The Tokyo subway and its posters

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I came to Tokyo expecting to be impressed by its subway. I love public transit, particularly subways, as they solve so many problems all at once: not just travelling long distances in congested areas, but removing cars from the road, lowering the cost of commuting, and most of all, they’re an example of massive social coordination, showing how people can muster tremendous technical skills to create a service that everyone can use.

But not Tokyo’s. Instead, the Tokyo subway is an example of what happens if you let capitalists build and run your public services. The result is expensive chaos. The best way to demonstrate this is by comparison. In Seoul, you put cash on a debit card that gets deducted at every subway entrance. You can transfer to the bus or another line using the same card; it deducts or adds extra fees as needed.

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In Tokyo, you can transfer between lines if you buy a transfer ticket and use the orange transfer gate. But only on lines owned by the two big subway companies, Toei and Tokyu. Who owns which line isn’t marked on the map – not in English and apparently not in Japanese, otherwise they’d use an identifying logo. You’re just expected to know – local knowledge not helped by each company printing different maps that don’t show competitors’ lines. Also, many smaller lines are owned by different companies, so you can’t transfer onto them even if they connect to the same station – or, equally likely, the same-named station that’s actually a few hundred meters away. This turns station staff from advisors into salespeople; once I asked how to get to a stop and the guy told me a route that would be “cheapest”. I shouldn’t have to calculate costs every trip I make in a city.

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This is poorly managed capitalism, Marx’s ‘warring band of brothers’ writ in concrete and steel. It’s what happens when you let corporations compete with one another, without any oversight. Korea, a firmly capitalist nation, still has the temerity to publicly own its subways, and establish a single card payment system that can also be used as a cash card at convenience stores. Where it’s experimented with the market and allowed private lines to be built, those lines still must be integrated with the public system, both physically and financially. Plus even though the private lines in Seoul are twice as expensive as the public ones, they’re still significantly cheaper than Tokyo.

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You figure it out.

Seoul charges by zone, rather than number of stops. So, when I visit my girlfriend’s neighbourhood 45 minutes from me, south of the river, it costs an extra 20 cents. In Tokyo, prices start to rise after two stops. And a ride of five stops will cost 60 cents more than the longest possible ride in Seoul. Every day in Tokyo, I spent a minimum of $6 just on travel, and often over $10. Having a travel pass wouldn’t help: since they’re issued by private companies, they’re not valid on all lines, and although they give discounts when transferring, they still charge for the transfers just like ordinary tickets.

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I don’t think the private sector should build or manage anything, for the simple reason that they need to make a profit, which means underbidding, cutting corners, corruption,higher operating costs and, most importantly, lower wages. Of course, the public sector’s job is to manage capitalism, so it can also suffer from similar problems, but it doesn’t have to make a profit, which is a crucial difference. It also is highly unionized and pays better. But even accepting capitalist realism, Seoul does a much cheaper, comprehensible and faster service than Tokyo.

On that note, here is another example of what the Japanese excel in: design. These are subway posters I snapped in my expensive daily meanderings underground:

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Despite all this, I was ready to pay top dollar for subway souvenirs, like this stapler.

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But I couldn’t find the souvenir store, and the subway museum was way out in the suburbs. I also wanted to see examples of subway posters from the best of all possible design decades, the 1960s-early 1980s. But no such luck. I was really happy to get back to the air-conditioned, easy-to-use, inexpensive Seoul metro.

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