Yamanashi: michinoeki to the rescue of struggling compact cities

As noted in yesterday’s post, it is getting difficult to find examples of automated driving experimentation in every prefecture in Japan. However, the changing map of population movement at a macro level in a given prefecture can offer us insights less into what kind of experimentation is necessary but more into how future mobility should be structured and delivered to benefit the local population.

In a paper from 2015, the Japan Research Institute looks at the topic of compact cities which we have covered elsewhere. And while there are a number of examples offered from Aomori to Toyama, the main treatise focuses on intraprefectural population movement over the 2000-2010 period, and the success of the so-called compact city policy over that time. Note that the whole idea of a compact city is to offer a more slimmed-down local government adapted to the local needs of smaller pockets of population. The diagram on page 4 shows the inflow and outflow of population, with reds and greens showing sharp decreases, and yellows and blues showing sharp increases. When one sets this against a regular map as done in the document, these changes are a little difficult to read. The author points to a number of factors, such as uncontrolled new development on former agricultural plots that have disappeared due to the aging population. Considering that the capital city of Yamanashi of Kofu has a youth population profile to Tokyo (!?) for those under 24, there is a decent influx of population supporting those numbers at least up to and for a short while after university graduation to support such argumentation.

But if one compares google maps’ satellite view with the changes, it is pretty clear what is happening. The population decreases are focused on the broader sprawl around the major transportation arteries while immediately around these arteries the population is actually increasing (the decreases vs increases are better contrasted in diagram 19-1 on p.12 of a related JRI paper released around the same time by the same author). First, these changes are understandable as the postwar population growth fades away, and second, reflect increased urbanisation of the prefectural population, which is a common trait across the world and Japan and not specific to Yamanashi. Looking further within the disappearing green sprawl, dots of blue appear here and there apparently at random. Yet outside the main cities, most of the blue action takes place along transportation arteries leading to other prefectures, either to the north, southwest and east, or the southeast in the vicinity of Mount Fuji and out to the coast.

Whether these are new luxury/holiday home developments or simply new plots, the reality of Yamanashi is a more diffuse less populated urban sprawl. Quite the opposite to the compact city plans of local goverment. Yet as most population growth is focused around major transportation arteries, could the 20 prefectural michinoeki (roadside stations) play a compact city-like role in supporting local services to the more diffuse sprawl? Plotting a couple of the local michinoeki against the new blue developments show that a typical ride to the nearest michinoeki should be no more than 20km one-way. At a leisurely 40km/h, that’s a half-hour ride or a half-hour arrival time for a shuttle service from the michinoeki. Due to the highly mountainous local topology, the road network is heavily restricted to the valleys leading to a rather workable network. So in a sense maybe Yamanashi may not have a compact city issue as long as it focuses on michinoeki as the primary focal point for citizen service provision.

The downside of being in a highly mountainous area is the requirement for heavy investment in road clearing and maintenance, backup services for broken down vehicles (automated or not), as well as increased communication infrastructure to ensure timely notification of incidents and telematics services on the road network. In order to keep public maintenance costs (and required taxes) low, one could see personal and public vehicles play a bigger role in increasing infrastructure capacity at little cost to the prefecture. For example, personal vehicles and their drivers could offer their vehicles via local ridesharing communities, fulfilling local rides with an automated ad-hoc ride provisioning software that would help out local residents as and when needed. This would reduce the need for community buses, increasingly difficult to manage and run due to the increasingly diffuse urban sprawl. Personal vehicles could equally add their capacity to the non-local public transport grid (ie inter-town/inter-michinoeki) when not in use, and be paid via micropayment or local coupons for their trouble. Vehicles could also provide realtime data services on road conditions via additional sensors, which would be helpful not only for mapmaking or traffic services, but also for focusing prefectural maintenance work budgets on what matters. Finally, vehicles could also help boost the local communications infrastructure, with vehicles acting as mobile repeater stations and/or data processing units on wheels. This would require a change in mindset from an automobile as object of purely personal use, to multi-purpose socioeconomic vehicle benefiting the owner personally as well as the broader community. The litmus test will be if this setup can be deployed in the deep of winter, and demonstrably increase quality of life for locals while decreasing the local maintenance tax burden… Will Yamanashi be the forerunner of such communities to come? Time will tell.