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.