February 10, 2010


"Bus Trigger" System Boosts Pedestrian Traffic and Public Transport in City of Kanazawa

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.89 (January 2010)
"Initiatives and Achievements of Local Governments in Japan" (No. 28)

The city of Kanazawa, with a population of about 460,000, is the capital of Ishikawa Prefecture in central Japan on the coast of the Japan Sea. While it is well known as a tourist destination for its Kenroku-en Gardens, one of Japan's three most famous, it is also known for implementing measures to make better use of its public bus transportation system. In the high tourist season in 1989, for instance, it introduced a park-and-ride system to encourage tourists to park their cars at designated temporary lots near expressway interchanges and take special tour buses from there into the city for sightseeing. In 1996, it started another park-and-ride system for commuters to allow them to park at designated lots near train or bus stations in the suburbs and take public transportation into the city center. In this article, we introduce the world's first "Bus Trigger" system, a unique idea from Kanazawa to use route revenues as a decision-making "trigger" to promote more effective use of bus transportation.

History of Transportation in Kanazawa

During Japan's the high economic growth period of the 1960s, nationwide mass motorization was spurred on by a boom in private car ownership and the spread of regional shopping centers and other commercial facilities. In contrast, Kanazawa's city center, which survived World War II, saw a more limited expansion of road capacity because the area's street plan was formed during the clan period from the 15th to 19th centuries, leaving a legacy of many narrow, one-way, and dead-end streets, making it difficult to get around the city center by car.

In the 1960s, those living in the central area of the city in the prime of their working lives moved out to the suburbs where they could better enjoy driving. As for their parent's generation, some moved to the suburbs with their children, while others decided not to leave and stayed in the city centers.

Today, after about 50 years since the private car boom, and with the recent trend of declining birthrates and a graying society, those who moved to the suburbs are growing old and reaching the age when they have difficulties in driving or even stop driving altogether. For their aged parents who stayed in the city, buses are an important mode of transportation for getting to hospitals, city offices, and elsewhere.

Public transportation ridership in Kanazawa, however, has been declining year after year, with ridership dropping by 45.6 percent from 1989 to 2007. In contrast, according to a study on the share of various transportation modes in the greater Kanazawa area, car use grew from 84.7 percent in 1989 to 91.2 in 2007.

Collaboration Creates Shift from Vicious Cycle to Virtuous

With an increasing number of people depending solely on their cars instead of buses and trains, the public transportation company was looking at being forced to raise fares and reduce bus and train service, which would make it less convenient and possibly lead to further reduction in ridership levels. This negative spiral could then trigger the closing of underused bus routes and train lines. If this occurred, the mobility of people not owning cars would suffer even further, an inconvenience particularly for elderly citizens and students.

Instead, in order to increase ridership and improve the convenience of public transportation systems, for example, by lowering fares and increasing the number of bus and train service, citizens, the transportation company, and the local government would need to do work together to support public transport.

On one hand, while citizens might say, "If the fares were cheaper and the number of bus and train service increased, we would use public transportation more frequently," while the transportation company might say, "If more people use buses and trains, we could lower fares and increase the number of bus and train service." As an entity engaged in public transportation, the company also had concerns that, once fares were lowered, it would be difficult to raise them again if the number of passengers decreased.

The Traffic Policy Section of the Kanazawa city government contemplated how to lower fares while making the company's business more feasible -- a system in which cheaper fares would lead to an increase in the number of passengers and consequently increase sales. In theory, if it worked, even if fares were half the current ones, the company would still be able to operate without a financial loss by doubling the number of bus and train passengers.

Against this backdrop, the city decided to propose the "Bus Trigger System," and on April 1, 2006, in collaboration with the Hokuriku Railroad Co. and Kanazawa University, the city began a trial run under which the bus fare for the route between the Asahi-machi area and the university's Kakuma campus was reduced from the original fare points of 170 yen and 200 yen (about U.S.$1.80 and $2.20) to 100 yen (about U.S.$1.10). This joint initiative was launched on condition that if annual fare revenue from this route exceeded the annual revenue from the same route the previous year, then this new system would be continued the following fiscal year. To keep the fare at 100 yen, annual ridership had to be twice the ridership for fiscal 2005, meaning that a total ridership of 221,687 passengers would be needed. If this initiative proved to be unprofitable, then the company would raise the fare back to its original price.

Hidenori Nakamiya, of the city's Traffic Policy Section, said, "We have committed to following this condition, with the aim of satisfying every stakeholder." The idea was given the name "Bus Trigger System" by Masakuni Fujita, then chief of this section, with the hope that a decision on the offering of services based on route revenues would act as a "trigger" in encouraging citizens to use buses more frequently.

Kanazawa University actively promoted the system to its students with the message, "Want the reduced 100-yen bus fare to continue? If you do, ride the bus."

According to a survey conducted prior to the trial run (respondents were Kanazawa University students living around the bus stops of the 100-yen bus route), the number who said that they would use the service on a fine day after the trial run started was 319 (42%), 2.6 times of the number of students who had actually used the bus service on a fine day before the trial, which was 123 (16%). Meanwhile, the number of students who said they would use the bus service on a rainy day and a snowy day once the trial run started was 551 (73%) and 636 (84%), respectively, also larger than the number of students who actually had used the bus service under these conditions before, 336 (45%) and 448 (60%), respectively. Considering the climate in 2004, the number of overall students who would use the bus service with the new fares was estimated to be 2.1 times the number of students who actually used the bus service previously.

According to a survey on the environmental awareness of Kanazawa University students (114 respondents) conducted from January 28 to February 24, 2009, through the Acanthus Portal (the university's student-support website), the top answer for the question "What environmental activities do you know about that are carried out by Kanazawa University?" was the 100-yen bus program (95 respondents), which showed their familiarity with the service.

Trial a Success

During the trial, the number of bus users in fiscal 2006 exceeded the target on January 18, 2007, more than two months before the end of fiscal 2006 (March 31, 2007), and so it was decided to continue with the 100-yen fare in the next fiscal year. More than two years later, the fare revenues of the bus route in fiscal 2009 exceeded the baseline fiscal 2005 fare revenues on November 17, 2009, and so it was decided to again continue with the 100-yen fare in fiscal 2010.

Model Local Community

The Bus Trigger System has effectively functioned over the past five years as a user-oriented mechanism, where people such as students and supporters such as the university continue to cooperate in receiving better service. It can be said that the system's success was triggered by the rule that if the yearly route revenues under the 100-yen bus service did not reach the target, the fare would be raised back to its original price the following year.

The efforts of Kanazawa show that simply asking to people to change their behavior does not work effectively. Instead, it is important to devise concrete ideas that encourage all interested parties to take on the desired behavior (ride the bus instead of driving a car) in order to get certain consequences (lower bus fares). In this context, Kanazawa serves as a model for cities not only in Japan but also throughout the world.

Written by Kazuko Futakuchi