven’t ridden public transportation in many cities, so I can only speak for Atlanta Usually the transit system is late, and infrequent enough that I always allow extra time whenever I travel with it. One aspect of Tokyo’s transit system that I cannot outright praise is the cost. While it is probably economically efficient for a local Tokyo resident who only travels to and from work every day, I have easily spent $15 on subway tickets in one day. While this is cheaper than an Uber in Japan, I still find it a large amount of money. But the convenience of the Tokyo subway system far outweighs the price, making it still worthwhile.
I had the pleasure of touring the Japan Rail East Research Facility, a leading company in the Japanese subway system. The tour was incredibly interesting; they are testing and developing improvements to the railway system I never even considered. For example, they are testing ideal ceiling levels for subway wind flow, various stair railings and gate designs, new escalators to support the load in subway stations, and lighting. The most interesting aspect for me was the development of solar panels for the subway station windows. This is an excellent use of space and a renewable way to generate energy. The newest design put the tiny solar panels on blinds so they can adjust to the position of the sun throughout the day. Japan Rail’s innovation in the past has been commendable and their plans for the future are inspiring. I am very excited to see the improvements of the subway system in the coming years.
There are many different ways that cities can implement public transportation as a sustainable way to get around. From class and the readings, I learned that American cities like Pittsburgh are implementing right of way A bus lanes and Seattle and Boston are doing the same by actually giving buses their own stations. And, of course, New York implements an underground train system as the main part of their transit service. While Japan also uses trains as the primary leg of their transportation system, they do so in a much different, and in my opinion, more sustainable way.
In the US, the government must subsidize public transportation so that it is able to cover operating costs and continue running. However, in Japan, the rail companies are privately owned, as is the land surrounding rail stations, so they are able to both cover operating costs as well as make a profit (picture below shows buildings on JR-owned land around a station). This is a much more sustainable model for many reasons. One reason is that transit systems do not have to rely on the government to keep them in operation, so, if the government faces a recession or change of dominating party where they rewrite the budget, transit systems are not at risk of grinding to a halt because of bureaucratic issues, whereas in the US this can be a concern. Also, because Japanese rail companies make a profit, they are able to fund their own research into innovating their transit service, making it faster and safer for all who use it. In the US however, little innovation is being introduced into public transit due to a lack of funding from the government.
When I think about the American transit system, I think about bureaucracy, inconvenience, unreliability, and hassle. In my personal experience riding MARTA in Atlanta, the buses often get caught in congestion due to poor city planning in Atlanta, causing numerous delays. The trains are not much better though, at times being 20 minutes late for the scheduled arrival time. It seems that the American approach to development is to do what is cheapest and easiest. As detailed in the UN report, however, public transit is the transportation of the future. As countries develop, populations grow, and the Earth continues to experience global warming, public transit will be the prevailing mode of transportation, because it is the most sustainable.
There are many different factors that play into making a good transit service. To me, the most important aspects of a good transit system are reliability, speed, convenience, and cost. These are all things that stand out as highlights of Japanese transit. I have been so impressed by how easy it is to navigate through many different areas of Tokyo using the train system. I never have to wait more than a few minutes for a train to come, and I have options between local, rapid, and express transit lines that give me flexibility to get to my destination faster if I’m going further. I really admire this and more about Japan’s transit, and was really impressed by the research that JR east was conducting in the areas of efficient and green energy use, customer safety and comfort, and use of new technology to make trains faster and more durable.
From the tour of the JR east research facility, a few things stood out to me. First, I was impressed by how much thought they put into every single aspect of the rail transit experience, from choosing the material and color of the tiling on the floor to testing the durability of the track to finding the best angle for wheelchair-accessible Suica scanners. Another thing that struck me was the sheer innovation that was taking place in the facility. I loved the idea they shared about having green air conditioning by pumping the cooler air from below ground in train stations. I also liked the idea of taking the energy the train uses while accelerating and decelerating and channeling it back into the train. I thought all of their innovations were truly the technology of the future, and greatly admired how much thought and time went into every aspect of their service. The picture below is of a customer service robot that was in one of the JR stations. We were able to ask the robot where something was, and it showed us on a digital map the route we needed to take to get there. This is just one example of the numerous innovations taking place in Tokyo’s transit systems.
