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City Life

The Demotorisation of Japan

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Lately we have been hearing a lot about how important it is for our cities and for the planet that a lot of us get out of our cars and start using public and active transportation. The urban form will be improved, quality of life will get better and so on.

Today I was involved in a discussion about how at the turn of the century mobility was largely restricted by physical transportation and that the shape of cities responded to those networks based on what was available. Walking, horses, wagons, these all kept the spheres of the average citizen’s life relatively compact, and contained.  As technology increased tramways, street cars and urban railways extended these spheres, with each technological innovation mobility increases with the automobile and private vehicle ownership  bringing us to the form we have now. However an interesting aspect that I hadn’t considered before was that things like telephones, fax machines, the Internet, and e-mail are all related to personal mobility and inter-connectivity, which to some extent is the whole point, technology allows us to ‘meet’ with someone  across great distances by  removing the need for us to use transportation to be there to relay our messages ourselves.

It adds an extra dimension the article posted in thestar.com about how for the first time in decades, car ownership is in decline in Japan.  It’s not just that cars are expensive, the economy is in recession, and all the other reasons that spring to mind in current climate, it’s also because of a shift in the way that Japanese young  people think about cars.

To get around the city, Yutaka Makino hops on his skateboard or rides commuter trains. Does he dream of the day when he has his own car? Not a chance.

Like many Japanese of his generation, the 28-year-old musician and part-time maintenance worker says owning a car is more trouble than it’s worth, especially in a congested city where monthly parking runs as much as 30,000 yen, or US$330, and gas costs $3.50 a gallon – or 92 cents US a litre.S

japanese-commuter-train

It’s basically a bicycle activist’s dream come true, Japanese young people have stopped seeing cars as a status symbol and view them as just another tool.  The youth are shifting more towards cell phones and personal computers that allow the electronic mobility without the hassles of trying to navigate in a country where the roads are very congested, but the trains are efficient and frequent. The younger generation has seen through the sports car idealizing culture of the older generation.

“Young people’s interest is shifting from cars to communication tools like personal computers, mobile phones and services,” said Yoichiro Ichimaru, who oversees domestic sales at Toyota. “The changes in individuals’ values on cars came cumulatively over time,” said Nissan chief operating officer Toshiyuki Shiga. “The change in young people’s attitude toward cars didn’t happen overnight. So we have to keep convincing them cars are great.”

The phenomenon is interesting because of needing shape of things to come, while Japan is much better equipped with public transportation it’s an example of how it’s not quite so inconceivable for people to get out of their cars can make use of other forms of transportation, be they public or electronic.

However the article also illustrates another interesting aspect that is often ignored when we discuss transportation, but is an important reality of de-motorization. The manufacturing industry makes up a fifth of the Japanese economy, and the automobile industry is no small part of that.  A slowdown in manufacturing sector we have some very significant effects, very few of which are positive, on the Japanese economy.  If our recent economic troubles here in North America have shown us anything it’s that the automobile industry also makes up a significant portion of our economy too, and reductions in the automobile manufacturing sector have serious implications for the North American economy.  The challenge for countries in dealing with de-motorization, a trend that is both a little inevitable and a lot desirable, is how to replace the economic capacity of the automobile industry with another economic engine. It is important to get everyone out of their cars, but it would be nice if we could avoid ruining the economy while we do it.

Click Here to read The Star article.

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