I recently had the opportunity to sightsee around Japan for a week. As somewhat of a transit tourist, I’ve experienced several of the busy, urban rail systems of the western world, but the scale of Japanese intercity and urban transit still shocked me. For some idea of the orders of magnitude involved here, consider that Shinjuku Station in Tokyo – a single train station – serves around 3.6 million riders on an average weekday. That is about 2/3 of the weekday ridership for the entire New York City Subway with over 400 stations. The urban Japanese would probably describe our three car Link trains with the word “kawaii” – how cute.
Japanese rail, or even the regional network of Tokyo, could easily occupy a dozen of these transit reports. So, I’ll narrow my focus to a city and transit system of (slightly) more manageable complexity: Osaka.
Osaka from the castle hill
Osaka city has an official population of 2.6 million, but it is situated as the principal city in a metropolitan region (known as the Keihanshin) with almost 20 million people. The city’s economic importance within Japan is only rivaled by Tokyo. Accordingly, Osaka has a world class transit system consisting of public subway, privately operated regional and long distance rail lines, and a bus network. In the spirit of STB’s excellent Transit Report Card series, I’ll try to cover some aspects of the transit network like scope, fare structure, and accessibility, among others.
- Midosuji and Nagahori Tsurumi-ryokuchi (Osaka Municipal Subway)
- Osaka Loop and JR Kyoto (Japan Railways West)
- Keihan Main (Keihan Electric Railway)
Design and Scope
In my experience, you really can get just about anywhere you want to go on Osaka’s transit network. The municipal subway, in particular, is extremely useful for getting around the core of the city.
Looking at the subway map, there are a couple of design elements to note: a roughly radial network at the outskirts and a well defined, rectangular grid of lines in the central area. Jarrett Walker-ites will note that if one were designing a transit network for maximal ridership in a multi-nodal city like Osaka, it would probably look about like this. Indeed, the subway is heavily used with nearly 2.5 million weekday riders. For comparison sake, that’s well more than double the DC Metro ridership on 70% of the track length. Of course, Japanese land use patterns are inextricably linked to the high utility of their transit systems…but I digress. For me, the pedestrian tourist, this network meant total freedom of movement – I was never more than a 10 minute walk from a subway station.
For longer trips within and outside the city, there is a network of regional routes operated by a handful of private, for-profit companies. The largest and most important of these is the West Japan Railway Company, or JR-West. Their routes are seen on the subway map as narrow, blue lines with a JR prefix on the route name. JR’s Osaka Loop Line, as its name implies, runs in an elongated circle around the core of Osaka, connecting with nearly all of the subway lines and several other regional lines. Having lived in Houston for a while, the Osaka Loop and Tokyo’s Yamanote line struck me as the transit analogues to the giant freeway belts of I-610 and Highway 8. For intercity travel, JR and others operate numerous lines to neighboring Kobe, Kyoto, and Nara metro areas.
Subway fares range between 180 and 370 yen and are tiered based on distance traveled – which is actually quite comparable to the fare structure and cost of Link. The regional train lines generally charge a base fare that varies with distance traveled; express or special services add an amount in addition to the base. Costs range from a few hundred yen within the city to thousands of yen for long distance express services. (At present exchange rates, $1 US is about 110 yen).
Single ride tickets for subway and regional lines can be purchased from machines and, usually, staffed ticket offices in all stations. Additionally, the ICOCA stored value card can be used on just about all of the routes (subway, regional, bus) in Osaka. As far as I know, there is not a sizable financial benefit to using an ICOCA, but it is certainly faster and more convenient. You can even use it at some vending machines and convenience stores! It’s worth noting that the contactless reader technology in the Osaka area is also compatible with many other cards, like SUICA from the Tokyo region.
Rail transit is the fastest game in town in urbanized Japan – no question. According to Google, the drive time between Kyoto and Osaka is at least 45 minutes (i.e. without traffic) and a flat 28 minutes on the JR Kyoto line.
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For longer distances, one can ride a shinkansen bullet train which hits top speeds of 150+ mph. Mic. Drop.
Frequency and Reliability
The Osaka subway seems to run at usual metro-like headways of 3-5 minutes all day. I certainly never felt like I had to wait. The service span of 5am – midnight does leave a bit to be desired given the very active nightlife of Osaka.
In comparison to many US commuter rail systems, the JR lines often run at astoundingly high frequency. For instance, the JR Kyoto local line runs every 5-10 minutes off-peak! Express and Special Rapid services tend to run closer to half-hourly off-peak frequency. The on-time performance on the regional routes is also very high. Japanese trains, in general, seem to run obsessively on schedule.
Major train stations in Osaka and many other big Japanese cities tend to be crowded, labyrinth complexes where transit and commerce meet head-on. An extreme example of this is Namba Station which is seamlessly integrated into an underground shopping mall (or is it the other way around?) called The Namba Walk.
The Namba Walk
This can make navigation a challenge during transfers, especially when a decent portion of the wayfinding signage is in a language that you can’t read. However, it also means there is always somewhere to stop and eat something tasty on-the-go.
Stations are generally very clean and safe, by US standards. The issues that one is more likely to encounter are crowding and confusing signage, especially in stations providing transfers between local and regional services. I got lost in a station at least once a day. Luckily, there were staffed ticket gates where I was able to ask a human how to get where I needed to go using a combination of gestures and poorly pronounced location names.
I normally wouldn’t have a lot of reason to observe accessibility, but I happened to be traveling with friends who have a toddler – and thus, a stroller. Practically, that meant we needed elevators. The elevator requirement put another level on the difficulty of station navigation. In our experience, one can almost always find a sign pointing to an elevator from the train platform, but finding an elevator from a mezzanine to a surface-level exit was another matter. There were at least a few times when my weary travel companions settled for carrying the toddler/stroller combo up the stairs. Another obstacle, literally, was the narrowness of the ticket gates that one must pass through at mezzanine level. In most cases, there was a staffed gate with a wide-enough portal, but we did encounter a couple of cases where the stroller simply did not fit and we had to use a different exit on the other side of the station.
To summarize: the train stations are technically accessible, but the large size and complexity of many stations makes the search for elevators a confusing, time-consuming process.
Final Thoughts and Lessons for Seattle
I suspect that one could live an entire life in Japan that is ignorant of asphalt highways, given the massive scope of the regional rail networks. The analogy between the transit hierarchies in Japan (shinkansen > commuter/regional > subway/metro > bus/tram) and the road network hierarchy in the US (interstate > at-grade highway > major arterial > local access/residential street) is striking. If you want to see the logical conclusion of dense urban planning and high capacity transit on a large scale, I highly recommend visiting the Tokyo-Osaka corridor of Japan.
I think there are some takeaways here for our city as we build out the ST3 rail lines in the coming decades. It’s obvious that dense, mixed-use planning with good pedestrian access is very important. There are smaller initiatives too, like colocating retail/commerce with some of our busier stations, that would improve the network. Zach mentions the same point in his report from Mexico City – and I think it bears repeating. A related point is to ensure that the transfer environment is as simple and comfortable as possible for riders. The nature of Japanese transit, with its multiple private operators necessarily occupying different regions of a single train station, leads to a fairly complex transfer. Here is one area where we can actually do better in our city.