Boiling down the aspects of “good” transportation to fit only seven categories is a Herculean task considering just how much effort goes into every public transport system, but the seven we discussed in class do it as best as possible in a model which unintentionally prizes the Japanese rail system. Every aspect described has been pinpointed by the Japanese and optimized to the most extreme levels, and we can compare it to our own transit system to see just how true that is. For example, no one can beat the timeliness of Japanese transportation, which is always impeccably timed (with timing displayed in the most convenient ways possible on top of that), covering the “good use of my time” and “when I want to go” aspects discussed. Especially compared to Atlanta, in which being five minutes late is still considered on time and most trains still run late, this is an incredible feat. Even though some places like New York do timeliness slightly better than us, America’s transit as a whole is known for being less timely, just as American culture would predict. Especially considering just how many trains and stops and routes there are in Japan (with the sheer amount of stops making it easy to get where you want to go with freedom to change your plans), thinking of every single one as safe and reliable is almost impossible to us.
Safety is another huge factor in useful and good transportation services. A country or city could have the best technology available and run in the most timely and efficient manners, but if it is unsafe or people feel as though they can’t trust it or aren’t respected there, very few people would use said service. Luckily, this is not true of Japan. With guards every few yards and top of the line precautions in place, it is actually impossible to try anything suspicious without being noticed immediately. Another great cultural difference between Japan and America which causes some variance in transportation is comfort with crowding. Even somewhat knowing what I was getting into with Tokyo transportation, I was shocked at just how many people were crammed into every car, and to us Americans, this probably seems rather unsafe. However, since Japan as a culture and as a transit system is so safe, there is no reason to feel as though crowded should equate to unsafe, especially due to the incredible stability of the cars keeping people from stumbling or having any difficulty moving around.
With the already incredibly developed Japanese railway system and their tendency to always be on the cutting edge of something new, one has to wonder where their heightened technologies will take them in the near and far future. At the forefront of this development is the groundbreaking JR East, a company whose facilities we were fortunate enough to tour. They test everything ranging from earthquake proof concrete to laser gates to wheelchair accessible swiping systems within their grounds, but most of these have a sole focus on use in transportation. Overall, the goals for all their developments tend to revolve around bettering the safety and efficiency of the transportation system as a whole in Japan. They referred to it frequently as the “next generation” of transportation, but this made me further consider Japan’s next generation of people and how that could impact their public transport. Even with all the developments in railway technology, these developments are only as strong as the society that they serve, and with their rapid decline in workforce numbers, Japan may soon be forced to allow an influx of immigrants. This means people disobeying the unspoken rules which keep the system running so smoothly and, despite all the praise that I and many others have given the Japanese rail system, it makes me wonder if these rails can keep up with the serious cultural changes Japan may soon be experiencing.
Sustainable transportation in Japan is overall better and more efficient than transportation in the US. One of the biggest components that Tokyo’s transit system excels at is that it is present everywhere that it needs to be. Since many of the neighborhoods and buildings are designed around the transit stations rather than the other way around, the train system tends to always be next to the most crowded and popular locations, making its location ideal for the greatest amount of people, which is one of the main elements of providing a good transit service. In most places in the US, transit systems are designed after a city is build, often making transit inconvenient. Similarly, the time span in which the transit service is available is also important. In terms of the frequency in which trains arrive, Tokyo’s system is excellent, since most of the major lines have a headway of less than 3 minutes, and the local lines have a headway of less than 10 minutes. However, the rail system is unavailable from between 11pm and 5am, which makes late night trips much more difficult, and means that almost the entire city is essentially shut down after 11pm in the evening. While this can be planned around, it still challenges the idea of whether Tokyo’s service takes you when you want to go. In the US, transit systems may be less regular, but there do tend to be systems that are in place very late into the night.
Just as the rail system is frequent, it also is fast and designed efficiently, so that passengers rarely need to take any more than 2 transfers to reach their destination. Since the train systems essentially always arrive within the minute that they are scheduled to arrive, the waiting time for passengers between stations is minimized. These factors all contribute to Japan having a transit system that is a good use of its passengers’ time. Some cities in the US also minimize the amount of transfers required, such as New York City, but are not as regular in their waiting times. Likewise, the fare charge is not overly expensive, as it takes around ¥500 to get from one end of the city to the other. Since Japan’s system is so rapid, passengers spend less time on the system itself and therefore cost the rail companies less in terms of operating costs. Therefore, the Japanese rail system has proven itself to be an excellent option for local citizens, if they wish to use it during operating hours.
