A mid-term resident of Tokyo reports – Part 4: Getting around the city

This is part 4 of what is intended to be a collection of overview reports on living in Tokyo by someone who is here for longer than a short stay but shorter than a long stay. Hopefully they will be helpful to others in similar situations.

Tokyo is not a very car-friendly place. Traffic is heavy, parking places are few, fuel and tolls are expensive, and pedestrians, cyclists, and construction projects seem to be everywhere. The newer suburbs are a little more car friendly, but only if you stay in the general area. All in all, if you are only here for a few months or staying longer but are planning to mainly be in the city there is little point in having a car. In the right situation bicycles can work, but that is a bit of an outlier, and often bicycle parking is also difficult to find.

Enter public transportation…. Tokyo is famous for its rail / subway system, and by and large it works well with frequent service, a good network coverage of most of the area, and connections to bus routes at most stations. Unfortunately there really is no competition to it if you want to go more than a few blocks (taxis are incredibly expensive), and it s a great example of how competition helps systems to evolve.

I have lived other places where I relied on public transportation, and in every one of those the system was fairly well integrated such that didn’t matter if you were on a bus, a subway, a streetcar, or a train – you bought a ticket from A to B (or from zone X to zone Y) and whatever means that involved was included, even if the operators of each section were separate companies. Karlsruhe, Germany was the best example of that. On top of that, there were any number of pass options available that offered various discounts relative to how large an area you were buying a pass for and how long of a pass you were buying, as well as special offers for visitors – all of which was intended to encourage people to use the public transportation system by making it economical and convenient.

Tokyo really doesn’t have that – there is no other realistic transportation option for the vast majority of people so there is no need to try and attract users. The main train service (JR East) has it to a degree in that your fare on the local trains is based on the station you enter and the station you exit regardless of the route and lines taken to get there, but once you leave the JR system and switch to a bus, subway, or a non-JR rail company you have to buy a new ticket for that segment of your journey. City busses are very simple; there is a fare to get on and you can ride to any other stop on that bus route and there is no such thing as a transfer. The subway and other rail lines are the most complicated in that you need a new ticket for every transfer, and the economics of the tickets are that you pay heavily for the first station and relatively less as you go along.

There are some passes available; I use the Tokyo Monorail to get to and from work, and they offer a point-to-point commuter pass that ends up being about 25% less than the regular fare over the course of a month. For nearly the same price I could have purchased a system wide pass for the subway network for a month, but as neither my flat nor my office are anywhere near subway stations that pass is useless to me. Several of the lines offer multi-ticket packs, but instead of 10 for the price of 9 or some variant thereof it is 10 for the price of 10.

While not addressing the economics of the situation at all, the various networks have achieved a system using scannable debit cards (PASSIMO and SUICA) that means you can avoid having to physically obtain a ticket for each leg – you scan in somewhere in the network and scan out, and the ticket price is deducted from the amount you have on the card.

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