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Lesson from Tokyo: How to Become a Human-centric City

Thursday, April 27, 2023

Tokyo is one of the most anti-car big cities in the world, even though it is impossible to say so about the rest of Japan. How did Tokyo resist the car?

While other big cities are almost invariably car dependent, Tokyo somehow managed to become more human-centric in its design. This may seem surprising, given the futuristic sheen the Japanese capitol has. The city, however, its surprisingly quiet: little traffic noise, honking, or engine noise can be heard because there are so few cars on the streets. There generally aren’t even cars parked along the side of the road. There are, of course, cars in Tokyo but the city has the lowest car use in the world. Only 12 percent of journeys are done by private car. Cycling accounts for 17 percent of journeys, and Tokyo has the most used public transport system in the world, with 30 million people commuting by train each day.

Japan as a whole is quite different than the wider country. This isn’t too surprising, considering that Japan is the country of Toyota, Honda, and Nissan, exporting vehicles all over the world. And a lot of Japanese people do own cars. Overall car ownership in Japan is about 590 vehicles per 1,000 people (1.06 cars per household), which is less than American’s rate of about 800 per 1,000. However, Tokyo is a big exception with only 0.32 cars per household. Most Japanese car owners live in smaller towns and cities. For example, the highest rate of car ownership is in Fukui Prefecture, on the western coast of Honshu, one of Japan’s least densely populated areas.

So, how has Tokyo managed to become an anti-car paradise? Andre Sorensen, a professor of urban planning at the University of Toronto says that the fact that Tokyo is not built around the car has a lot to do with the history of urban planning in Japan. Japanese street layouts were traditionally narrow. 35 percent of Japanese streets are not actually wide enough for a car to travel down them and 86 percent are not wide enough for a car to be able to stop without blocking the traffic behind it. However, the much bigger reason for Tokyo being an anti-car paradise is that Japan does not subsidize car ownership in the way other countries do. Moreover, buying a car is not that simple. To be allowed to purchase a car, you must be able to prove that you have somewhere to park it. Even without this “garage certificate” owning a car in Japan without having a dedicated parking space would be a nightmare. Under a nationwide law, overnight street parking of any sort is illegal (otherwise you would get fined around $1,700). This partly explains why the car ownership rate in rural areas is relatively high compared to Tokyo.

Parking rules are not the only reason that keeps cars out of Tokyo. According to Sorensen, a bigger reason is that from the beginning cars did not have an unfair advantage in their competition with other forms of transport, which is reflected in how Japan has never made expressways free (tolls in Japan are the most expensive in the world) and how neglected they were compared to expressways in the United States or Europe. So, unlike the rest of the world, the post-war era saw the construction of enormous amounts of rail infrastructure. When America was nationalizing and cutting its railways to cope with the failing demand for train travel, in Japan the national railway company was pouring investment into the system.

Personal Comment:

This example is not about the successful transformation from a car-centric city to a city where people make conscious decisions about using public transportation instead of private cars. Replicating the Tokyo model, which has seen some success in other Asian cities that have significantly reduced vehicle ownership, might be extremely challenging in other major cities. In fact, just a three hour train ride to the south Toyota subsidiary Woven is working on a futuristic city model that incorporates high levels of autonomy. This isn’t an attempt to build a small Tokyo either, which may in part be due to the OEM backing of the project.

Unlike Tokyo many cities around the world already have an infrastructure built around cars along with high car ownership. The culture in many of those cities would have to change significantly, because they currently say ‘yes’ to private car ownership, as it were. In my opinion, Tokyo has managed to create a more human-centric city due to a perfect combination of circumstances rather than succeeding in overturning the challenges much of the world is currently facing.

Despite that, Tokyo is a good example of a city that shows how people and the city, in general, can function well without cars. The earlier a city starts investing in efficient and reliable public transportation system and reducing the investment in parking and everything that is related to private cars, the earlier the city can become a place for people and not for cars.

The Written by Kateryna Melnyk,
RISE Mobility & Systems