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What Japan Can Teach America About Sustainable Transportation

By Nithin Coca

In the 1850s, when the infamous United States Navy "black ships" forced the then-isolated nation of Japan to open up to the world, one of the gifts the U.S. gave in return was a state-of-the-art, steam-powered train. In fact, one of the enduring images of that encounter is the sight of Samurai riding on the mini train, the likes of which no one in Japan had ever seen before.

At that time, it was the U.S. that had the world’s most advanced and high-tech rail system. Fast forward a century and a half, and the tables have completely turned.

While America still uses diesel engines and tracks laid in the 19th century, Japan took our gift and ran with it. The island nation now has the world’s best urban rail network and the busiest high-speed rail lines in the world. Nearly all are electric, and they are the chief reason that Japan’s per-capita GHG emissions are less than half of America's.

As U.S. states and cities look to build more sustainable transportation in order to meet set climate goals, there are a lot of things we could learn from Japan.

Investment and cooperation

One key, unique facet of Japan’s system is that it is almost entirely run by private companies. Even urban transit, such as Tokyo’s subway system, is private.

To say private, of course, is a bit of a misnomer – the Japanese government plays an active role in both regulating mass transit and providing funding for innovations, such as the planned maglev system. So it is really a public-private partnership, where companies work directly with city- and national-level governments to manage, maintain and operate a state-of-the-art transit system.

This creates some surprising situations. For example, 30 different companies operate transit systems in Tokyo alone – but they all use the same payment system, making it easy for riders to use multiple systems in a single trip. Compare that to the San Francisco Bay Area, where dozens of public transit systems barely integrate and allow only limited fare overlap.

Japan’s experience shows there is a strong, positive role to be played by the private sector. Florida, which will soon see America’s first private rail system in decades go into operation, could pave the path toward more public-private partnerships in the mass transit sector.


Another key feature of Japan’s transportation system is that it is built to grow and evolve. Rail lines are rarely single tracks, but often have three or four tracks to allow for express service. Subway lines directly connect with commuter rail lines, allowing for seamless service across regions. Moreover, lines run by separate companies often run right alongside each other and end up at the same destination.

This provides a level of redundancy rare in the U.S., where what rail systems exist are often single lines or single tracks. That leads to frequent delays or situations where freight and passenger rail share an overburdened single line, such as in Oakland, California. Making changes, as anyone knows, is extremely expensive and slow in most of the U.S.

“When looking at metro systems, the U.S. systems and the Japan system are totally different,” Taro Kobayashi, the senior representative of the Japan International Transportation Institute, told TriplePundit. “It is difficult to make a small change in the U.S. system.”

While many point to Japan’s density and unique topography as the reason trains are so prevalent, this argument also ignores one important fact: Japan is home to the world’s largest automaker, Toyota, and cars -- while not as ubiquitous as in the U.S. -- are quite important, especially outside the major cities.

Unlike most of the U.S., Japan did not focus on a single method of transportation, and it built a rail network alongside its highway system. The choice is not cars or trains – both can work together in different contexts.

Constant innovation

Having the world’s fastest, most reliable and most efficient high-speed rail system – called the Shinkansen in Japanese – is not enough. The country is embarking on an even greater, more ambitious target: the construction of the world’s first inter-city maglev line.

Expected to be fully operational by 2035, the system will cut down travel time between the country’s two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, to just 67 minutes -- running at speeds upwards of 500 kilometers (310 miles) an hour.

In fact, technological innovation is what has kept Japan’s train manufacturers prosperous over the years.

“Japan's high-speed rail-related manufacturing industry has developed as a result of the Shinkansen, and it has been boomed due to the new demand generated by the spread of new technologies,” Yoshinori Hatta, director of the overseas high-speed rail project at the JR Central railway company, told Triple Pundit.

You see signs of this type of regrowth and innovation everywhere. In the cities, stations are constantly being expanded, new lines are being built, and older lines are undergoing maintenance. You don’t hear of situations like what’s happening in Washington, D.C., where years of neglect has left the city’s urban rail system on the brink of collapse, or in the Bay Area, where BART is only now replacing rail cars that were bought when the system was first built in the 1970s.

Time to catch up

America needs to get out of our decades-long rut and think about how to build a 21st-century, sustainable infrastructure. We are far behind not only Japan, but also Europe, Taiwan and China. But that is also an opportunity.

“We are making the United States as the main target of overseas expansion,” Hatta told us. “In the U.S., there is much room to introduce high-speed passenger railroads.”

JR Central even has its eyes set on bringing the super-high-speed maglev system to Northeast Corridor, which runs along the U.S. East Coast from Boston to Washington, D.C.

“There is a very large passenger transportation demand between Washington, D.C. and New York,” Hatta explained. “If both cities are connected by maglev in one hour, we can revolutionize the lifestyle of business people in the area who have high time value.”

Rail must be part of the answer. While electric cars are growing, and many pin hopes on self-driving technologies, it is unlikely that either technology can help the U.S. achieve more than marginal transportation GHG emissions reductions on its own.

We need to build more sustainable cities, with urban rail networks that get more people around efficiently. We also need to provide alternatives to air and vehicle transport between cities. California’s high-speed rail project, when operational, could be our first modern rail system – following what Japan put in place way back in the 1970s with its first high-speed rail.

Whenever we’re ready, Japan will be there to return the favor and show us how to build a better, sustainable transportation system.

“People in the U.S. know that Japanese railways are good – but they don’t know what is good about, for example, Japanese high-speed rail. We can introduce what the Japanese government, or companies like JR Central or JR East, can do to help in the U.S.,” concluded Kobayashi of the Japan International Transportation Institute.

Image credit: Nithin Coca

Editor's Note: Nithin Coca's reporting from Japan was sponsored through a program of the International Center for Journalists and funded by the U.S.-Japan Foundation.

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca