Kagawa and the future of transportation

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Kagawa prefecture in the southern Japanese island of Shikoku is not the first place that comes to mind when thinking of a wholesale transformation of the transportation landscape. But as accelerated aging takes its toll, especially in rural regions with the younger population inexorably migrating into the bigger cities, the viability of the current transportation landscape is being put in question. As an example the Japan Railways (JR) Shikoku is in continuing financial deficit while it searches for new revenue sources from property development to services. Like its JR counterpart in Hokkaido we covered earlier, managing regular rail services for a dwindling userbase is bound to require cutbacks or rationalization of some form or other. Yet with less services, existing customers move to other forms of transport or move around less, leading to both lower economic activity regionally and lower passenger numbers. Worst case the less able bodied and mobile are stuck at home wondering how to do their weekly shopping.

To break the negative cycle what is needed may be a more collaborative multilayered mobility approach with an on-demand network of secondary mobility running in parallel with JR. Allowing JR to take care of its core services running at volume, while outsourcing the peaks and troughs and broader transportation demand to the secondary network. Kind of like an Amazon Web Services public cloud offering that can take the ups and downs strain off the JR (private cloud) as and when needed 24/7. The offering would preferably be in the form of an open platform that is transportation player-neutral so anyone can contribute, buy or leverage the mobility capacity available on its network. Carsharing, car rental and commercial fleet companies would be important contributors to such a network, in addition to the existing community and regional bus network, as would be end-users. Taking the AWS analogy a step further, the system should be very easy to use and deploy at an instant, requiring minimal setup and effort on the user side, and be versatile and intuitive for the service developer to setup and monetize.

Now if all cars today were automated, connected and available to switch to floating car fleet usage for such purposes, then setting up a platform for development, maintenance and operation of this fleet would be sufficient. But as most vehicles are not and because there are less tax yen available to go around, there also needs to be an socio-economic model that allows commercial fleet owners as well as individual drivers on the road to be able to make their mobility capacity available at a moment’s notice for the benefit of the local community and be compensated for it. Like a mobility version of bitmining, it is possible that some end-users will offer mobility capacity to the network solely for the purposes of making some money. As car dealers are offered incentives to sell vehicles, and bitminers paid in bitcoin for providing processing power to manage the infrastructure of the cryptocurrency, owners should be free to contribute their vehicles to generate some cash and support an expanded transportation grid without recourse to massive public expenditure. The benefit is easily visible as it supports the regional economy they live in and support areas that are going to be difficult to run profitably regardless of population growth, where typically public transportation services have already shut down. Furthermore as those who have dabbled in bitmining will appreciate, setting up a rig yourself to make money is a painstaking exercise requiring expensive hardware with GPU/CPUs not necessarily built for purpose, tools that are not standardized, codebase that is often poorly maintained, and interfaces and configurations that remain piecemeal. Will things become better in the future, I’m sure they will. But it remains a complex DIY undertaking that will not scale to a majority of the national population: a standard setup that can scale nationwide and incentivized to support instant socio-local transport needs is a clear requirement for a next-generation architecture.

Maybe a better analogy is a torrent-like concept that allows end-users to download a piece of software to their computer and add their idle computing power to a computing pool online (while working in the background and not significantly impacting existing applications). Translated to the vehicle, the software would pool mobility capacity of local vehicles when switched on, and could be easily disabled and switched off at any time when not needed. Some mechanism similar to the “return to home” feature (implemented in many drones) would allow automatic return of the vehicle to its designated location if vehicle capacity was cancelled en-route to a potential passenger by the owner for any reason.

Taking a step further, let’s imagine such a world is a reality. At this point one could argue that a car with such software switched on is just another unlicensed taxi. But that would depend on how the owner/driver is compensated and how the service is offered and operated. Would a vehicle remotely controlled by a professional driver, with the owner present in the vehicle, count as unlicensed? Would it actually be more convenient to have the owner not present in the vehicle at the time (such as when at work during the day, or if staying at home that day) as well as offer privacy to the passenger(s)? Or would it be more convenient for the passenger to have some company in the vehicle, and socialize or otherwise share information? These are all options to be considered, but the point remains that it is highly desirable to support such an open platform for both transportation and socioeconomic purposes. Or we could do nothing and watch train services shrivel to a couple of trains a day on the highest volume lines, and the rest of the 4 million citizens of Shikoku having to fend for themselves as the transportation network crumbles away.

