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Shibuya Station

The Metro line leaving world-famous Shibuya Station bound for Asakusa. Photo: Takumi Kaizaki

Standing in the middle of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo during rush hour, I felt like I was in one of those movie scenes where a character stands still but everything else is a moving blur. That was three years ago, as I traveled to Japan for the first time and learned how to use the Tokyo transit station on my first day.

Look up the 50 busiest train stations in the world, and you’ll see that 48 of them are in Japan. On average, Shinjuku Station, which is just one of 180 large stations in Tokyo, serves almost 3 million passengers per day. Add to this that the station operates as both a commuter hub and a major stop for the world-famous Shinkansen bullet train system. That first day at the station I was about to board a train that would take me 300 miles to Kyoto as fast as any commercial airplane could; for comparison, this would be like catching a train in Seattle and arriving in Portland in less than an hour, door-to-door.

Japan commuter train

Quiet midday ride on a local commuter train. Photo: Peter Trinh

Shinjuku Station seems like a recipe for chaos—with so many people traveling through one place—but what I saw was quite the opposite. People moved seamlessly through the ticket gates in both directions and got to their platforms on time. Orderly lines formed up and down each escalator and set of stairs.

Being a multimodal transportation designer, I’ve always been infatuated with how people move through cities. Japan has mesmerized me since I first visited Tokyo. The nation thrives on efficiency while focusing on attention to detail and simplicity, using what’s necessary and cutting out what’s not—including cars. Tokyo’s traffic is nowhere as bad as you would expect, yet the city’s manageable traffic doesn’t seem to entice more residents to drive (typically, good traffic conditions draw more cars to the road). How do you get an entire metropolitan area—Tokyo is the largest in the world with a population of 13.6 million—committed to using public transit? Is the answer found purely in infrastructure or is culture part of the equation? It’s a question that all major cities in America ask today. It’s not easy to answer, but we can at least scratch the surface of how public transit has become so successful in Japan.

Tokyo metropolis

A local train weaving through the Tokyo metropolis. Photo: Takumi Kaizaki

A Long Love of Rail

Building a robust and sensible transit system for a major city requires commitment from the start and big-picture thinking—both of which Japan has had.

Japan lacks fossil fuels, depending almost completely on imports. Because of this, Japan’s government has long promoted its railways as the most efficient method of transport. This support of rail also predates cars. Starting in the 19th century, the Japanese began further developing Tokyo, and a large part of their country, on the backbone of rail. Building their railways through public-private partnerships—a system that continues today—the government encouraged companies and investors to build railways and stations in exchange for the opportunity to develop nearby properties for retail, commercial, and residential use. This led to the building of integrated communities along the railway lines, allowing developers to profit through real estate, retail, and numerous other businesses. This sort of planning and construction fosters thriving neighborhoods, communities, and ultimately, cities. And when public transit seamlessly fuses with where people live and work, it makes the decision to use the system easy.

Today, almost the entire Japanese rail network is owned and run by private companies, including the large Japan Railways Group (JR), 16 other major companies, and dozens of smaller ones. The government regulates fees so that using rail in Japan remains affordable, further encouraging use.

Japan train inside tunnel

A look from the inside of a tunnel as a local train enters. Photo: Takumi Kaizaki

More Than Just Stations

Transit stations take up space, and in a crowded city, they shouldn’t just be places for people to get on and off trains or buses. They should be multipurpose buildings that take advantage of their structural footprints. They should be visually attractive and act as appealing gathering places.

Many of Tokyo’s large stations contain floors of department stores, restaurants, convenience stores, and groceries. Instead of worrying about which detour to take after work to pick up dinner, riders can shop right at the station. I routinely observed friends meeting at a train station after work to grab dinner before catching their respective trains home. Some of the best coffee shops in Tokyo are located inside train stations, making that morning rush-hour latte a bit more convenient. Looking for the best ramen in the world? The famous “Ramen Street” row of restaurants is located in the basement of Tokyo Station. And after our first time in Japan, my wife kept talking about the amazing matcha green-tea ice cream they served in Kyoto Station’s food court. Having these conveniences and luxuries integrated into a placemaking concept results in transit stations that are much more attractive to those experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life.

Tokyo Monorail

The Tokyo Monorail at night. Photo: Takumi Kaizaki

Culture Reflected in Rail

Culturally, Japan is the most respectful country I’ve ever traveled to. Locals bow and smile at each other and tourists as a sign of gratitude, greeting, farewell, or to apologize for an accidental, gentle bump. Walking around Japan, it’s extremely rare to find trash on the ground, as the Japanese don’t believe in littering on the land on which they live. This culture is reflected in their transit system as well. Passengers try their best to keep the subway cars clean, from the colorful cloth seats to the seemingly spotless floors. People keep their voices down when speaking to each other on the trains to not disrupt other riders, and nobody eats or drinks when riding transit to reduce the need for major cleaning. During rush hour, commuters form orderly lines in front of each train door, waiting patiently for the train to arrive before filing into each car. There is no pushing, cutting, and, ironically, no rush. There’s an understanding that the transit system belongs to the collective people of the community and should be respected as such. When people respect community resources and believe in sustaining them for others, this leads to a culture that embraces what is shared, including mass transit.

What I see in Japan is truly a transit culture unlike anywhere else. I understand that many major American cities are already built out, and implementing intertwining, elaborate transit networks as complex as Tokyo’s is nearly impossible. But we can certainly improve on what we have now. So, is it infrastructure or culture? Perhaps it’s a reciprocal relationship. A time-proven motto to live by in transportation (borrowing from a famous movie) is if you build it, they will come. When Seattle built its first two-way protected bike lane downtown, bicycle volumes tripled. Generally, when we try to remedy freeway congestion by adding lanes, traffic doesn’t go away—more cars use the road. In Seattle, the region is realizing the need for more travel choices and investing heavily in expanding its rail network to ease the traffic congestion headaches of an ever-growing city. And if we continue to invest in rail and other modes of travel in America, and are smart about how we build them, we can reach higher ridership and change the culture of mobility.