TDL Brief: Public Transit (Japan)

Designing transportation systems is a nefarious exercise in decision-making. Computing the inherent uncertainties of a situation that relies on the choices of thousands of people is inherently a behavioral problem. Effective public transit systems provide a reliable solution, enabling efficient travel on a local and international level (with an added plus of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions from car travel). However, effective transport systems require more than just high functioning machines; they require an understanding of human drives and behavioral patterns. Jinhua Zhaou, an MIT Professor and director of the MIT Mobility Initiative, states “The main part of my own thinking is the recognition that transportation systems are half physical infrastructure, and half human beings.” 

Japan’s public transportation system is universally lauded. Interconnected networks of metros, busses, trains, and Shinkansen (bullet trains traveling up to 320 kilometers per hour) enable smooth movement throughout the country. Japanese transit is notably punctual despite facilitating travel for around 12 billion passengers per year. Embedded within their vast physical infrastructures, Japanese transit systems have also incorporated behavioral nudges to increase transit usage and improve user experience. By understanding the inextricable relationship between behavioral science and transportation infrastructure, we can gain a deeper understanding of what makes Japanese public transit successful.

1. Music to our ears

By: The Straits Times, The man behind Japan’s ‘train departure melodies (April 2018)

Seven seconds before a train departs in Japan, a soothing electronic jingle sounds out to notify passengers boarding and exiting the train cars. The steady pacing and consistent duration of these jingles, known as hassha melodies, attempt to bring joy to passengers, signal departures and circulation, and decrease the fast-paced stress of commuting. Composer Minori Mukaiya has written over 170 hassha melodies and amassed a sizable following. Within these short and whimsical songs, Mukaiya ingrains nods to Japanese culture and the geographic environments of the trains. For example, on the uphill journey to Shibuya station on the Tokyo line, Mukaiya mirrors the ascending landscape with ascending notes and growing volume.

Over time, Japanese commuters become accustomed to hassha melodies. Through repetition, the seven-second auditory cues become a part of everyday life in association with movement from train to platform. Even if they seem like a small detail, hassha melodies bring life to transportation infrastructure.

2. Setting the mood and saving lives

By: Bloomberg CityLab, The Amazing Psychology of Japanese Train Stations (May 2018)

Ambiance is not always seen as a priority within transportation systems. However, research has shown that a positive public transit atmosphere has significant functional value through increasing usage, passenger satisfaction, and flow. Lighting is one design feature that can drastically change the mood of a space and its inhabitants. When we think of the clinical glow of fluorescent lights versus the effervescent radiance of natural lighting, it is easy to remember how the external environment impacts our internal state-of-being.

Beginning in 2009, Japanese transit stations have installed LED panels radiating a serene, blue glow. This subtle and calming addition aims to improve the mood of transportation users but also attempts to combat a more serious issue. Suicide is extremely prevalent in Japan, and frequently occurs on the train tracks. While the primary tragedy of this devastating trend is of course the loss of lives, it also can be traumatizing to the surrounding passengers and prevent the train system from functioning. Train stations have built protective barriers to prevent suicides but this is not always feasible due to spatial and monetary concerns. The blue LEDs have proved to be an effective and low cost feature to improve mood. In 2013, University of Tokyo researchers published a study analyzing data over a 10 year period to evaluate the impact of blue lights. The results showed a significant decrease in suicide attempts, demonstrating how simple changes can have potentially life-altering affects.

3. What’s the point?

By: Atlas Obscura, Why Japan’s Rail Workers Can’t Stop Pointing at Things (March 2017)

One of the many successful features in the Japanese public transit system is the high level of engagement by train conductors and station workers. Through a system of gestures and calls, employees maintain safety, precision, and punctuality at each station.

This system, referred to as pointing-and-calling (or shisa kanko in Japanese), ensures that workers are not simply relying on cursory glances to assess conditions or just going through the motions. 

For example, station employees are expected to perform speed checks for trains. Rather than just briefly looking over at a speedometer and continuing on their way, employees will point at the speedometer, check the speed, then call out, “SPEED CHECK” and state the train’s speed. Or when checking to make sure the tracks are clear, they will announce their check, point at the tracks, scan along the platform with their point following their gaze, and then call out “ALL CLEAR”.

Pointing-and-calling emphasizes the important responsibility transportation workers play in overseeing the transit system. One study found that pointing-and-calling can decrease workplace errors by up to 85 percent. While this system is pretty unique to Japan, it would be to the benefit of transportation networks across the globe to take note.

4.  Running according to schedule

By: The Telegraph, Why is Japan so obsessed with punctuality? (September 2019)

As previously stated, Japanese transportation systems are known for their punctuality.  In 2018, one railway company even issued a public apology for leaving 25 seconds early. Rail lines maintain this precision through carefully calculating the necessary frequency of trains (both regular rail and bullet trains) based on the travel rhythms of the city’s inhabitants, and enforcement of a strict schedule by transit employees.

There are various reasons punctuality is so ingrained in public transportation in Japan. Punctuality in general is valued highly in Japanese culture, as it echoes values of social consideration and attention to detail. In public transport, punctuality maintains a sense of order in densely populated cities, and enables a higher level of economic productivity. 

On an individual level, punctuality also protects from one of the major weaknesses of the human mind: uncertainty. We can all relate to the deeply unsettling feeling of hitting an excruciatingly long red-light when we are in a rush, or waiting helplessly for a bus that is running late. For many, the anxiety of not knowing when we will get somewhere is worse than simply knowing that we will be a few minutes late. When riding Japan railways, the uncertainty surrounding train times is pretty much eliminated; it’s just up to us to catch the right train.

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