What Is Public Transportation Like in Tokyo?

Tokyo Subway Crowd

Photo by dat’ on Flickr

You’ve no doubt heard horror stories about masses of bodies being herded onto trains like cattle, often with the aid of oshiya (pushers), who stand on the platform and help to cram as many people as possible into already crowded cars. Or perhaps you’ve taken note of news stories detailing the advent of all-female cars on some trains thanks to rampant groping of female commuters (made possible by trains so densely packed that women can’t even turn around to see who might be molesting them). But let’s be clear: such incidents have been hyped by a media stuck in a 24-hour news cycle with little actual news to report. And while trains happen to be the main form of transportation used in Tokyo, any adverse conditions can be easily avoided by skipping peak travel times or simply using other forms of mass transit. So if you happen to be planning a trip to Tokyo and you’re wondering about the best ways to get around, here’s the 411 on public transportation.

For starters, trains are actually the best method of travel within the city mainly because they can take you nearly anywhere. This was a city designed for mass transit, as opposed to say, Los Angeles, which relies heavily on the automobile for transportation. The result is that there are several commuter lines that converge at central stations throughout the city. And while these lines are owned and operated by several different entities, they all work together to ensure that travelers never have to wait long for the next train going their way (average wait time is five minutes, according to a report on Lonely Planet). Considering that an estimated 20 million travelers utilize Tokyo’s train system, it’s no surprise that the rail lines are prevalent, well-maintained, and affordable. As for complaints of overcrowding, you may face this phenomenon if you travel at peak hours, but by the same token you wouldn’t hang out in a New York City subway station in the middle of the night if you didn’t want to get mugged. So it’s just a matter of knowing when to go.

Tokyo station

Photo by tokyoform on Flickr

As for other options, they’re bound to come with either additional expense or limited range. For example, the city does provide buses, but these mainly serve to take passengers to and from train stations rather than covering cross-town routes. Interestingly, only certain buses charge on a per-ride basis, while the fare on other lines depends on the distance you travel, making long trips less enticing. Taxis are also available, although they are terribly expensive when compared to other forms of transit, and they are often reserved for use only during hours when other options are not offered (Tokyo rail lines tend to shut down between the hours of midnight and 6am, depending on the line) or when people are traveling in a group to split the expense.

Travelers can always opt for rental cars or even bicycles to get around, but despite a centralized traffic control and upwards of 300 information boards to help ease traffic jams, getting around the city by these means can be highly ineffective and incredibly frustrating, especially for the uninitiated. You might as well load up a party van and hire a chauffeur or pile a bunch of passengers into the back of semi trucks to caravan to your destination because it’s probably going to take you a while to get there (and you can have some drinks in the meantime).

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