Future of the metropolis: Pedal to the metal for new transportation technologies

TOKYO (THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN) – As the small bus waited at the traffic light for an intersection near the Sunshine 60 skyscraper in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro district on December 13, 2019, a mechanical voice made an announcement inside the vehicle.

“Green light detected.”

A driver was sitting at the front of the bus, but his hands were not touching the steering wheel. Yet after the light turned green, the bus automatically started to move and the steering wheel turned to the left. The bus stopped before a pedestrian crossing and then, after people had finished crossing the road, began moving again around the corner of the intersection.

The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry conducted this experiment to check whether a self-driving bus could safely navigate roads in a major city.

Gunma University Associate Professor Takeki Ogitsu, who developed the vehicle, was pleased with its performance. “It was quite an achievement to drive on a city road with that much traffic and have no accidents,” Ogitsu said. When the previous Tokyo Olympics were held in 1964, the nation was going through a period of rapid motorisation. Cars became increasingly common in the 1960s, and major road networks were built for the Olympics. In 1966, about 2.29 million passenger cars were owned in Japan, but this number reached 10 million just six years later. Travelling by car became a regular part of life for Japanese people.

This self-driving bus was used in an experiment in the busy Ikebukuro district of Toshima Ward, Tokyo, last December. PHOTOS: THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN
Hiroshi Arita (L) uses a motorised wheelchair in Yokohama

Fast-forward about half a century and transport-related technologies have made dramatic advances, such as autonomous vehicles and flying cars. The so-called transportation revolution could possibly resolve some of the difficult problems afflicting cities.

In particular, there are expectations that self-driving technologies could be a saviour for fixed-route buses, which are having their services stopped or cut back even in Tokyo’s 23 wards and in major cities such as Sendai due to a driver shortage. Self-driving vehicles have already been put into practical use. During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, driverless buses are being considered for shuttling people around the Athletes’ Village in Tokyo’s Harumi waterfront district, and near the sailing venue of Enoshima island in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Moves also are afoot to boost the availability of vehicles designed to transport people on “small trips” that buses and trains cannot accommodate. This is expected to make cities more attractive to visitors.

Last November and December, an experiment involving motorised wheelchairs was conducted in the Minato Mirai district, a popular tourist spot in Yokohama. Several wheelchairs that are about a metre long, 55 centimetres wide and 75 centimetres high were placed at hotels and other locations in the district for people to use freely to move around, similar to a public bicycle-sharing system.

The Yokohama city government jointly conducted the experiment with Whill Inc, a Yokohama-based developer of motorised wheelchairs. “Having a means of transport that anyone can easily use to get around will add more vibrancy to the city,” a Yokohama government official said.

This kind of single-seater mobility device is also expected to be a useful means of transport for elderly people who have voluntarily returned their driver’s licences. According to Whill, many of the nearly 10,000 people using the company’s wheelchairs are elderly.

Yokohama resident Hiroshi Arita has been using such a wheelchair for five years.

Arita, 82, has long had trouble walking, and in recent years has required a walking stick when he moves around.

“Going out used to be a hassle, but now it’s fun,” Arita said with a smile.

MAAS CONCEPT TAKING OFF

MaaS — Mobility as a Service — is still a relatively unfamiliar term, but this new concept of mobility is attracting the attention of a broad range of industries, including railways, automobiles, information technology, and government and municipal offices.

MaaS brings together various transportation options, such as trains, buses, car-sharing services and single-seater mobility devices. Through the use of a smartphone app, a user can search for the best route to reach a desired destination, then book and pay for any transport services required.

A key feature of MaaS is that it views travel from the user’s perspective. MaaS provides the best route for individual users, so elderly people, foreign visitors and others who might be unsure about transport options can find it easier to get around, allowing them to go to more places. MaaS is also expected to relieve traffic congestion and help the environment.

East Japan Railway Co, private train lines, Toyota Motor Corp and the Tokyo metropolitan government are among the entities that have joined the MaaS framework. Last October, Odakyu Electric Railway Co started operating a smartphone app that includes bus companies, cooperating taxi companies and car-sharing services, among others.

Waseda University Professor Akinori Morimoto, an expert on transport and urban planning, said, “The transportation revolution, such as MaaS, could potentially revitalise towns and cities. It is important for the public and private sectors to work together to create cities that grasp the needs and special features of each region.”