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Shimbashi backstreet, Tokyo (photo by the author)

Tokyo’s model mobility, for cities large and small: Part 3 of ‘And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile’

Part three of a three-part series exploring how cities around the world are snapping out of autopilot and moving beyond the automobile.

Dan Hill
Dan Hill
Nov 11, 2019 · 10 min read

Ed. Previously, in Par Two of ‘And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile’, I looked at how cities are beginning to unpick themselves from the tangle of car-dominated 20th century urban planning. Part three closes by looking at Tokyo as a model for cities large and small.

This—“Which do we want?”—is a political question. At least political with a small ‘p’. Purely market-led solutions don’t deliver coherent mobility. Instead, the untrammeled market produces a torrid convergence of the tyranny of choice and the tragedy of the commons, such as with the vast numbers of e-scooters and ‘floating’ bikes that wash up on our streets when uncoordinated, or more problematically again, the appalling dominance of the car on most of our cities. Tech cannot simply solve these problems by blitzscaling its way through problems, despite the hubris surrounding the sector.

Elon Musk, who ought to know a little more about mobility than most in the tech sector, revealed what seems like a deep-seated misanthropy shaping his view of public transport when he said:

“That’s why everyone doesn’t like it. And there’s like a bunch of random strangers, one of who might be a serial killer, OK, great.”

The esteemed planner Jarrett Walker gently took him to task for this, only for Musk to keep on digging. More importantly, perhaps, Musk’s description is not how most people in the world experience public transport, which can be one of the clearest examples of the idea of public luxury. It may well be that this is how public transport is perceived in minds of those in the tiny bubble of Californians who drive to tech campuses along a clogged 101 highway every day, but most of the rest of us, globally, take public transport and somehow manage to survive, or even thrive. (This is not simply a tech industry blindspot: I recall working on the vast Barangaroo project in Sydney a decade ago, and the project manager leading on public transport on a part of the project, working for a large property developer who will go unnamed, revealing that he had never taken public transport in his life. Not a bus, not a train, nothing. The person in charge of public transport on the project.)

Given the limited solutionist engineering mindset in Californian tech culture, it is perhaps not surprising that they see a previous era of individualist mobility tech choices, such as the car, as simply not being engineered enough — if only we could fine-tune the way such mobility flows, rather than stepping back and asking a deeper question: how should a city can move in the first place?

When working with the UK government on their industrial strategy last year, as part of the UCL IIPP Commission for Mission-Oriented Innovation and the Industrial Strategy set up by Mariana Mazzucato, I helped lead the thinking around the ‘mobility mission’. The Commission was hugely fortunate to have Brian Eno as a member and in a blank meeting room at UCL one autumn afternoon, he made the single biggest contribution to the work with the most subtle, elegant concise statement. As I was outlining our thinking about not letting the tech dominate policy and strategy, Eno said, in that deliberate, thoughtful, and quietly powerful way of his, something like:

“Perhaps we could instead imagine a place in which everyone and everything moved around a little less, and a little more slowly …”

That statement allowed me to open up an entirely more progressive agenda within the meeting, and the work. But to enable that outcome more broadly takes a more holistic approach than usually found in either a tech company, which is usually looking to deploy a faster, more convenient, more attention-grabbing product, or a typical public transport agency, which is usually looking to deploy faster, more convenient transport.

So rather than having the Californian bubble define mobility mindsets and outcomes, a sharper, more genuinely valuable approach must incorporate well-resourced, professional and motivated public agencies, in order to help design and deliver digital/physical services around mobility. As well as running services directly, such agencies can also create appealing ‘sockets’ for private or social enterprise to plug in to, to help offer various mobility services, whilst ensuring coherent user experiences, strategic use of infrastructure, and an ability to integrate alongside other initiatives like energy, housing, green and blue infrastructure, public space, culture.

The municipality has to be vitally present in this, given that mobility is not simply about infrastructure, nor simply about safety, climate and health, but also articulates our collective understanding of democracy, diversity, culture, social inclusion and social justice. Again, cities like Helsinki, Oslo, Barcelona, Singapore—and of course many Chinese cities—are beginning to clearly demonstrate the benefit of public sector leadership here.

It is not that technology is unimportant, however. These public sector teams need to be as au fait with mobility tech as Musk is, given the potentially transformative characteristics of the lighter, digitally-infused infrastructures available to us now. This does indeed require a fundamentally different culture on the public sector side, a different playbook.

Arup Digital Studio, working for City of Melbourne and RMIT University, sketched out an approach to transforming a typical inner-Melbourne street, through progressively switching out its car-based mobility over time. Over a projected series of small but ultimately transformational moves, tactics to take advantage of today’s technology (and tomorrow’s as it becomes useful), spreading cost over time whilst unlocking far more value, and crucially, through small, participative interventions, take people through that shift step-by-step. Such an approach is the opposite of urban planning, in fact, instead deploying an ‘adaptive design’ philosophy and practice: iterative, agile, engaged, working in slow and fast layers simultaneously, towards a shared ‘north star’ defined in terms of outcomes, ends rather than means.

