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Turning Japanese: Victoria's public transport

By Stewart Prins - posted Thursday, 18 December 2008

For a moment, it seemed like John Brumby was turning Japanese.

The Premier’s Victorian Transport Plan, launched on December 8, was heavily focused on the need to build a more comprehensive public transport network in Melbourne.

If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ll know what travelling on a comprehensive public transport network can be like. It seems like you’re never far away from a train station or bus depot. Everything seems to run on time - and frequently.


Of course, Japan has some natural advantages over Australia when it comes to running public transport. Tokyo-Yokohama itself has over 31 million people - the most populous urban area in the world. That makes a huge difference in terms of economies of scale.

Indeed, that’s why Tokyo is one of the few places where public transport actually makes money, without any need for government subsidy of capital or operating expenses.

Just as important, however, is the simple fact that Japan has invested in the infrastructure it needs to make its cities work efficiently and effectively.

There are more than 120 train lines running through the Tokyo-Yokohama area, and over 1,200 stations. A number of different companies operate sections of the network - but commuters can switch between trains easily using a network-wide smartcard ticketing system.

Almost of the commuter rail network is separated from the freight network. Rail is simply the easiest way to get around the city. It’s been estimated that 57 per cent of all trips in Tokyo are taken on public transport. It might sound self evident, but you can’t catch a train if there is no train to catch.

Tokyo works for public transport commuters because the infrastructure is there, it is convenient and it is accessible.


Melbourne is, of course, a mere township compared to the mega-city that is Tokyo-Yokohama. The city cannot expect to achieve the same economies of scale, but it can learn from the Japanese experience.

The benefits of investing in public transport infrastructure are there for all to see. Tokyo-Yokohama shows us that we can continue to grow without choking on exhaust fumes and traffic congestion, and without endless urban sprawl. We can build more sustainable cities built around a more efficient transport system.

In Melbourne, however, the argument about investment in transport infrastructure has too often been sidetracked by competing agendas.

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About the Author

Stewart Prins is a transport consultant and former Ministerial Adviser to the Victorian Government.

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