This is a guest post from reader Malcolm M
One of the first things noticeable to Western tourists visiting Japanese cities is how little traffic there is. Here is the morning peak on the main street of Ginza, Tokyo. Instead it’s crowded on the subway line beneath the street, and plenty of people walk from the subway station to their destination. In the West we have lobbyists selling the mirage of congestion-busting by building more roads. What are the secrets of congestion-busting the Japanese way? Here are some observations from a recent holiday in Japan.
1. Virtually no on-street parking, and instead there are private off-street paid parking areas. Even in rural areas there is a white line along the side of the road indicating no parking. Illegal parking attracts are fine of 10,000 to 18,000 Yen (NZD 145-260). Much of Japan’s urban area was developed in an era when car ownership rates were low, so there was little provision for them as evidenced by narrow roads like this one in Kyoto. Although only developed to 2-4 stories, this area is densely populated because Japanese living areas are small, and there simply isn’t room for everyone to store their own car.
2. To register a car the owner must prove they have a place to park it. Here is a car stacker at an apartment complex in Sapporo. There is also a ban on overnight on-street parking. (I have heard similar bans apply in parts of California, so it’s not just a Japanese solution.)
3. Parking is provided by the private sector, and motorists expect to pay for it. We parked our rental car here overnight in Sapporo for NZD 15. Because parking is priced appropriately there are always vacant spaces, and I never saw one of these private parking areas full. I also saw no provision of parking for employees either except at factories outside urban areas. Photo credit: Google Streetview
4. Many of the streets have wide sidewalks where pedestrians and cyclists mix, which is quite safe because Japanese don’t cycle fast (and they don’t need helmets either). There is no parking lane, and traffic is light despite it being a densely built-up area.
This is a main street in Sapporo, which has a metropolitan population of 2 million (greater than Auckland), but because of its high density and light traffic it feels more like Christchurch to drive in. Only 3 km to the south is uninhabited mountain, 7 km to the north is the start of agricultural land, and the furthest suburbs are only 18 km away. Sapporo has a metro that carries 210 million passengers per year, and a further 76 million per year use the above-ground rail system. More information here:
5. Zoning is for building form rather than its use, so property owners are free to convert residential buildings to shops or restaurants. There are lots of 7-Elevens and similar convenience stores that sell pre-made meals at prices competitive with home cooking. Since these stores are within walking distance of most residents, there is less need to drive to a shopping mall. Japanese apartments have small kitchens and little storage space, so shopping tends to be for small amounts at frequent intervals. We used this Lawsons convenience store in Kyoto, which was busy despite no provision of parking. More information on Japanese zoning here. Photo credit: Google Streetview
6. Both public and private investment in public transport infrastructure. It is well-used and well-maintained. Here is a 10:40 pm Sunday service of the Tsukuba Express, one of Tokyo’s newest train lines. It has a top speed of 130 km/hr and acceleration that can be felt. It is operated by a company owned by a consortium of local and prefecture governments. This way, the debt for its construction is tied to an income source of fares, rent and land value uplift, rather than consolidated government debt that must be paid off by taxation as Western governments tend to do. More information about the financing model is here and here. Once sufficiently profitable, most publicly owned railway companies have been sold to shareholder-investors by listing on the Japanese stock exchange.
7. High intensity use of greenfield land. While most of Tokyo’s current urban area was developed prior to mass car ownership, a few areas such as the railway junction above were developed recently on greenfield land. Here the Tsukuba Express links the satellite town of Tsukuba with inner Tokyo. Land around the new station was reserved for high density development. Some of the costs of the railway were covered by land development. One development was a 3-storey shopping mall with a walkway connecting it to the station and 5 storeys of paid parking on the opposite side of the mall. Parking costs NZD13 per day. The station is also a junction with a privately-owned orbital rail line (opened in 1911), which acts as a feeder for the Tsukuba Express. In its first full year of operation in 2006 the Tsukuba Express carried 71 million passengers, which would have been mainly through transfers from other rail lines, but grew to 117 million in 2013, presumably as areas near the new stations became developed. Photo credit: Google Earth.
8. Private sector expressways. Tolls are 25-60c/km and have lots of tunnels to cope with New Zealand-like terrain. We never saw any congestion of the expressway network. A toll of this magnitude dissuades Japanese from buying housing on the urban fringe, so their cities don’t tend to sprawl along the expressway network.
9. No publicly provided parking at the most popular tourist attractions. Here is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, the Fushimi Inari shrine at Kyoto. In the US or New Zealand there would be a large car park and traffic congestion, but here there are two train stations, lots of pedestrians and no traffic. Japan’s international tourism has grown from 5 million in 2000 to 31 million in 2018. More than half of these are Chinese and South Koreans who are used to good public transport systems in their home countries, and less confident hiring a car in a foreign country. Because many of Japan’s attractions are accessible by rail, its capacity to absorb further growth is much greater than if its transport system were road-based. (There is also a wild side of Japan beyond the rail network, where tourists confident with a hire car can see great scenery with little traffic, and the parking is free.)
Plenty of visitors from the tourist attraction wait for the next train back to central Kyoto.
What are some small steps that could be taken toward this model? The foundations of our urban structures are first legal, then financial. Governments come and go, and government appropriations rarely last more than 3 years unless there is a legal responsibility for provision of a service. The urban legal foundations in Australasia are strongly influenced by post-war developments in the United States, such as zoning, minimum parking requirement and publicly funded freeways.
- In new subdivisions, no on-street parking, except a few time-limited bays for visitors and tradespeople.
- When registering a vehicle include the address at which it will normally be parked, and provide access to this database to council parking officers, who could then easily book non-resident cars, or those without resident permits (in areas where the council chooses to do this).
- Take away the right of councils to zone land as “single-family residences”, as this is discriminatory against cultures where several families may live together. It was originally introduced in the US to keep out African Americans, who would often have multigenerational families within the same house. This zone should instead allow for buildings up to the same height currently allowed, which is normally 2 storeys plus a peaked roof, or 3 storeys with a flat roof, and could be apartments that fit the building envelope.