Hyogo’s growing transportation deserts

Awaji City, population 45,000, is one of the main connecting points between the picturesque and vibrant town of Kobe with Shikoku, one of the four main islands comprising Japan. And while the flow of traffic continues unabated, especially with the fast bus services, many of these don’t stop in Awaji City making it difficult for the city to implement tourism activities and for the local transportation service to benefit from these increased visitor numbers. This in turn makes it difficult to sustain hub and spokes type bus routes from bus dropoff locations to more local destinations.

At the same time, the local population is growing slowly older and the younger generation moving out to the bigger cities. This has led to a drop in the sustainability of the transportation network, especially the bus network, meaning 73% of citizens travel using their own car. And that number is likely to continue to increase. With the number of bus trips in operation having already dropped 50% over the last 10 years from 116 trips to only 59 trips last year, much of the inland areas of the Awaji island are now a public transportation desert. While there are 3 community-operated bus services in operation to help alleviate the shortage, these efforts are not resolving the broader problem. In addition, the closure of one of Awaji’s ports has led to passenger ships not stopping at the remaining port either. This has further exacerbated the public transportation network which, prior to the strait-spanning bridges, traditionally focused on servicing visitors from the ports into the inland regions and back. With few customers left, the current transportation setup has become unworkable.

In their latest March 2017 proposal, Awaji City officials have suggested that instead of bus services running the length of the city in multiple loops, to rather have four “hubs” with services making shorter journeys to and from each hub. But this assumes at a minimum that (1) these hubs will continue to be relevant as population mix changes and transportation network continues breaking down to be more ad-hoc, (2) mobility demand changes are foreseeable in the near future, (3) current demand is stable and won’t require further downsizing, and (4) the inland transportation desert is acceptable and won’t grow further. From my point of view, this plan is a good step in the right direction but its basic premise doesn’t go far enough. By continuously reducing bus services, businesses and individuals will continue moving out of the region. And citizens who can’t or won’t move out will be less than satisfied with having to rely on friends and family, or face be stuck at home. Surely the bottom line is that every citizen should have equal access to transportation wherever they live. The slow downsizing feeds a vicious circle of less users leading to less buses seen across Japan that will not be reversed by minimal reworking of the system.

On the contrary, automated transportation on-demand should allow cities and regions across Japan to raise the bar to serve all citizens at any time to go anywhere they need to go – this is the Shinkansen of the 21st century. Automated mobility is the bullet train of the 21st century, fulfilling the promise of fast and reliable travel not only on mainline routes between large cities but anywhere across Japan no matter how small the destination. Considering individual user transportation needs on a day-to-day basis are fairly predictable, it should be easy to simulate demand for 45,000 citizens of Awaji City to travel to their typical destinations (work, hospital, shops, friends, family, excluding one-off trips further afield). Then calculate the percentage navigating the transportation desert (loss leaders) vs the high traffic volume areas (that will subsidize the loss leaders). Assuming the worst, as the population drops the number of vehicles needed 24×7 to service those needs will drop as well, will lead to an improvement in the profit profile. And considering these are public services, as long as they eke out a profit, the services are worth running. At the same time, local authorities should promote services that reduce the need to travel, such as telemedicine, automated fruit and veg delivery etc, to help limit the amount of times someone needs to head out because they have to. That will help restrict travel numbers to focus on the enjoyment of travel, discovery, and relationships.

Hopefully we will see mobility automation supporting this change coming to Awaji City where it seems to be needed the most. Otherwise we will continue to see an erosion of citizen’s ability to move freely, in Awaji City and across Japan, leading to a loss of confidence which may impact the future economic vibrancy of the local region as people leave for more mobile-friendly locations.