Driving vs. Public Transit

Photo Source: HP Website

When I visited Japan for the third time (and I’m about to visit that country for a fourth time in April/May), I was suddenly amazed by its highly developed and convenient public transit systems incl. its railroads (p.s. I'm not talking about Shinkansen or other long-distance trains), subways, trams and buses. Esp. its incredibly puncture and never-jammed (for which, I mean the trains, not the passengers inside them) railroad systems. These trains carry hundreds of thousands people in and out and around the cities. Commuters or tourists can easily utilize such conveniences without paying too much monetary and non-monetary costs. On the contrary, driving in Japan is not such a good choice of efficiency: stopping for red-lights requires engine shutting down; it is very time-consuming to make turns (no matter right or left); the speed limit for highways are at maximum 100km/h (approx. 62mph) and many highway segments require lower-than-80km/h (or 50mph) speed, not to mention the urban express ways that's even lower than highways. Such limitations are almost unbelievable for drivers from US (limit is normally 65-70mph, i.e. 104-112km/h and may be higher when average traffic speed goes higher) or China (limit is normally 110-120km/h or 68-74mph).

When I visit the United States, a free country full of cars, I am amazed again (you can see that my emotional bar is not that high) by the zealous passion and urgent necessity in driving within this country. As I have already learned from multiple TV series describing US lives, almost everyone in the US has a car. Such impressions have been reinforced by my own driving experiences during my stay on the west coast, the carpool lanes are seldom crowded, which indicates that the overwhelming majority of cars on freeways carry only one person inside. On the other hand, public transit systems in the US are far less appreciated. Experiences of us taking buses, deuces or subways are far from efficient or enjoyable: the waiting time are annoyingly long; operation hours end early; walking distance to get to a station or from a station to the destination creates desperation; and the prices are not that friendly. Such impressions are not visitors' illusions but also complaints regarding poor public transit besides the once-high-rising fuel prices from citizens and long-time residents.

Just to clarify in the first place, it is not my intention to attack the US public transit systems or to deny all the hard work of relevant authorities and staff. Neither would I argue against the driving experience in Japan. It’s just the interesting comparable scenarios and the freewill of choice behind these phenomenons that caught my attention.

When I take my step back to China, there seems to be a helpless balance between these two methods of transportation. Those who possess cars tend to drive for comfort, yet due to crowded downtown traffic, limited parking spaces or access restrictions of vehicles registered in non-local cities imposed by major cities’ authorities, certain vehicle owners may choose not to drive. But this situation only applies when these owners are unmarried or kids are not on the way. That's why whenever K-12 school semesters begins, downtown traffic gets worsen. As to those who cannot afford cars, taking public transit vehicles could be their only choice. It is globally known that China has a large population and over half of them live in cities, where urban territories are still limited. It would be a must-have for municipal governments to encourage and develop public transit to carry more people for their daily commutes.

We now have a sketchy impression of three scenarios in these three countries: In Japan, public transit is more accepted and appreciated by both individuals and government than driving; in US, driving is much more convenient and adopted than taking public transportation; while in China, no definite preference has shown, people's decisions are dependent on various factors; governments have to improve both public transit systems and road infrastructure for driving in general simultaneously. In order to explain such differences, geodemographic situations, social cultural elements, utilizing availabilities and affordability concerns are ought to be discussed.

Japan is a typical island country with limited territories but large population, which creates high population density, esp. in mega cities. Length of roads within boundaries of urban areas and roads connecting urban and satellite clusters are ultimately limited while urban population continues to grow. So, on one hand, the total driving vehicle possession has to be controlled; on the other hand, the already saturated ground traffic alone could not carry that many people incl. business and student commuters, tourists, and other inflowing crowd around. For authorities, developing public transit, esp. highly controllable and anticipatable railroad transit systems that not only greatly increase carrying capacity but also fully utilized vertical spaces (elevated and underground) is a no-brainer decision to make. Additionally, Japan imposes vehicle weight taxes on vehicle owners. Is this practice related to concerns regarding the fact that Japan is a geographically unstable island?

As to the individuals and the ethnical attributes, the Japanese are rule-followers. They respect and fully obey established rules and treat each other with politeness. They are very careful not to create mess or trouble to others. A Japanese would apologize even when he/she accidentally touched someone else in public occasions; or when a customer enters a bistro or restaurant's premise. In this sense, it would be a pleasure for the Japanese to applaud to the encouragement of taking public transit and not to create mess to the country and to their fellow countrymen by driving.

Japanese are industrial and diligent. Such traits encourage them to lead economical lifestyles while pursuing efficient solutions to issues they encountered. Frequent traffic jams on the ground are fuel-consuming, time-wasting and exhausting. Underground or elevated railroad systems do not suffer from traffic jams. It may be mind-blowing for someone who's never seen a Japanese subway car before for understanding how that many people may fit inside; yet taking these over-crowded trains are still the fastest way to get you to your destinations.

Popularity in needs stimulates demand. Japanese public transit services operate intensively and for incredibly long hours. Anytime in a day, the easiest way to get to anywhere you want in Japan, is to hop onto a reasonably-priced and convenient public transit vehicle.

United States enjoys large territories yet not that large population. Its cities also expand and spread in an almost unlimited fashion, which makes urban clusters, as well as in-town destinations/blocks relatively far (but not that far) from each other. The distances simply make it inconvenient for those who have no cars. Meanwhile, except mega cities like New York, many cities simply don't have that many people and hence do not have that many potential passengers who're ready to utilize public transits.

When we trace back to US history of development, the automobile industry was and still is crucial for this super nation's overall development: auto industry stimulates up and downstream industries and boosts employment and domestic consumption as well as export. "A nation on wheels" could be the best description for the American auto culture and phenomenon.

The American people care nothing more than the freedom and individuality. Mobility brought by driving is exactly a form of expression and realizing vehicle of freedom; the individualized spaces separated by vehicle plates (and safe driving distances) as well as cars as the perfect vessel of personalization create individualized spaces and expressions. This individualized characteristic also clearly identifies personal pursuits and discourages people's willingness of detouring -- Surely, there are distance and time concerns when it comes to detouring. Since a car is not that expensive, why not buy another one so everyone can be happy.

China is a country that enjoys large territory, large population, highly imbalanced urbanization and resource distribution layouts, and hence serious concentration of labor in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu, as well as other provincial capital cities. As average dispensable income increases and prices of industrial manufactured goods decrease, cars are no longer unaffordable for the Chinese. Traditional culture encourages people to show-off to their relatives and friends, and possessions of valuable goods including vehicles are seen as trophies of wealth and social status and major achievements to be proud of, rather than essential tools for transportation.

Yet just like Japan's situation of overly crowded urban traffic status, major cities in China suffer from severe traffic jams day by day. Governments have imposed various limitations on vehicle possession and usage.

The Chinese are great adapters to changes and a number of Chinese are, not proudly, speculators when it comes to regulations and restrictions. Driving is not such a pleasant and easy work in China. So, Chinese are not that single-minded on deciding whether to drive or to take public transit. When driving is not restricted or becomes crucial (for exhibiting, in bad weather, or for driving kids to school as a safety measure), owning a car becomes reassuring and relaxing; otherwise, it wouldn't hurt much to take buses or subways occasionally.