The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are fast approaching, and projections show that the number of train passengers riding to get to events will add just under 10% to the load of regular commuters taking trains to work. However, without proper accommodations for this increase in passengers, delays and congestion at stations close to events can be expected to descend into disorder. What will it take to keep the city running?


A Commuter Traffic Expert Speaks Out

The 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo are only two years away. Still, if the Japanese capital city wants to make a great show of the proceedings, there are still several hurdles it will need to overcome before things can move anywhere approaching smoothly.

“On the mornings of popular events expected to draw large crowds,” predicts Chūō University science and technology professor Taguchi Azuma, “metropolitan train networks are going to see confusion and congestion like they’ve never experienced before.”

Taguchi, a computer science specialist, also researches rail transport and commuter issues. In 2005, Taguchi pointed out that if the Tōkyū Corporation, responsible for running the high-traffic Den’entoshi Line, wanted to alleviate some of the congestion the train line saw on weekday mornings, it should switch all service from Monday through Friday to local service only and discontinue express services. Tōkyū took his advice, eventually halting express train service for part of the line during rush hours, successfully alleviating crowding.

Taguchi’s investigations into the city’s trains didn’t stop there, however, and in 2016 he developed a simulator that could estimate the amount of congestion train stations would experience during the 2020 Olympic Games.

Since developing his simulation, Taguchi has been looking into the results of what effect increased train passenger traffic will have, as well as what proposed countermeasures to alleviate this traffic could actually accomplish.

What Will Happen?

Taguchi, basing his projections on the greater metropolitan transportation census conducted by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism, set the number of daily commuters on city railways at 7.9 million people.

Moreover, using provisional schedules made during Tokyo’s bid for the games, Taguchi calculated foot traffic at trains stations down to the minute on the day thought to see the most congestion, one where 54 events will be held at 37 venues, with a projected 660,000 Olympic spectators.

It seems unlikely that a passenger traffic increase of less than 10% would seriously impact the railway network—but according to Taguchi, when FNN interviewed him on what these figures actually mean for Tokyo commuters, the potential for chaos is high.

(A slide from Taguchi’s presentation material on how well metropolitan train networks will accommodate the 2020 Olympic crowds. Squares indicate key competition venues; diamonds are stations, with larger shapes indicating greater numbers of people departing them on trains.)

The Possibility of Paralysis

FNN On the busiest day, what are metropolitan train stations going to look like?

TAGUCHI First of all, there are going to be extremely large numbers of people congregating in and around stations closest to Olympic venues around the time when events begin.

While overall figures may show a 10% increase, at these stations, the numbers of people are going to be twice those on an average weekday, leaving me to wonder if the city is going to be able to come up with some sort of plan to offset these figures.

It’s also worth noting that even if the Tokyo Olympics will be on a comparatively more compact scale than others in the past, seeing as how the venues are scattered all throughout the city, people are going to congregate around stations that serve as major hubs.

With these stations already experiencing heavy congestion during morning commute hours, an influx of event-bound passengers points toward the possibility that these trains could stop running altogether.

What is most concerning is the one-hour period between 8:00 am and 9:00 am in the morning.

Precautions Needed at Tokyo, Shinjuku, and Nagatachō

Shinjuku station

FNN What are major hub stations going to look like then?

TAGUCHI Take highway traffic as an example: if cars slow down even slightly when getting on on-ramps or driving through tunnels, or if they speed up where traffic needs to merge, this can trigger traffic jams.

Just like that, if the same kinds of things happen with people in hub stations like Tokyo or Shinjuku, people will not be able to keep moving forward.

Unlike your average commuter, who is used to the ebbs and flows of foot traffic at metropolitan train stations, visitors coming to see the Olympics are not used to these crowds. We’re not just talking about the issue of an increase in people but rather a real potential for dramatically higher levels of congestion.

If it gets to the point where people cannot continue to move forward through stations even for a short time, more and more train passengers will continue to build up behind these people, further lowering the speed at which people pass through these stations.

When the stations become totally filled with people, nobody will be able to get on or off of trains, in turn causing the trains to stop altogether.

Since Olympic spectators will be using not just Japan Railways trains but the Tokyo Metro subway system as well, this means Nagatachō, a key transfer station, is going to experience congestion as well.

What I want train companies and others to be aware of is that if spectators start riding the already-crowded morning commuter trains, this will lead to these trains having to cease operations. We need solutions to combat this issue. That’s what is most concerning for me.

Asking People to Take a Walk

FNN What can be done in terms of spectators?

TAGUCHI I think the best course of action is to ask people to walk from stations adjacent to those that are closest to the Olympic venues. In addition to reducing the burden on the nearest stations, it provides quite the switch-up in terms of everyday foot traffic, potentially providing local businesses with a real chance to profit. And it could give spectators a real appreciation for the city from a street-level view.

In areas around Olympic venues, local businesses could advertise for people to come early and get a chance to learn about the events, put on shows for passersby, get them to spend some time and money at their establishments—things like this.

The need to deal with higher traffic shouldn’t just be viewed as an unfortunate set of circumstances; It’s a real chance for visitors to experience Japan and for locals to show them the quality of Japanese service that’s renowned worldwide.

FNN What can be done for regular commuters?

TAGUCHI I think the only course of action is to have them take the day off from work or school.

It’s imperative that we lower the number of people moving through the areas in question. Another approach would be for workplaces, schools, and government offices located near crowded stations to make announcements to commuters, asking them not to use certain trains on event days. I believe this solution could have real results.

FNN What about rush hour in the evening?

TAGUCHI People head home at different times depending on their work or school hours, so in my mind the evening rush hour will be comparatively mild. If we score the rush hour in the morning as a 100, then I think rush hour in the evening will be around 50.

Still, we are speaking in generalities here, so when it comes to stations that already get congested at night or those where Olympic spectators are going to be getting on trains, there is still the danger that trains at these stations could stop moving, even in the evenings.

A New Public Holiday Schedule?

FNN Following calls for public holidays to be rescheduled in 2020 to coincide with the Olympics to help alleviate train congestion during the games, the government did just that.

The Olympics start on July 24, and Marine Day, which falls on July 20 that year, will be moved to July 23, the eve of the games. Sports Day will move from October 12 to July 24 for the Opening Ceremony, while Mountain Day will shift from August 11 to August 10, the day after the Closing Ceremony. Will this have any effect?

TAGUCHI I wouldn’t flat-out deny that this idea could help, but other measures need to be taken for the rest of the days as well.

People need to look beyond simply just proposing taking a three-day weekend and come up with a real strategy for dealing with this problem.

(Originally broadcast in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on May 2, 2018. )

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