Remote (to) control

The management of transport systems has proven to be essential for hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games with success. As they have over the years grown in size, logistical issues in the handling of crowds have urged host cities to find new strategies. Furthermore, the Games were progressively seen as an opportunity to change the way people travel in congested metropolises, not only during the event, but also beyond. Legacy can be physical transport infrastructure (development of railway systems and bus lines, construction or renovation of train stations and airports, expansion of roads and parking, harmonisation of local taxi networks…) as well as behavioural (increase in public transport usage, operation knowledge acquired through the Olympic / Paralympic experience or the introduction of new work styles). 

In the history of the modern Olympic Games, Atlanta 1996 was a turning point in the rethinking of Olympic transport operations; with an overloaded Rapid Transit System, newly recruited bus drivers who got lost and important congestion leading to athletes being late for their own competitions, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needed to set new standards. Henceforth, it imposed clear prescriptions and today asks the Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (OCOG) to ensure a safe, reliable and efficient transport system free of charge for accredited persons. Thus, elements such as Olympic ring roads, Olympic lanes, fairly short distances in-between the Athletes Village and venues, as well as the handling of crowds in public transportation have to be planned ahead and integrated in host cities’ proposals.

Athletic facilities, many of which are still in use, doubtlessly count amongst the tangible legacy of the Tōkyō 1964 Games. However, the most significant was the development of the city’s (and the country’s) transport infrastructure. As authorities estimated that the number of cars circulating in Tōkyō would exceed one million in the Olympic year, more than 70 kilometres of roads were rehabilitated and freshly built, grade-separated highways, and expressways constructed. Two new metro lines were established and integrated into the already existing network and theshinkansen (= bullet train) was inaugurated on October 1, 1964, 9 days before the opening ceremony. In addition, 15 kilometres of rails for the Haneda-Tōkyō central monorail train were built and renovation works on Haneda Airport, which was at the time the main gateway of the archipelago, were undertaken.

Aware of an unusual high number of visitors, Japan some twenty years later successfully implemented the Universal Traffic Management System (UTMS) in the run-up to the Nagano 1998 Winter Games. On the occasion, the shinkansen got expanded to the host city, the local road network got enlarged, expressways extended and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) investments were made in order to provide people with real-time traffic information. 

Unlike possible assumptions that the rise of the Internet may have reduced the movement of people, not only because of its general growth, but also and especially due to the construction of big office complexes (often housing also hotels, restaurants, stores and educational or cultural facilities), the number of commuters in Tōkyō megalopolis has increased in the beginning of the 21st century. Shinjuku Station, elected in 2011 by the Guinness World Records the busiest station in the world, counts daily in average around 3.5 million passengers and therewith tops Shibuya Station, second busiest in the world, which sees about 2.4 million passers-by per day. Over the years, Tōkyō has developed an extensive and user-friendly railway system, including station names written in both Japanese and Latin alphabet, systematic numeration of subway stops and announcements that are meanwhile often made in Japanese and English language. In March 2015, the Shuto Expressway Central Circular Route, which allows to reach Haneda Airport within a 20 minutes drive from Shinjuku, was completed and in March 2020, Takanawa Gateway Station (designed by Kuma Kengo, creator of the New National Stadium), located in-between Shinagawa and Tamachi Station, was opened. The new model of the Tōkaidō shinkansen shall be inaugurated on July 1, 2020, and the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit System) is being developed in the run-up to the Games and will subsequently be expanded. 

Compared to other cities, Tōkyō has a remarkably efficient and reliable transportation system. However, prevention of traffic congestion is seen as one of the most serious challenges on the occasion of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. With approximatively 11,000 expected athletes, 7.8 million spectators and 25,000 media representatives for the Olympics and 4,400 athletes, 2.3 million spectators and 9,500 media representatives for the Paralympics, the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government (TMG) projected an increase of 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles on the Tōkyō Metropolitan Expressway per day (double of the usual road traffic) and a rise of 10% of railway users (about 800,000 additional passengers per day) during the event. Under the title スムーズビズ (Smooth Biz), the TMG launched an initiative with a trinity undertaking, which includes the promotion of telework, flexible working / commuting and traffic demand management. In-between July and September 2019, large-scale trials were executed. Therefore, inter alia, government agencies as well as private firms used telework and staggered work hours, and train companies increased the number of services during peak hours. 

Until now, the uptake of telework has in Japan been rather slow. According to a survey of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the percentage of Japanese firms that have adopted telework rose from 11.5% to 19.1% between 2012 and 2018. Though only 8.5% of the consulted employees declared to have tried it out. Some reasons for the reluctant attempt to work remotely may be the strong loyalty of many employees to their company, expressed notably through extended working hours, the imagined duality of “real work” and physical presence at the office, the social importance of work-related gatherings (such as nomikai) and (non-digitalised) seal stamping (hanko), faxing and other tasks linked to paper documents that are in the accustomed way difficult to accomplish outside the office.

When Prime Minister Abe Shinzō declared the State of Emergency in at first 7 out of the 47 Japanese Prefectures on April 6 (it got extended to nationwide last Thursday, April 16), he explained that in anticipation of lifting it on May 6, individuals needed to reduce contact with each other by 70-80%. Some days later, he asked companies to promote teleworking in order to achieve a decrease of 70% in commuters. According to East Japan Railway Co. (JR East), the number of passengers on the circular Yamanote Line in Tōkyō during morning hours was 60% lower the first three days after the declaration of the State of Emergency than in early February 2020. The following weekend, the number was said to have dropped 85% from a year before. An online survey conducted by Persol Research and Consulting Co., showed that from April 10 to 13, 38.8% of permanent employees in the seven prefectures telecommuted, with the rate reaching 49.15% in Tōkyō, albeit only 13.8% teleworked outside those areas. Before the declaration of the State of Emergency, 71.7% of the consulted employees went to the office (April 6) and the rate for all-day teleworking in the seven prefectures was at 18.6% before rising to 28.6% on April 10. 

Although telework has in Japan not yet become a common and natural form to work, and the aimed 70% reduction in commuters have not been attained so far, the current sanitary situation seems to be a catalyst of what government campaigns had since a while tried to achieve. Indeed, the work style reform is currently getting an important push and more and more companies are encouraging their employees to telework. As many (social) habits, adaption may take time and it is uncertain if it will resonate on long term. 

Moving forward with the practice of remote work may not only be essential to control and overcome the current situation, but it could also be highly beneficial to important parts of the population. Not least of all, it would help prevent from traffic congestion during the Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

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