Where EAST meets the Northwest
CROWDED CONDITIONS. A train is seen travelling through the Shinjuku district
of Tokyo in this file photo. One of many challenges that Tokyo Olympic fans will
encounter next summer is getting around on Tokyo’s famously efficient but
over-stressed rail system. Organizers hope to bring the level of congestion on
subway cars down. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #16 (August 19, 2019), page 9.
Can Tokyo’s efficient rail system handle Olympic strain?
By Alex Barreira
The Associated Press
TOKYO — First, Tokyo Olympic fans will have to find scarce tickets and pay
the price. Then there’s the quandary of landing a hotel room with rates that are
being inflated due to unprecedented demand. And the summer heat and humidity
will be off-putting for some.
Then there’s one more hurdle: getting around, or even finding a tiny space to
stand on Tokyo’s famously efficient but over-stressed rail system.
Japanese professor Azuma Taguchi at Chuo University has researched Tokyo’s
system for years and says it’s already running at double its capacity and the
Olympic crunch could push it to the breaking point.
"When peak capacity is twice or three times above normal, it’s possible some
people could be killed," Taguchi told The Associated Press.
His computer simulation predicts that the biggest wave of Olympic spectators
will collide with work commuters at popular transfer stations during the morning
rush hour, while small stations closest to venues will be overwhelmed.
Add to the mix, newcomers carrying luggage aboard subway cars and struggling
to maneuver off the train and through crowded stations.
Tokyo transport officials characterize train cars at 200% capacity as giving
passengers just enough space to read a magazine. This probably represents a
normal commuting weekday in Tokyo.
At 250%, they "cannot even move a hand."
Taguchi’s study predicts 15 stations will experience greater than 200%
capacity, with several reaching nearly 400% at their peak.
Since Tokyo last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, railways have designated
special oshiya, or "pushers," to pack commuters into rush hour cars —
often wearing white gloves. Locals are accustomed to the treatment, but visitors
may not be.
Tokyo’s Olympic organizing committee question Taguchi’s dire predictions.
They acknowledge the railways will be packed with 800,000 added passengers
daily. They also anticipate that Tokyo expressway congestion will double.
Hoping to head off the crowding, the committee wants to launch a smartphone
app, boost multilingual signage, and use boats and robot-assisted technology to
help fans and commuters get around. As with all Olympics, authorities are
testing special highway lanes and altering the city’s transit flow.
Concerns about transportation are nothing new at the Olympics, and crowds are
often overestimated and subsequently managed, as was the case in London in 2012.
Potential tourists sometimes stay away, knowing it’s a bad time to visit with
prices soaring. That happened in 2008 in Beijing and again three years ago in
Rio de Janeiro.
"Living in Tokyo, we experience this 100%, 150%, 180% crowding every day. We
know how to navigate the stations at these times," said Katsuhisa Saito, the
head of transport strategy for Tokyo’s organizers. "The main concern is when
foreigners attend these events and use the stations. They might not know how to
deal with this."
Organizers hope to bring the level of congestion in subway cars down to
between 150% and 180%, a fairly pleasant day for Tokyo commuters. Also, perhaps,
a lofty goal.
Taguchi and organizers agree on one thing: keeping Japanese workers at home
during the Olympics could go a long way toward solving the problems.
Organizers are asking companies in Tokyo to encourage their employees to work
from home during the Olympics, which open on July 24, 2020 and close on August
9. They say more than 2,000 companies have agreed to participate.
Tokyo University professor Katsuhiro Nishinari is working with the organizing
committee, an expert in what he calls "jam-ology" — the study of crowd behavior.
"We’re used to having one game per day at the stadium, but at the Olympics we
have a tight schedule and we have three to four games in one day," he said. "We
have to exchange the audience two or three times. That’s where we don’t have
Another major challenge will be convincing a famously industrious workforce
to avoid the commute — or the office altogether — for two weeks next summer.
"We’re explaining to all the companies and the media, asking people not to
work during those two weeks," Nishinari said. "Just enjoy the Olympics."
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