Osaka Bay Expressway, photo by El Fotopakismo

Weekend before last, I went on a road trip* from where I’m staying in suburban Tokyo to a resort in the mountains. I got a decent impression of the Japanese highway system, and I’ll share some thoughts.

expressway toll road
Electronic Toll Gate, Photo by Kalavinka

The main Japanese national expressway system consists of about 8,000 km (5,000 miles) of toll roads. The tolls are distance-based, and starting with the semi-recent introduction of an electronic tolling system, the tolls have become day-of-the-week and time based as well. The tolls are rather expensive by American standards, about 50¢ a mile, and until recent discounts were introduced, it would cost about $400 to make a trip from Tokyo to Kagoshima, about the distance from Seattle to San Francisco. If you have the electronic toll card (ETC), you don’t need to stop at the booths. By now, every toll booth is ETC equiped.

The highways are nearly all entirely two lanes in each direction, with occasional third lane in and around cities. They drive on the other side here, ie, traffic is in the left lane, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, so all of the “left” and “rights” would be reversed. The traffic strongly adheres to the slow-lane for driving, fast lane for passing system. Very occasionally there is a third lane for extra slow traffic, mainly slow trucks, but otherwise the left lane is where the majority of driving is done.

Highway Robocop
Robo Cop cautioning drivers about rear-end collisions, notice the variable speed limit sign near the tunnel. Photo by El Fotopakismo

The speed limits are fairly slow. In most places the limit was either 100 kmph (~62 mph) or 80 kmph (~50 mph), which is a contrast with the generally 65 mph+ we see on America highways. The speed limit signs were electronic and could be varied based on driving conditions. When it was foggy, for example, the speed limit was reduced to 60 kmph (~37 mph) and near some road work the speed limit was  reduced to 50 kmph (~30 mph). The actual traffic moved much, much faster than the posted limits, even when there was no reduction. I was driving about 120 kmph most of the time, (~75mph) and was routinely getting passed by sports cars going much faster than I was.

The photo (to the right) of the on-ramp shows something I found rather surprising about Japanese highways. There is only one on-ramp for each highway at any given place; You enter the same on-ramp no matter which direction you’re going on the highway. After the ramp, you pass through a toll booth and then choose which direction to go. In the photo, the left two lanes are going east toward Osaka, and the right two lanes are going toward west toward the Sanomiya District of Kobe.

Highway to Osaka
On Ramp, Photo by sketches921

The system was built for intercity driving trips and not commute trips, and because of this, the exits are placed a lot farther apart here than on highways in America. Typically it’s about 5 km (3 miles) or more between exits, and even in cities it’s about 3 km (1.5 miles). Contrast that with I-5 through Seattle which has a couple of dozen exits over about 15 miles of roadway. The rest areas tend to be pretty nice, as well. About half of them have restaurants, shops, and gas stations, and many more are placed at some pretty beautiful places (see the photo of the bridge).

The system isn’t really primarily used for commute trips either. According to Japan’s National Expressway Construction Association  4.41 million vehicles use the expressways each day with an 43.7 km (27 mile) average trip length. In a country with 127 million people, 57.24 million private cars and many millions more company-owned cars and trucks, 4.41 million means that not even 10% of the country’s commutes are made on expressways. The high cost discourages commute trips as much as possible. A typical (for our area) ten-mile SUV commute would cost about $7 each way on expressways or about $3,500 a year. That’s enough money for many people to choose to live close to work or take transit instead (or commute by non-toll surface arterials).

Compared to most American highways (at least the ones I’m used to in Washington and California) the Japanese expressway system is in surprisingly good repair and has very little congestion. The roadways were very smooth and well maintained, with virtually no potholes or rough patches and nothing that even looked like a dilapidated bridge. The roads themselves must have cost a fortune to build: the terrain is very mountainous and there were dozens of tunnels on my short turn driving, many of which where several kilometers long (the longest I passed through was 3.7 km, which was immediately followed by another tunnel that was 2.4 km long). Even driving through urban areas at peak commute times, there wasn’t any serious congestion, and the speed never dipped below about 100 kmph.

japan april 167
A particularly attractive rest area in Shimonoseki. Photo by author

The one exception is Tokyo, where intra-regional trips are fairly inexpensive without a distance fee, $7 or so. However, there the roads have horrific traffic, and parking is outrageously expensive. Tokyo’s urban roadway system compares very poorly to the other similar cities: London, Paris, and New York all have much better highway systems. In Tokyo there’s only about a third of a car per person living there, so the vast majority of people are not driving, and still the congestion is dramatic. Here’s a blog post about Tokyo’s expressways, written by a highway fanatic.