Another aspect of useful transit service is whether the transit system respects the customer, which is very true in Japan. Despite the crowded conditions of the trains, people are respectful when it comes to moving around and behaving in the trains themselves, and do not litter, leading to clean and safe conditions for passengers. A good transit system should also be trustworthy, which Tokyo’s system certainly is, as I have never experienced a delay of a single minute so far at any of the stations I’ve been to. These aspects can be compared against the US’s, which is often noisy, dirty, and not on time. Finally, a good transit service should give individuals the freedom to change their plans, which relates to the reliability of the service and the availability of information. In all aspects of the rail service, Japan has excelled at providing information, whether it be in the stations or on the trains themselves. Information about the time to stations, the directions to go, and even which train car to get on to reach the optimal position on the disembarking platform. Many rail systems in the US also have information and apps available to help navigate, but not quite on the scale of Japan’s.
We also visited the Japan Rail East (JR East) research and development center in Saitama. JR East is undertaking a variety of initiatives to improve the safety, reliability, and sustainability of their transit system. For example, their research facility has a “Smart Station” building which is a replica of an actual boarding platform, to test new technologies such as integrated solar panel windows and safer boarding gates. They also have an extensive amount of machinery available for stress testing of station structures and train components. Finally, they are working on ways to reduce the energy consumption of the rail lines, by using technologies such as cold metal bars that are cooled from underground as a cheaper air conditioning alternative. Overall, these improvements show that despite Japan’s advanced transit system, they are still working to improve it to be the best that it can be.
After taking another deep look into Japan’s transit system, it’s easier to see how it compares to the United States system. However, the first thing I want to talk about is what makes up a good transit system. In order to have good transit, the system must take you where you want to go when you to go there, be worth it, and be reliable. This means that the transit must be coming and going frequently while still being on time. It also means the price has to be affordable for millions of people to use. Lastly, when I say reliable, I mean the system needs to be clean, safe, and the user should trust that their travel is going to go well.
Japan’s transit implements all of these traits into their system, however, if we take a look at the United States, they don’t exactly do the same. Unfortunately, most transit in the United States doesn’t always even get you where you need to go when you need to get there. Compared to Japan, many systems in the United States are often extremely late. Another key difference in the two transit systems is reliability. I think it’s pretty safe to say that trains in the United States are not as clean as trains in Japan, and many train stations in the States often feel unsafe.
During the tour of JR East yesterday, I was able to witness how Japan has developed their transit system so well and what they are working on currently. JR East was busy working on multiple new projects such as their sustainable air conditioning and adjustable ceilings for train stations. One major difference between Japanese and American trains that I noticed was energy consumption of the actual train itself. Some of JR East’s new train car designs featured batteries on the roof that were charged by catenaries. This allows the train to always run on electricity and not have to switch to diesel when disconnected from the catenaries. Overall, the visit to JR East really showed how Japan is working to build the next generation of transit by applying energy saving technology.
Tokyo’s transit system seemed very overwhelming just by looking at the complex line map. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get anywhere without following someone. After riding a few times, I not only felt safe, but I felt like I could get anywhere.
Information about the lines can be easily found at many places throughout the station, like in the picture above. There are signs for arrival times and directional signs pointing to the line name and where they lead to. The directional signs have symbols like arrows and escalators that give visual clues on where to go. In the picture below, the floor is marked with areas where people should wait in line for the trains. The footprints make lining up easy and intuitive.
Even when the stations are packed, it is not too difficult to get around. It is harder because we have a large group, and sometimes we got in the way of the flow of people. But most people travel alone or in small groups, which makes it easier to navigate the crowd. The system makes the flow easier by a stations are designed to make moving around easier with a variety of floor markings. Like the footprints, there are other kinds of queue markings (picture below). There are also arrows pointing to which side of the walkway and stairways to walk on.
I also found out the rubber paths (picture above) along the floor are for blind people to follow which I thought was a really smart way to help them get around. Also in the picture above, there are gates where the train lines up to. This barrier makes me feel more protected around the tracks.
The most amazing part to me is how subtle and organized everything is. The signs and directions and information on the train are very intuitive and the system is reliable, making it trustworthy even to newcomers. Even though the map seems daunting at first, it’s designed to be easy to learn.
One of the most appealing things about visiting Tokyo so far is that its transit system is highly developed and particularly useful because it allows for efficient transit at both the city-wide and local levels. For getting across the different districts of Tokyo, the Yamanote Line was incredibly convenient. Additionally, due to the private rail lines’ ownership of the area surrounding each of the major stations, many of the important stores and buildings that anyone would wish to enter are clustered around the stations. These closely-packed attractions help to promote walking and cycling, which are more healthy alternatives to using automobiles. Over the first two days, most of the transit time that I spent was walking between locations at areas near the major stations.
