The Urbanist’s Dream City

A major commercial street.

A major commercial street.

I just returned from a week in Tokyo, which represents the urbanist vision taken to its logical extreme. Imagine density without limit; fast, extremely frequent and flawlessly operated public transit, and narrow streets that preclude big cars so that most neighborhood trips are by bicycle. Also, imagine that there is no litter, even though waste receptacles are hard to find. Everyone walks a lot, and overweight people are seldom seen.

The trip was sponsored by a Japanese TV network. Along with transit professionals from Britain and France, we were filmed on a show comparing Japanese public transit with foreign practice. They took us behind the scenes to see their methods, then asked for our reactions. During the stay I had ample opportunity to experience the commuter trains and subways, as well as buses and a couple of traditional tram lines. They gave us guides who showed us the back streets and residential neighborhoods we would not have seen otherwise.

Back to Tokyo—we have no concept of the level of density there. The only American equivalent, New York City, has comparable density, but it covers a much smaller geographic area. Tokyo itself has 9 million people, within a larger metro area of 13 million. There are multiple downtowns clustered around rail stations and every one makes downtown Minneapolis look like a small town.

Linking all this is a network of Japan Rail commuter rail lines on the surface, and the Tokyo subway system. There are plenty of buses as well. The railway corridors are like steel superhighways, with separate sets of tracks for the local trains, longer distance trains and the Shinkansen high speed intercity trains. The local trains run every five minutes or so all day, so consulting a schedule is unnecessary. As many have reported, all the trains stop with the doors opening precisely at marked locations on the platform, where the waiting passengers are neatly queued up.

Public transit is so good that it appeared (to me at least) to have defeated much of the traffic congestion. We were driven to several locations and traffic was no worse, and sometime better, than what we see in the Twin Cities.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the trip was the day we spent with our guide in his south Tokyo neighborhood. The train station featured a 2-level park-ride lot—exclusively for bicycles. Once away from the main road, the area was a maze of tiny nameless streets that would be dwarfed by our alleys. People have cars, but using them locally is a real hassle, so everyone gets around on dumpy utilitarian bikes with baskets. Witness the grocery store parking lot striped for bikes. Utility vehicles such as delivery vans and garbage trucks have been miniaturized to fit the environment.

It’s a testimony to the Japanese culture that all of this works so smoothly. It may be extremely crowded, but it’s all very user-friendly. Could it happen here? No way, given the NIMBY reaction to modest projects like the one at Franklin and Lyndale. But it’s instructive to see what real density looks like.

A smoking booth at Tokyo's main station. The smoke is vented away.

A smoking booth at Tokyo’s main station. The smoke is vented away.

Everywhere in Tokyo are guide routes for the blind.

Everywhere in Tokyo are guide routes for the blind.

A bike park and ride at a railroad station.

A bike park and ride at a railroad station.

A neighborhood commercial street. cars are permitted, but most of the traffic is bikes and peds.

A neighborhood commercial street. Cars are permitted, but most of the traffic is bikes and peds.

This grocery store parking lot is striped only for bikes.

This grocery store parking lot is striped only for bikes.

The "Scramble", an enormous 5-way intersection in Shibuta, so-called because of the ped-only signal phase that permits crossing in every direction at once.

The “Scramble”, an enormous 5-way intersection in Shibuya, so-called because of the ped-only signal phase that permits crossing in every direction at once.

Inside a typical Japan Railways commuter train. Much of the day the aisle is full of standees.

Inside a typical Japan Railways commuter train. Much of the day the aisle is full of standees.

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6 Responses to The Urbanist’s Dream City

  1. mplsjaromir September 23, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Too bad Japan does not allow immigration! Then others in the world could share in its great urbanism.

  2. Alex Cecchini
    Alex Cecchini September 23, 2014 at 9:48 am #

    Also, thanks to (oddly enough, top-down forced) de-regulation of housing/etc construction, Tokyo is as cheap as it gets for mega-cities, with prices continuing to fall despite the population increasing: http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/japan-shows-the-way-to-affordable-megacities

    Add in a stellar transit system (as you note) and extremely safe streets for walking and biking, (with walk scores that would put our best neighborhoods to shame), owning a car is highly unnecessary – further lowering the cost of living. And, as Nathan Lewis will tell you (admittedly in blow-hard fashion), this doesn’t have to come at the expense of single family homes in the region, either: http://www.newworldeconomics.com/archives/2011/061211.html

  3. Jeff Peltola September 23, 2014 at 10:05 am #

    Cool. What group were you with?

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs September 23, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      It was an ad hoc group of transit folks recruited by the TV network. The trip happened on a week’s notice.

  4. Rolf September 24, 2014 at 7:15 am #

    Tokyo is cool. I lived there for a year, a decade ago. As Alex Cecchini points out, housing is affordable, which was unexpected. In addition to the fact that supply mostly matches demand, there is a much wider range of apartment size and price-points. If you want to save money by living in a 100 sq foot dorm-style unit, that is an option.

    The catch is that salaries are poor in Tokyo compared to places like Hong Kong and New York, or even Minneapolis.

    One negative from an urbanism standpoint is that the transportation system is expensive. At one point I was spending more on train fare than on rent. Many if not most Japanese have train passes subsidized by their employer. If your employer is not paying for your train fare, the costs can add up quickly. They add up even more if you are a quasi tourist like I was, traveling around to different areas.

  5. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell September 24, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks. It’s great to see good examples from places other than northern Europe (though I am and likely will continue to be one of the top instigators of discussion of European urbanism).

    Did it seem uncomfortably crowded? If you lived there would you have preferred a lot less or slightly less density?

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