Tokyo Metro Off Peak 1

With a population of over 37 million people, the Greater Tokyo  Area is the most populous city in the world.

So what is it going to be like when the Olympics come to Tokyo next year when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes Tokyo by storm from July 24 to August 8. That’s when an expected 650,000 spectators are expected to arrive, so there are legitimate concerns for the average city denizen, who can’t get tickets to the Show and just wants to get to work on time.

I see three major acts by both public and private institutions to decrease congestion in Tokyo during the Olympics next year: shifting of public holidays, restrictions on the Tokyo expressways, and encouragement of changes to commuting behaviors.

Public Holidays: Tokyo is the Land of the Public Holiday. There are so many, I get stressed in June because there isn’t one, let alone two or three like we have in January, May, September, October and November. With hopes of easing congestion in Tokyo around the beginning and end of the Olympics, “Marine Day” is being moved a week later to Thursday, July 23 (day before opening day), while “Sports Day” (traditionally in October) will be moved to Friday, July 24. Additionally, “Mountain Day”, will shift a day early to Monday, August 10, the day after the closing ceremony.

Restrictions on Expressways: Drivers were frustrated to find they could not access the highway where they wanted to on July 24 and 26 as the Tokyo government enacted a large-scale highway test by closing some 30 entry points to the Metropolitan Expressway, including entrance and exit points near event locations, for example those near the new National Stadium and the site of the Olympic Village. They had hope to reduce traffic on the expressways by 30%, but traffic only diminished by about 7%.  That has put more momentum behind plans for congestion pricing, where rates to enter the highway may rise by another 1,000 yen between 6 am and 10 pm.

Flex-Time: If you work for a global multi-national, particularly a technology company, then “work anytime, anywhere” is a cultural norm. Except for technology companies in Japan, the cultural norm may likely be, “if I don’t see you, then you’re not working, are you”. In other words, the idea of measuring performance on output, not on how many hours you are at your desk, has become a talking point among government officials and leaders upon passing of the “hatakaki-kata kaikaku kanren ho,” or the Act to Overhaul Laws to Promote Workplace Reform.

More specifically to the Olympics, the government is encouraging tele-work, and commuting during off-peak hours. The government is running a trial from late July through early September this year in which 2,800 employees at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office were given laptops so the can work outside the office once a week during the times this year when the Olympics and Paralympics will take place next year. (One day a week only? Well, it’s a start.)

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 4
Tokyo Metro ad explaining the gold, silver and bronze-level points you get depending on when you commute to work on their trains.

If you take the subway in Tokyo, you will see the ubiquitous posters of Tokyo Metro marketing their Pasmo Card and its point system. Take their trains and accumulate points and prizes! And from July 22 to August 2, and August 19 to August 30, you can get bonus points if you take their trains from 7~7:30 am (25 points!), 7:30~8:00 am (15 points), and 9:30~10:30 am (10 points).

“This is a chance to make telework a legacy of the games that will take root” in society, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko was quoted as saying in The Japan Times.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

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Expressway Akasaka Mitsuke, from the book "Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service"
Expressway Akasaka Mitsuke, from the book “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News Service”

“It was my first time in Tokyo. Very nice people. Wonderful experience. We landed in Japan and the bus took us straight to the Olympic Village. When I saw the roads going through all the buildings, an amazing network of some 45 kilometers… I had been in New Zealand and Australia before but had never seen a road way like that. No intersections! No stops!”

Tokyo was pulling out all the stops to give the impression that it was a modern, efficient and clean city. One of the infrastructure improvements were the highways that wove through the cityscape above the ground, which impressed many people, including Indian field hockey Olympian, Gurbux Singh, who recounted his arrival to Japan above.

But not everything was perfect, as Robert Whiting wrote for The Japan Times last year.

Also unfinished were six of the planned expressways. Only two of the eight main expressways approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1959 were fully completed, with two more only partially constructed. The elevated expressway from Roppongi to Shibuya was one of the incomplete projects. It remained unfinished for several more years.

Those highways that were finished were clogged with stop-and-start traffic. As a Chicago Tribune correspondent named Sam Jameson put it, “Building an expressway system based on a mathematical formula of a two-lane expressway merging into another two-lane expressway to create a two-lane expressway was not the smartest thing to do. It guaranteed congestion. The system had to have been designed by someone who had never driven.”

You can see black and white film of the highway construction in this 1963 newsreel from Pathe.