It is important to find a good balance between densely-packed transit systems that have a smaller footprint while also ensuring that individuals have adequate room to ride comfortably. The Yamanote Line was continuously packed throughout the day, which made it somewhat uncomfortable to ride at times, as there was little personal space. However, the Yamanote Line was very efficient and effective at transporting large amounts of passengers to a number of destinations across the city. Additionally, the railway system has a small footprint, with much of the railway existing underground. One related aspect of this I found interesting was the multiple floors for railways overlaid on top of one another, allowing for easy transit between lines while ensuring that the lines’ paths do not interfere with one another.
All the transit systems that I rode on were swift and timely. The trains would almost always arrive within 2 or 3 minutes of waiting, except for the local Sangubashi station, in which express trains often passed by the station. The monorail was likely the slowest of the rail systems that I rode on, but even that wasn’t all that slow and gave a nice view of parts of the city, as its small footprint allowed it to be built aboveground. Adding to the fact that the transit systems were timely was the fact that information was always available on what routes to take to get to your destination, when to transfer lines, and how long each ride would take. This came in handy for me many times, particularly when my plans changed and I quickly needed to figure out how to change destinations.
The main thing that I took away from the system of transit in Tokyo is that the Japanese know how to maximize the space in their city, whether it be aboveground, belowground, or on the ground itself, to make their transportation systems as efficient as possible. Given that the Tokyo Megaregion is incredibly populous and space is at a premium, this makes a lot of sense. Ideas such as multi-level stations, underground vehicle storage systems, and small-footprint monorails allow for the limited area in which Tokyo exists to be used to its full potential in terms of transit.
Today we had the chance to visit the Railway Museum and JR East's Research and Development facility in Saitama, a prefecture northwest of Tokyo. Since it was far away, we spent a relatively long time on the train. During this train ride I realized how well connected the Japanese transit system is. We headed back towards the youth center we were staying at a little past 5pm and got to see the large amount of people that use this system. The connectedness, ease of use, punctuality, frequency of trains, comfort, reach across the nation are some of the critical elements of a good transit system I thought the Japanese transit system did a great job in providing.
When I heard we were going to the Railway Museum I thought it would be boring, but little did I know that the museum would show me the amount of passion that the Japanese have for trains. The museum had a history section that showed the evolution of the Japanese railways, and a future section that showed how they plan to further improve this already amazing system.
I found the visit to JR East's Research and Development facility incredibly interesting as R&D is something I have thought about as a career choice. The tour of the facility showed me how important safety of passengers and bettering technology to make it easier for riders is for JR East, some of the things that they were in the process of developing were: better ticket gate for handicapped passengers, better safety gates on train stations, and solar power windows for train staions. Learning about the different things they do and what some of their future projects are made me wish I worked there as I had some ideas that I think could be implemented to make the train system better.
While touring the R&D facility I often thought about how an R&D facility might be for a train/transit company in America. I know the US Government has regulations that the train companies must follow but I have not seen any American company make improvements to their trains and stations to ensure the safety of the passengers. The biggest difference I have noticed in (my 5 days of using) the Japanese transit system and (my 2 commuting semesters of using) Marta is that the Japanese Transit System is something every rider wants to come back and use. I think America knows how to imitate what the Japanese are doing, has the technology for it, and definitely has the money to recreate something as good as it, what it is lacking is the push from the government to improve the transit system.
A wall from the exhibit of the history of trains in Japan.
Three summers ago, when I visited Japan with my family for the first time, I rode numerous subways and buses, but I never paid attention to both the transit tour and busy service until the transit tour. It was approximately 10:30 in the morning when we entered Harajuku station and although it was not rush hour, there was still a myriad of individuals commuting to work. Further into the tour at around 2 to 3 PM, I noticed that the crowd on the subways remained the same. This time, however, there were fewer dressed in professional attire and more tourists and students riding the subway, during these off hours. Despite the crowds of people, it was still relatively quiet on the trains, with everyone minding their own business and no one talking loudly or disrupting others.
Moreover, the trains always arrived and left in a timely manner. At most stations, there are overhead screens that list the specific train, its line, and platform number as well as the exact time that it will arrive. Given this information, I was able to easily check my phone to see if the train really arrived at the specified time. For instance, Shinjuku station is at the end of the Odakyu line, so the train stops there for a several minutes before departing. I noticed that the doors on both sides of the train were left open, and one minute prior to the departure time, the driver first closed the doors on one side. A few seconds before the scheduled time, the driver closed the remaining set of doors, and the train left exactly on time. Furthermore, I learned that a unique alarm at each platform alerts commuters that the train is about to depart. At first, I did not notice these sounds at all until we were halfway into the transit tour. I was standing right under a speaker when it suddenly played what was more of an odd than pleasant tune. Every time I rode the metro in Shanghai, China several months ago, I could always hear the loud, cacophonous beeping right as the doors close, but during this Tokyo transit tour, it always took me a while to realize the euphonious tune that was currently playing at the platform.