Still, there are some bad signs for a sprawled-out future here, despite the encouraging ones. First, the current Prime Minister has been pushing tolls down. Also, as Japan is about 8,000 km into a 14,000 km expressway network plan, tons of new express ways are being built, many connecting smallish cities in the country to each other. Both of these are envisioned as economic stimulus attempts for the county but if the population of Japan were not declining, they might seem like dangerous sprawl-creation schemes instead. Moreover, Japan’s population may not continue declining, and the sprawl portent may come true in a very bad way.

 Comparing Japan’s national highway system (as well as that of France or the UK) with ours leads me to believe that creating the interstate system as freeways rather than toll roads was probably the worst transportation infrastructure mistake our nation has made. I’m sure it seemed like a wonderful idea at the time, since sprawl was probably envisioned as a good thing, congestion wasn’t imagined and the gas tax was more than enough to pay for the system’s maintenance. But now, these freeways have lead to incredible sprawl and the tremendous land use problems that come with that. Our congestion is outrageous, with tremendous economic costs, and traffic accidents cost even more than congestion. Not only that, the gas tax has long since stopped being enough to pay for our highways and we’re left with a massive roadway network and no means to pay for its maintenance. If we had only done what the Japanese have done…

*I know I know, bad transit blogger! No driving! But in my defense the resort was so remote that it would have taken about seven hours by train and then a fairly long taxi ride and would have cost about $30 per person in train tickets plus the taxi fare. It only took 2.5 hours by car and cost $50 total in tolls, and those 4.5 hours with the tiny baby would not have been fun. Plus, I got to drive one of these (don’t ask), and I got this post out of it. Win-win-win in my book.

17 Replies to “Japan’s Highways”

  1. Awesome post. As you probably know Japan is infrastructure crazy ($6.3 trillion from 1991-2008), so I suspect you are right that the expressways cost a fortune. On the bright side with the tolls and leasing the rest areas they currently pay for themselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a highway system that gets used appropriately as long as there are also transit options.

    Also for what it’s worth I bet a lot of people use non-toll roads to commute. When I lived in Fukuoka the city roads were always packed at rush hour even though there was a good bus system and decent subway. High parking and gas costs have to control that better than in the US, though.

    1. With the tiny baby (she’s not soooo tiny, she’s 99% weight and height for American babies, and like twice the size of same-age japanese babies), I was not allowed to take the car to full potential, so it was never really as much fun as it could have been.

      The bridge picture I took three weekends ago on a highway bus trip. So that’s being a good transit blogger.

    2. Infrastructure crazy Japan seems like a civil engineer’s dream.

      Everytime I see a photo of a Japanese road, it’s always nice and pristine. The paint is fresh and the pavement is dark and smooth. It looks like they resurface and repaint their roads every year.

      1. as a bicyclist bumping and jarring his way over the often hilariously bad seattle roads, i get green with envy when i watch youtube videos of folks cruising the unbelievably gorgeous tokyo streets. nary a hiccup.

  2. You should be proud, Andrew. Not only did you make a wise travel mode choice after weighing the options but, as your entry shows, you paid appropriately for the costs of that choice.

  3. As far as cars go, pretty nice. Anyone watch the Top Gear episode about hsr/public transport versus highways and cars in Japan?

      1. Is part of travelling the fun of not know what you’re doing? Just wondering. I speak semi-fluent Japanese (downgraded from fluent when I live here) and I see all these foreigners just confused all the time.

        Are they having fun?

      2. One last one, if someone tells you (as ben has to me) that cars haven’t become more fuel efficient over the years, because the model T got 20 mpg. Mention to them that this ~500 horsepower GT-R gets the same fuel economy as the 20 hp model t did

  4. Eisenhower originally wanted to fund the interstate system with tolls, but his aides told him that tolls would never raise enough revenue to pay for the construction. Instead it was financed by bonds that would later be paid off by the gas tax. This had the effect, however, of making urban and suburban drivers subsidize (there’s that word again) the construction of the interstates. He was also against building interstates within urban areas, but he lost that battle too.

  5. Well, i’m not really a highway “fanatic”… I’m a cartographer and I just tend to see a lot of highways.

  6. hi just spent 19 years writing a book and I can’t seem to find a website that will give me this info. Has anyone got any idea of the distance between Tokyo to Shimonoseki, cheers, Johnny Anderson.


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