The Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal

Informed but opinionated commentary and analysis on urban transportation topics from the Secret Worldwide Transit Cabal. Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Our Mission: Monkeywrench the Anti-Transit Forces

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Friday, August 16, 2002


From the Cabalmaster:

In this installment, we've outlined the reasons for proliferation of monorails and other transit gadgets in Japan -- and the reasons why no significant application of light rail has taken place.

Japan has a need for "intermediate-capacity" transit systems, able to carry 5,000 - 15,000 passegers per hour, with an average travel distance in the range of 2-9 miles, at (passenger) speeds in the range 12-25 mph. The need is to provide faster travel times than buses in mixed traffic (which are often very slow in Japan), a high service frequency, and high service reliability for medium-sized cities, for links to new suburban development, and for connections between suburbs where subway construction cannot be justified.

[We emphasize that Japanese capacity figures are based on Japanese loading standards, which reflect peak-period crowding levels that few if any Americans with access to auto alternatives would tolerate.]


Notice the similarity to the "field of application" for LRT in the U.S. and Canada.

However, urban land is very scarce and extremely expensive in Japan ("outrageous" was the proper term before the collapse of the "bubble economy" after 1990). New surface-level systems are prohibitively expensive -- unless land for transportation corridors has been set aside in advance of development (which does happen in Japan -- years if not decades in advance).

Except for short freight branches, there is no such thing as an abandoned rail corridor in any Japanese city. All that were ever built remain in use (or were built over ages ago following abandonment). In rural areas, some abandoned railbeds have been converted to recreational trails -- preserved in case they are ever needed again.) There are a few freight lines planned for rebuilding as passenger lines, but as full-scale electrified suburban railways.

Most Japanese cities have narrow streets -- extremely narrow. The typical Japanese residential street is no wider than the typical American alley. There are, of course, major roads that were built wide, or have been widened. Of the largest cities, only Nagoya undertook large-scale street widening during postwar reconstruction.

(Hiroshima, of course, was utterly devastated. The rebuilt city's streets do not follow the same pattern as before, and the main streets were rebuilt on somewhat different alignments, much wider than before -- one of the reasons it has Japan's finest streetcar network today.)

Finding roads wide enough to build a conventional "full-scale" railway on viaduct is difficult, if not impossible. Required overall road width, permitting space for columns and stations, is 25 meters between stations, and 35 meters at stations. This is for a full-scale "conventional" railway on viaduct, with roadways on either side.

One of the factors stimulating development of various transit "gadgets" is strong pressure to reduce the weight of trains in order to reduce the size of support structures.

Another factor: since 1972, road construction funds have been available for transit "guideways" so long as this is constructed above the road (or, in some cases, below the road). Central and local governments share the infrastructure cost, up to 44.9 percent of the total cost.

By contrast, there has been no large-scale funding for improvement of bus and streetcar systems (although very recently, central government funds paid part of the cost of a streetcar extension for the first time). This situation has encouraged development of new technology rather than gradual upgrading of existing systems.

Nagoya has made the most significant investment in upgraded bus systems. Its "Key Route" bus services include reserved lanes, traffic signal priority, and widely-spaced stops. However, Nagoya is probably the only large Japanese city (other than Hiroshima) able to implement such measures. A new, elevated "guideway bus" or guided busway line opened in 2001.

New transit systems have "novelty" and "symbolism" appeal, particularly for newly-developed suburbs. However, lines built primarily for this purpose tend not to show favorable financial results.

Bureaucratic turf battles also spurred the proliferation of monorails and gadgets. Prior to consolidation, the Construction and Transport ministries were rivals: the former responsible for roads, the latter for railways. The Construction Ministry tended to favor various rubber-tired systems and monorails, while the Transport Ministry favored conventional rail lines. The new Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is responsible for airports, railways and roads.

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