His Super Commuter Power is over one million!

The trains in Tokyo are crowded.  Can’t-move-your-arms-to-scratch-your-nose crowded.  Ride in Tokyo rush hour, and you have the exciting chance to be part of a can of spam, seasoned with business suits and briefcases.

It would seem sane to try to ride outside of the worst of peak hour.  Thanks to a flexible workplace policy, this is what I do.  However, many Japanese offices have rigid starting times.  If you are not in the door by 9am, heaven help you.  Additionally, working overtime is highly regarded, but getting to work early… not so much.  So of course, the rational thing to do would be to step foot in the office at the stroke of 9am.

Perhaps you can see where the problem lies: waves and waves of packed trains with people aiming to arrive at the same place at the same time.  So, how do you change those super-peaks of commuters into a more even distribution across time?

Points!

Everyone loves loyalty card schemes in Japan.  Lots of restaurants and shops will give you a stamp card  to get some kind of modest freebie down the track, and happily, they don’t seek to mine your personal information like some schemes I could name (or link to).

So, someone had An Idea.  People like points, they reasoned.  If we offered points for commuters moving their travel outside the normal peak hour, could we change commuter behaviour and alleviate the worst of it?

Enter the “East-West Line Waking-Up-Early Campaign”:

Just touch your commuter pass to the glowing hexagon to rack up points:

To give you an idea of the rewards, the best case has 10 weeks of consistently travelling before 7am netting you a $35 gift card:

Anticipated result: happiness (on a spiritual level, I’m assuming):

So, how did that go, then?

Not so well, at a guess.

The machines got taken away some time ago, never to be seen again.  By most accounts, peak hour is still unbearable as ever.

Nice try, behavioural economists, but it seems you’re going to have to work a little harder to manipulate the citizenry.  Still, why people need to be manipulated to avoid getting treated in a way that would make cattle stand up and complain is a mystery.

The anti-boom boom

With land in Japanese cities at an absolute premium, mammoth parking garages are often eschewed in favour of smaller car parks slotted in wherever they will fit.  Suburban car parks are often nothing more than a single empty lot between towering apartment buildings with space for about ten cars.

The return on such a small car park is likely too low to afford to have any staff on a boom gate – or for that matter, any gate at all.  If the car park needs to be unmanned, what to do?  Here’s a common solution:

Until you pay, the automated toll keeper in front stays firmly up, and the railings on either side make sure you can’t sidle out.  Still, if you had a car with pneumatic lifts or a Humvee, maybe you get to park for free.  Your typical Japanese box-on-wheels doesn’t stand a chance, though.

A most orderly bedlam

Everything they say about Tokyo is true.  Well, true in terms of the rail system being brilliant, at least.  During peak hour, trains arrive every two minutes.  The longest time I can remember waiting for a train Tokyo is about seven minutes.  After about three minutes, I was tapping my foot with impatience.

As well as being frequent, the trains run with military precision.  In peak hour, you walk up to the platform, and the electronic signboard announces that the next train will arrive at 8:27am.  Precisely as the clock ticks over to the appointed minute, the train appears from around the bend without fail, as if it had just materialized, summoned by the signboard itself.

Except for that one time in one hundred when it doesn’t.  I commute on one of the bigger train lines in Tokyo, and any fault on the line creates absolute commuter havoc.

There are a few different causes for this, usually.  Strong winds.  A freakishly large amount of snow.  Someone deciding to avail themselves of the rail system to end their life: interestingly, while the status message in Japanese flashing on the station screens shows it was due to a suicide, the English version shows something nice and euphemistic, like “personal injury”.

You know there’s been a problem on the line when you get to the station and there are about one thousand people anxiously mingling in front of it.

Because the trains are so freakishly precise and everyone is expected to be in the office at 9am on the dot, everyone immediately whips out their mobile phones and start calling and emailing bosses and co-workers that it’s terribly unfortunate and unforgivable, but they could possibly be up to TEN minutes late.

Actually, on the morning of this particular incident, the trains turned out to more like two HOURS late.  People who were desperate to get to work took the scenic route on buses.  With no buses to fall back on (that I knew of), I went home to monitor the situation on the Internet.

One thing doesn’t vary, though, whether the train is on time or late: prepare for some train moshing on your daily commute.