Unfortunately this is not just a theoretical scenario: the “compact city” concept has been actively researched and implemented by Kagawa’s regional capital of Takamatsu City over the last decade. Originally the transportation network was built out in the postwar years with smaller towns feeding into the city amid rapid population and economic growth. Fast-forward to today and the reality is hollowing-out of city centres, increasingly self-contained out-of-city malls, and growth in smaller conurbations somewhere in between. So the traditional bedtown-city centre concept is dissolving into a more diffuse built up environment spanning the overall conurbation, making it more difficult to plan ahead for profitable fixed-route transport services. In a 2008 study of the area entitled “Land Use and Transport Strategy for achieving a Three Tier Compact City and Chain Mobility”, the authors’ assessment of the Greater Takamatsu area shows that as population drops, population nodes become increasingly limited to certain corridors, while population density becomes more patchy across the prefecture. They draw parallels with the Greater Copenhagen area, but it is difficult to know if the same dynamics are at play.

And changes are not only happening at the conurbation level. A 2012 roundtable of how to improve the Takamatsu city center shared the multiple difficulties regardless of the best efforts by the local government (the link is an interesting read into the trials and tribulations of really trying to make a difference). So as the bustling city center arcades of the 20th century become a ghost zone of shuttered shops, while newcomers may like to potter around the few shops left, the ability of local cyclists to cruise through the arcades as a welcome shortcut to the road network means people are being put off visiting, maintaining and regenerating the area. At the same time, there are no bicycle lanes, so bikes either use the pavement (dangerous to pedestrians) or the road (dangerous to themselves). Should half of the city center roadways just be handed over to bikes? Should cars be restricted in the city center? Should barriers be erected in the arcades to prevent entrance? The roundtable had few concrete answers.

Maybe one suggestion is that we should stop pushing back the tide and embrace it. Let’s for a moment assume that tomorrow every single Kagawa city center arcade area (or every Japanese city center for that matter) became a ghost town with the occasional bicycle hurtling down at speed. Is this really the best usage we can think of for this urban space? Considering there is now zero economic activity across the space, maybe the city center could be handed over to the elderly, young and otherwise enterprising folk for redevelopment. For free. Make available contracts to the existing shuttered locations for 6 months for free, only cost would be for utilities plus a minimal cleanup fee (to be refunded if the tenant cleans up properly after themselves). If the activity was able to generate some revenue economic activity is now non-zero, drawing in custom, footfall and people, leading to the contract extended for another 6 months for free. If it still goes well, then it would be extended a further 2 years at nominal fee with active support on marketing, tax, and other angles from the local government. To the shop owners complaining about offering away free space, note that the value of your space is directly proportional to its desirability. A shuttered store in a ghost town is worth little compared to the same small space actively buying/selling/offering products and services in an area buzzing with new activity.

At the same time, the government could buy up a couple of shuttered stores and combine them into larger coworking spaces complete with coffee shops, postal services, micro convenience stores, simplified e-government outlets with large screen telepresence connected to a civil servant sitting at town hall, ATMs etc. That would then attract even more activity as people could just head down to the arcade instead of going all the way to the city hall. Some of these larger “multistores” could be further timeshared for local residents who want to say open a bakery 2 days a week, offer free guitar lessons, local history tours or cultural meetups, afterschool maths classes, daily exercise classes for the elderly and so on. The idea is to increase the economic activity and value of disused commercial city center space by offering a blank innovation canvas for anyone to build and share things, services or products. Instead of spending money trying to fend off the tide, use the money to regenerate by providing a safety net for innovation and creation where the worst outcome is that the tenant spends a nominal fee upfront on utilities for a few months. On the other side, the full-service mall catering for the able-bodied adult population and families and increasingly populated with national and global brands would have automated shuttles available to and from the city center in turn offering community-based handcrafted goods and services. As the city center becomes busier, there will be more crossover between large brand-driven malls and artisan-driven city centers. By pushing parking (both automated and not) to the halo immediately around the city center, a city center halo business would then coexist with the newly invigorated city center and connect seamlessly to traffic to and from the mall.

Back to current day, there have already been a number of local efforts to make mobility more user-friendly in the last few years with the Takamatsu City Mobility Assocation offering Nissan Mobility Concept micro electric vehicles to zip around the regional capital. On the island of Tejima in the Inland Sea, the Setonai Art Festival 2013 had Softbank’s Ubiden service offering the same vehicles to drive about the island (albeit at the rather steep price of 8400yen/day). Fast forward to 2016, and Softbank’s service is now called “Setouchi Karen” offering Honda EV-neo electric scooters running on Oracle’s IOT Cloud backend. Building on these great initiatives, I’m looking forward to see how these micromobility services evolve out of hyperlocal use cases and into serving the upcoming transportation revolution… The future is now.