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Tokyo 2020 organizers, metro and central gov'ts troubled over athlete transport plans

A board in front of JR Shimbashi Station in Tokyo's Minato Ward shows there are 526 days before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, on Feb. 14, 2019. (Mainichi/Naotsune Umemura)

TOKYO -- Organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics as well as the central and Tokyo metropolitan governments are struggling to work out effective measures to ease traffic congestion in the capital in order to smoothly transport athletes and others involved in the games to and from venues.

Particular attention is focused on how to ease traffic jams on the Metropolitan Expressway, also known as Shutoko. The three entities have deemed that asking businesses to refrain from using the Metropolitan Expressway will not be enough to reduce traffic volume.

Three plans to reduce traffic on the expressway were presented during a Feb. 6 study meeting on transportation for the games: road pricing, restricting the use of cars with even- or odd-numbered license plates depending on the day, and creating multiple-passenger lanes.

All of these measures would make people's daily lives harder. Katsuhisa Saito, head of the 2020 Games organizing committee's transportation planning department, said, "We will implement multiple measures if a single measure proves ineffective, though that would have a huge impact on society."

Discussions on these plans were sparked by the discovery that key traffic congestion measures being considered by the organizing committee and metropolitan government were likely to be counterproductive.

Tokyo modeled its policy after the "transportation demand management" (TDM) measures implemented for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics. Organizers of the 2012 Games encouraged changes in people's behaviors, and regulated and dispersed traffic volume by urging people to use public transport and switch to telework during the event. About 70 percent of Londoners apparently changed their travel habits during the games as a result.

Organizers of the Tokyo Games and the metro government had planned to implement TDM and partially regulate traffic in a bid to reduce volume on the Metropolitan Expressway by 15 percent from weekday levels, to about the same as that seen on weekends.

However, those involved in the games were shocked by the outcome of a simulation released in October 2018. The results show that if traffic volume were to be reduced by a uniform 10 percent on roads inside the circular Ken-O Expressway, otherwise known as the Metropolitan Inter-City Expressway, then drivers would feel that the Metropolitan Expressway was less congested and use it, lessening the effectiveness of the traffic regulation measure.

Some present at an International Olympic Committee meeting held in Tokyo late last year voiced concerns about the traffic situation in Japan's capital during the games. Based on past cases, the IOC proposed limiting the use of the Metropolitan Expressway according to license plate numbers, and setting aside at least one lane for vehicles carrying multiple people.

However, that would require securing personnel and installing necessary equipment to confirm license plate numbers of vehicles traveling on the expressway. Moreover, it would be difficult to establish lanes exclusively for vehicles carrying multiple people because most Metropolitan Expressway routes have only two lanes each way.

Metropolitan Expressway tolls for regular cars using electronic toll collection (ETC) devices range from 300 yen to 1,300 yen depending on the distance travelled. According to those familiar with the matter, there are proposals to add anywhere from 500 to 3,000 yen across the board, regardless of distance, to regular tolls on the Central Circular Route of the Metropolitan Expressway and routes inside it during the games. Trucks and other vehicles involved in logistics will be exempt from the extra charges because the business community has been asked to cooperate with TDM.

A person linked to the Olympics and Paralympics points to the need to swiftly draw up sufficient traffic congestion countermeasures.

"We had initially thought the introduction of TDM would be sufficient. There's not much time left for us to gain public understanding of the additional measures," the individual said.

However, consent from the assemblies of metro Tokyo and other prefectures hosting the expressway is necessary to introduce additional charges. Whether the plan can win understanding from the public will be key to implementation.

--- Distribution industry fears increased costs

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has held briefing sessions and consultations to seek TDM cooperation from businesses. However, many business operators have expressed concerns that the policy will increase expenses and worsen employees' working conditions.

"If we were to shift our warehouses to suburban areas, it would increase our costs," one said.

"If we were to transport goods at night to avoid overlapping with transportation of athletes and others involved in the games, it would worsen our drivers' working environment," another said.

Many companies seem open to staggering working hours and introducing telework, which will lead to work-style reform, but contractual obligations make it difficult to change delivery periods and frequency. The seafront area where many of the games venues are concentrated is also a transportation hub.

A survey that the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry conducted in October 2017 on 1,200 member companies situated near Olympic and Paralympic venues and the athletes' village shows that only 36.4 percent said they could consider changing their business hours. Twenty-four percent said they could not change their schedules for transporting goods to and from their offices.

Organizers and the local government will unveil an updated transportation plan at the end of this fiscal year in March.

"We're considering additional measures, but the most important thing is to obtain cooperation for TDM. We'd like to patiently ask businesses for cooperation until the last minute to gain their understanding," a metropolitan government official said.

(Japanese original by Tadashi Murakami, Sports News Department)

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