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Shinkansen!
Photo by flickr User Kevin Jaako

In honour of the Shinkansen’s 50th anniversary, the Guardian has a very interesting article about the Shinkansen – the world’s first bullet train – and it’s transformative effects on Japan. The article helps shed some light on how major infrastructure projects can change the face of their environments, for better or for worse. While reading this article, keep in mind that Japan has extremely high road tolls, which help explain part of mass transit’s popularity there.

From the article:

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month – so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

Shinkansen strikes again(N700 Series)
Photo by flickr user Shinichi Higashi

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical – not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

Comparing this to our nation’s major post-war infrastructure project, the Interstate Highway system, and you see interesting parallels and contrasts. Both allowed the expansion of developed areas to accommodate the post-war baby boom. The Shinkansen and suburban commuter lines* have served to super size Tokyo into a super-dense, walkable metropolis. Stations on the lines become commuter hubs, each with their own walkable urban villages. The focus on Tokyo has also driven up that city’s important, at the expense of some of the smaller cities. On the other hand, the Interstate System and the US highway system before it have allowed people to move out to far-flung areas as well, but in low-density, auto-oriented sprawl. They’ve also driven down the importance of the US’s traditional major cities (New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.) while driving up the importance of some of the newer upstarts (Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego).

Looking forward, it’ll be interesting to see what the long-term effects are of all of the infrastructure spending in China. There they are building more bullet trains than Japan, more highways than the US, and more subways than all of Europe put together. Where will all of those billion plus people live at the end of all of that?

Anyway, the whole article is interesting, and there’s a bit about the Shinkansen’s future – maglev – at the end. Oh, and happy 50th birthday, Shinkansen!

*Several years ago I wrote a post about how suburban rail lines created dense sprawl in the Tokyo Metro area (the great Kanto Plain).