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Transportation & Land Use

What Tokyo’s subway system can teach us about the future of cars

tokyo subway systemAs a policy nonprofit, Fresh Energy tends to focus on energy-related strategies and technologies that can have a significant impact in the near- to mid-term future. Energy efficiency, walkable communities, electric vehicles, etc. But sometimes it’s fun to look a bit further down the road.

In the field of transportation, we can get a glimpse of the future by looking at what Japan is doing today. The country is of course famous for its fast inter-city trains. But Japan is also a pioneer in “intelligent transportation” systems, with a subway system whose trains think for themselves:

Carrying some 20 million people a day, the Japan rail network appears dangerously overtaxed, the remnant of a post–World War II demographic shift that brought record numbers into the city. “It’s a system that’s operating beyond capacity, a system that shouldn’t work,” says Fisch, a Japan expert who spent months riding trains between 2004 and 2008.

Yet it does work—with a precision that would boggle [American] riders. So accurate are the schedules, Fisch says, it’s not uncommon for a rush-hour commuter to say she rides “the 7:43 a.m., third car, fourth door.” For those who miss their train, another arrives in less than two minutes.

It’s a recipe for disaster, rescued by the addition of a secret ingredient: advanced information technology—basically, the marriage of computer processing and telecommunication networks.

It will be a long time, one imagines, before U.S. transportation networks become nearly as “smart” at improving efficiency (in part because cars, unlike subway trains, are characterized by private ownership). But information technology is starting to sneak into our commercial and consumer vehicles, in the form of “telematics” and increasingly ubiquitous smart phones.

This trend will only accelerate with the emergence of electric vehicles—which itself represents flirtation (if not yet marriage) between the vehicle and electricity sectors, hesitant lovers who will communicate though information technology.

Photo from CT Snow via Creative Commons

In the field of transportation, we can get a glimpse of the future by looking at what Japan is doing today.

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