Tokyo Subway Rider Experience

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Riding the Tokyo Metro

Public transit is a big interest of mine. Before I left Boston, I promised the public transit committee I am a part of, the MBTA Rider Oversight Committee, that I would report back about what I see and learn from other public transit systems around the world. This is the first post to that end.

The MBTA Rider Oversight Committee is a public committee made up of riders of Boston's public transit system, the MBTA, or T for short. The groups is meant to advocate on behalf of all riders of the T. We speak with and interact with the T regularly, bringing forward issues or suggestions on behalf of all of the ridership of the T.

With this rider-centric focus in mind, I give you my rider experience on the Tokyo subway system.

Upon arriving in Tokyo, we were admittedly a little lost and overwhelmed in our attempt at navigating the subway system. We were boarding the subway at Tokyo Station, one of the largest stations in the network, and had a hard time first identify where to enter the station, and subsequently picking out which of the many underground tunnels led to which train. Navigating was complicated by the fact that Tokyo Station features several other train lines in addition to the subway, and as jet lagged new arrivals to the city, we could not sort out between them. We knew were at the correct station, but we could not make out which part of the massive multilevel station we needed to find.

Outside of Tokyo station, however, directions were much clearer. Signage is everywhere inside and outside of stations to help you find your way. There is an employee that speaks at least basic English is at each station. The ticketing machine features several different languages. We quickly became comfortable with the system, found it exceptionally reliable, and enjoyed many of the quirky characteristics and cultural differences observable at the stations.

In the videos below, I offer a much fuller review of the system, including communication, timing, signage, and the sound systems. 

One of the many pillars in a station that was used to display information.

One main difference between the Boston and Tokyo subway systems is passenger behavior. In Boston, the subways are more boisterous, loud (at times), and social. In Tokyo, my wife and I were the only passengers to hold a conversation (in hushed voices even), while all other passengers never spoke and avoided eye contact. To Tokyo's benefit, the stations are also much quieter, the trains accelerate and decelerate much more smoothly, and there are fewer odd smells at both stations and in cars.

Another thing I noticed is that all the pillars in the station are used to show subway information, similarly to the Washington DC Metro system. Maps or station directions are everywhere, something that I found immensely helpful as a visitor.

If I was to change the T based on what I learned from Tokyo, I would:

  • Number the exits in stations. This seems like an easy, quick win. Maps do not have to be updated to incorporate this information immediately. Simply adding a big number on each station exit would allow for better communication for riders.
  • Print estimated time between stations. This is amazingly helpful.
  • While I didn't have to go to Tokyo to learn this, trains need to announce the station that they are approaching, correctly. Innumerable times I have been on the Red Line and hear the automated announcement "Next Stop -- Park Street" when we're actually approaching Porter Square.

Tomorrow I'll be riding the electric tram in Hiroshima. I don't think that I'll make a video like I did in Tokyo, but I'll still see if there are any lessons from Boston from this smaller city. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or feedback!