Despite the seemingly infinite number of transit lines owned by private companies, there were many signs hanging all over each station we walked through. I realized it is easy to find your way around as long as you have the directions to your destination with the specific lines and exits to take. It was easy to follow the signs, and there were also numerous maps and information centers at your disposal if you get lost. In addition, all the signs have English, Chinese, and Korean translations to aid foreigners and tourists navigating Tokyo’s public transportation system. These translations are also provided on the digital screens found in most trains which display the next few stops of the transit line, in addition to how many minutes it will take to arrive there. However, I noticed that train for the Odakyu line did not have these digital screens, which made it difficult for me to determine whether or not I was going in the right direction. Finally, I think that the most important aspect that I pulled from today’s transit tour was a glimpse at how Tokyo’s transit system takes into account equity. At one of the stations, I noticed a handicap sign painted on the ground, specifying that the subway car that stops right in front of it has a designated area for the disabled. On most of the train cars that I rode on, there was also priority seating for elderlies, pregnant women, women with kids, and anyone with physical injuries or disabilities. With the Tokyo transit tour, I am increasingly interested in learning more about the country’s approach to equity in its various modes of public transportation.
At first glance, Tokyo’s public transportation systems may seem more efficient than most, but nothing of a systematic wonder. This first glance, however, does not even begin to do the system justice. As we experienced today in our tour of said transit system, every finite detail is expertly crafted to function in the most harmonious way technologically possible. As a first testament to how smoothly (literally) this operation runs and one of the first things I noticed upon boarding, the trains themselves were so smooth that while running, people were walking through the cars with no stumbling incidents. The information offered aboard the train was also incredibly useful and well laid out- with everything from stop names (alternating between languages so at least one screen was English at all times), to minutes it would take to arrive at each stop, to rail names, etc. The on board experience as a whole was made pleasant not only due to the written information around the cars, but also due to auditory cues. Japanese people, as a social rule, do not speak loudly on trains; thus, it was very easy to hear the easing female voice announcing which stations were next (once again, in English and Japanese). This is a testament to how much the Japanese people are integrated into and mindful of their own public transportation. If so much as a handful of people were rowdy in such a small, crowded area, no one would comprehend the routes, but this is not the only aspect in which people impact their own transportation. Some other cultural phenomena which aid the smooth rail systems are the use of priority seating for pregnant women/the elderly (along with a car for females only to avoid groping), as well as the comfort with crowding in smaller spaces. While the priority seating is meant to be out of respect, I also noticed that it makes things faster; the in-shape people are free to get off without the obstruction of slower-moving peoples.
This cultural integration into the system is not a choice in Japan, either. If anyone does not follow the cultural cues, chaos could be insued, and the main reason for this is the sheer business of the stations and rails themselves. Even the smaller lines that we went on were filled nearly to the brim with people packed in like sardines, but there was no panic in people’s eyes as there is in even a half-empty MARTA. Despite the crowded nature of the trains and stations themselves, the stress levels seemed relatively low. Another set of details gone unnoticed by the untrained eye- and ear- comes int the form of stress-reduction methods placed thoughout stations and trains, from pleasant lighting to keep people from committing suicide, to jingles which indicate trains leaving as opposed to harsh buzzers preventing accidents, to lively colors which promote happiness and calmness. These solutions maintain short-term sustainability in an incredibly efficient manner; however, these are all psychological tricks, not solutions, and psychology is not necessarily stable. This means that perhaps citizens’ brains will eventually become numb to the destressors or future generations will have less inclination to register the noises as pleasant since it will be normal to them. The changes are very effective, but even a slight slip in their effectiveness could put a stop to the whole system.
That being said, there have yet to be many slip-ups with the system in its current state, and the timeliness of the stops is impeccible. Even from ten stops away, I timed one of the trains I was on and it got the exact minutes between stations (not to mention that they actually have times for the stations readily accessible).
This is to be expected from a system which had to apologize for being one minute late, but the question does still remain of how long these psychological tricks will uphold. Possibly, there could be no break in the seemingly unbreakable system, but resolving serious psychological epidemics with lighting tricks and catchy tones is not ensured to hold up forever. Even with their faults, however, the bells and whistles (and jingles) are incredibly impressive and well thought out for immediate resolution. Some credit must be given, after all, considering the harmonious workings between every miniscule part of the operation is, indeed, the Japanese Way.