- a collection of notes and reflections on urban living from the perspective of a family of five in Tokyo. My epiphany was many years ago, but being hit by a motorbike and seeing my life flash before my eyes caused a sudden change that slowly made me reflect on whether American style auto-centric urban transportation of the Roosevelt era really is a capital G "Good Idea" for civilized modern cities in the 21st Century. This blog explores the good and the bad in urban planning and design, here and elsewhere. The goal is simple - not "death to all cars," just more walkable communities, quiet tree-lined streets, good public transport, traffic calming, Velib style bicycle sharing and a bit of common sense. The bolg is mostly theraputic, so I don't go wanting to throttle every dangerous driver I come across, but partly also out of a real desire to see positive change. This blog explores how it can be done, the people who do it, and how, in many small ways, this very old idea may at last have found its zeitgeist. Comments and suggestions welcome.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The War on Traffic

Many people forget these days that in the 1960' and 70's, Japan had something of a civil war - the "War on Traffic" or 「交通戦争」. This was a topic taken seriously in the media to a backdrop of skyrocketing gasoline prices, the oil shocks and deep social unrest and anger at the government riding (driving?) roughshod over the people. Many efforts were made in traffic calming, including speed limits, restricting automobile access around schools and on back streets, major improvements to bus, rail, subway and other public transport. This is also the time when bicycle use exploded in Japan with efforts by local governments to promote bicycle use. People might have even believed the war on traffic could have been won.

But as we all know, the Japanese lost their War on Traffic, utterly and completely. There were many reasons for the failure of common sense. The Korean and Vietnam wars had contributed to the huge growth in Japan's automobile industry, which then brought huge political power to bear on the automobile side. Memory of the oil shock faded, and gasoline prices gradually subsided. Efforts by the IMF and World Bank to promote automobile use with massive loans for highway building (a.k.a. "infrastructure") were beginning to have traction among the public - automobile sales grew rapidly, and with it more political power. The massive highway building in the leadup to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a major coup for the roads lobby in this sense. And the American way of life (i.e. automobile + sprawl) still held an irresistible allure.

Traffic planning and traffic calming efforts on the other hand were piece meal, tended to play around the edges of the real issue, and by the 1980's were completely hijacked by the very people that they were intending to control - people who loved cars. Eventually all road works and traffic had one primary goal - the fast and efficient flow of automobile traffic.

Low gasoline prices in the 1990's, combined with growing power of the auto-makers as their share of the economy grew really consolidated the position of the 道路族 roads lobby. Most of all, the tsunami of Keynsian fiscal stimulus directed at road building through the 1990's completely cemented the automobile's position in Japanese Society - particularly in the countryside. Much of the road building in the 1990's was in country towns which had until then largely escaped from the disease of sprawl that was afflicting the major cities. Bypasses, high speed national roads combined with sprawling suburban construction were rampant. Pressure from China and elsewhere in agriculture, and low worldwide prices for primary produce pushed down the price of agricultural land, which was already depressed from the bursting of the real estate bubble in '89 - '90. These factors combined to push Japan headlong into rampant urban sprawl that continues today with the creation of local and foreign big box retailers on the suburban outskirts of town, still chasing an American dream that even the Americans have already begun to wake from. 15 years ago in Japan it would have been entirely feasible to get by with a bicycle and the train because everything you wanted was concentrated around the station in the centre of town. These days, things are not so simple, even in small country cities. The town centre may have everything you NEED, but if you want the cheapest or hippest items, you need to go to various big box shops scattered all over the city. Japan's consumption of oil, coal and other items continued to rise.

So Japan lost it's "War on Traffic", and the "rebels" are today few and far between and not well organized. I cannot help but hope that the increasing awareness of global warming, the fact that building roads as a fiscal stimulus is now regarded as having been a big mistake, the growing 車離れ and the amazing success of initiatives such as the Velib model will stimulate people to start a new fundamental debate again in Japan about the kind of lifestyle people want and whether the automobile is going to play a big part in that or not.

In China, by contrast - the War on Traffic is in full pitched battle right now. Stories like THIS ONE from NPR in the US highlight the real fight that is going on. I see a similar story to Japan's - auto money is starting to talk. An Olympics in Beijing has become a lever to push through the construction of massive highway systems. Trains that are built, go to the airport. Local governments in some cities have even banned electric bicycles for whatever reason they can get away with - knowing that more money will flow (for the time being) if they promote automobiles (and culture and lifestyle be damned). It is clear that the Chinese populace has not given up the fight. In another report, students at a University appear to have vented their collective anger at a driver, destroying the car completely and even flipping it over. Here is the story from the other camp. You would have to be blind not to see that this event shows the utter frustration and anger towards automobiles and the friction between the two camps. I hope the Chinese authorities take it as a sign, because if the Chinese continue to attack the issue by playing around the edges the way the Japanese did in their own War on Traffic, the Chinese will slowly move to the auto camp, and the Chinese will cease to be citizens and become another docile bunch of homogenous consumers just like the rest of us in the "developed" world.

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