Power, poles, utility and necessity

Among the heavy repercussions of typhoon Hagibis’ landfall on the weekend of 12th/13th October, thousands of utility poles were destroyed or damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands of households without electricity. Typhoon Faxai, which hit Japan in September 2019, dismantled about 2,000 utility poles in Chiba Prefecture, severing power lines and causing large-scale blackouts. Jebi, another fierce typhoon that targeted the Kansai region at about the same period last year, destroyed over 1,000 utility poles, leaving 2.2 million households for weeks without power. 

The Land of the Rising Sun has erected utility poles after the devastation of World War II, as it was a relatively cheap and fast option for reconstructing the country. However, they were exposed to wind and rain and so their vulnerability became quickly an issue. 

Today, Japan counts more than 35 million utility poles, a yearly still increasing number. In contrast to other global cities like London or Paris that have buried the entirety of their power cables underground and major Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei that are rapidly approaching this goal, its proportion reaches even in central Tōkyō only 8%. Across the country, the capital has yet made the most of efforts, and therefore the ratio in other regions is even lower. 

In case of downfall, utility poles can become a perilous item, threatening human lives, causing damages on facilities and blocking emergency vehicles. Yet not only for safety reasons, but also for their visual appearance, they have been denounced and since 1986 Tōkyō has made attempts of removal.

Some years ago, when I found in an official brochure a grey-sky picture showing an urban scenery with cables opposed to one without, where the sky was clear-blue and the sun shining, I started to be intrigued by the story behind the utility poles. After having read reports and listened to the opinion of numerous people, I understood that there was a major controversy about their existence.  Whereas some consider them as a main element which contributes to the charm of Japanese cities and regret the loss of a unique feature, others see them as an eyesore in urban landscape and as a factor which makes Tōkyō lag behind the standards of other world metropolises.  

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami of March 2011 that damaged about 56,000 utility poles, legislation was enacted to facilitate their relocation underground and required the national government to make efforts to expedite and urge prefectures and municipalities to draw plans on their own. In 2017, governor Koike Yuriko expressed the wish to reduce the number of utility poles in the Japanese capital to zero. Indeed, moving electricity cables underground is an efficient measure to protect power lines from natural disasters. As a matter of fact, the governor has been passionate about the removal of utility poles since being a member of the House of Representatives. In the run up to the Tōkyō Olympic and Paralympic Games, the promotion of their elimination has become a preoccupation with the target to bury 1,400 km of power transmission lines until year 2020.

Howbeit, the biggest obstacle is the price that it comes at. The most used method, which consists in digging fosses where power and communication lines are run through pipes, costs about 530 million yen (approximatively USD 5 million) per kilometre, which is between 10 and 20 times more than constructing overhead. If Tōkyō’s project to bury 1,400 km was put into effect, the expense would be 742 billion yen, about USD 6.84 billion. 

The costs are to be shared between the national government, the municipalities, the power companies and communication firms that run the lines. In order to create landscapes befitting to a host city and to rise attractiveness for tourists, priority in the project has been given to Tōkyō’s central areas. Furthermore, as the most vulnerable parts of the region are still carrying out the damages from the last typhoons, they can hardly afford investments for the removal. 

As much as I believed in the on-time accomplishment of the New National Stadium, as much as I do not assume that the utility poles in Tōkyō will be eliminated by 2020. However, the recent promotion for their burying is an example of how Tōkyō, like other host cities, is using the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a leverage to accelerate urban projects.

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