As we continue our journey around Japan, just North of the island of Kyushu lies the prefecture of Yamaguchi. It is famous for being the birthplace of no fewer than 8 Prime Ministers of Japan, including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It also has a deeply rural economy, meaning a quickly aging population, difficulty to recruit new citizens from the big cities, and decreasing road traffic in the rural areas leading to accelerated erosion of public transport. Automated driving and a hub and spokes mobility model was proposed back in late 2015 to help revitalize the local economy.
Posted on the Prime Minister’s website, the proposal aims to turn the town of Suo Oshima into a special zone for automated driving. The town was chosen for its quickly aging population, where public transport is very rare and some taxi drivers well into their 90s have been known to ferry passengers to and from their destinations. Although the proposal didn’t work out and the town didn’t manage to get the “special zone” designated status, the hub and spokes model envisages a redesign of local city planning and inter-community connectivity enabled by technology.
Surrounding towns and villages connect into a central “town hub” which centralizes all necessary community functions and services (commercial outlets, old age citizen support, emergency services), community networking services (on-demand public transportation, ICT network development, on-demand logistics to surrounding areas), and new business development (processing, packaging and sales of local goods, developing collaboration between surrounding villages, supporting recruitment and settling of new citizens). This hub and spokes unit is termed the “basic social zone”. Towns and villages can also trade and work with each other, either to provide goods and services to each other, or to combine complementary goods and services and offer a joint offering to the local town hub.
In turn, these basic zones connect into the large regional cities which replicate the hub and spokes model at the prefectural level. Basic zones can also trade and work with each other similarly to the model above. Note that this reworking of the very fabric of Japan’s communities towards an on-demand model using technology is happening not only in Yamaguchi but across Japan. It is too early to tell whether automating the few hardworking community buses will be the answer, or whether offering citizens a carpool of automated vehicles that automatically drive them from A to B and return to the carpool or their next destination. Or maybe a new local tax/tax break/MOT incentive can be instituted to enable any existing citizen’s vehicle to be retrofitted and driven along carefully mapped “virtual bus routes” (as if on rails) to and from the town hubs, with the ability to switch to manual at any other time.
Whatever the final answer (or mix of answers), it is clear that 10 to 20 years from now the rural areas of Japan will look very different to today. The concept could allow for a more economical, more responsive and more user-friendly mobility framework to ferry all citizens from children to the elderly from their rural homes to the town hubs… and back.