This distributed approach to scaling has more in common with the parklet movement than Barcelona’s Superblocks, perhaps, although we were clearly inspired by the latter too (as well as a historical perspective on the value of streets planned pre-car.) We were exploring how to balance the fast layers of tactical urbanism with the slow layers of strategic planning – and ending up with adaptive design, for urbanism fast and slow.

These playbooks could be useful, in terms of indicating the possibilities to us in the coming years. Yet much of the technology we need for a transformed street is available here and now, and can be seen around us, should we look for it. It’s simply a case of delivery, now.

Moving beyond the cosy little European cities, it may seem unlikely to again look to Tokyo as a pattern book for a city not dominated by cars. But this sprawling mega-city-region is both the churning, constantly-evolving concrete-and-steel beast of Tetsuo Iron Man and Tokyo Ghoul, and simultaneously home to the most human-scale and super-green, safe and stimulating, peaceful and creative, walkable, bikeable and likeable neighbourhoods one could imagine.

In a typical Tokyo neighbourhood like Kamata, Kagurazaka, or Koenji — outside of the tourist-heavy intensity of Shinjuku or Ginza — the streets are tight yet fluid, defined around people and greenery. On-street parking is not allowed, which allows for tumbles of plant pots, people on foot and on bike, for conversation and activities, for street life. Streets can typically be around four metres wide, which allows for movement, interaction and vibrancy, yet not the parking that would slowly lead to domination and dependency by and on the car.

A quietly breathtaking building like Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House threads itself perfectly into these spaces, in a way that would be impossible were the car present en-masse. The greenery is all around, tucked into every corner, tumbling from every pocket, from small pots to trees with proper root systems.

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Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, dissolving into a typical street in Kamata, Tokyo, 2018 (photo by the author)
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Ryue Nishizawa’s Moriyama House, dissolving into a typical street in Kamata, Tokyo, 2018 (photo by the author)

Car parking is ingeniously folded into architecture, as with Sou Fujimoto’s famous House NA, tucked away such that it’s the car that skulks furtively in the background, rather than forcing people to the margins. Again, perhaps the single biggest design intervention here is that on-street parking has been banned in Japan since 1963 — re-designing this single law eleswhere could also rapidly transform most other cities, a stroke of a pen that would perhaps have the biggest impact one could imagine. And by the time it is on the street, logistics is performed largely on foot or bike, as noted earlier.

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Sou Fujimoto’s House NA featuring an old Citröen 2CV as part of the architecture, Tokyo 2018 (photo by the authorl)
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A typical street in Kamata, Tokyo, 2018 (photo By the author)

The neighbourhoods are clustered around metro stations, which thread the city together at scale, across multiple, differentiated ‘centres’. The pattern is so simple: super-fast metro connecting super-slow neighbourhoods, distributed around multiple concentrations of activity; repeat until it covers most of Honshu’s southern mass, for 38 million people. (And Stockholm’s Gamla Enskede, with which I started this piece, could also now have this pattern of walkable neighbourhood linked by fast subway — yet it does not, having been sliced apart in favour of motorised traffic.) (Note also, obviously, that not all of Tokyo is as I describe. Something as big and varied as Tokyo cannot be ‘all’ anything. There are parts of Tokyo that are quite the opposite of what I describe. Nonetheless, the pattern I do describe is both present in numerous places, and could be also present, if modified, in many more. The design pattern is distinct.)

Tokyo shows us how to balance old technologies, like the bike and the metro, with new ones, like robotics — yet with green, humane streets to the fore. It’s possible to imagine how those new characters of autonomous vehicles and micromobility could emerge on this intimate stage, humbly scurrying around in the background. The dynamic of the street remains consistent, with a street from 1907 and 2017 both recognisable, distinct, and crucially, vibrant. I’ve argued previously that the dynamic of a street when designed around people and place — balancing all kinds of wheels, autonomous or bikes or trams or otherwise — may have as much in common with the early 20th century as the 21st.

It’s just the awkward traffic-engineered 20th century model — what in 1961 Sweden was called the ‘bo med bil’ (‘live with the car’) lifestyle — that is out of kilter, that is the problematic blip, the wrong-turn with deadly consequences.

So we can look at these Tokyos, one hundred years apart, and see a shared sensibility, a shared dynamic, what Jacobs would rightly romanticise as the ballet of the street. And in terms of a guiding, shaping force suffused through these streets, there is absolutely a form of design at work here.

Yet it is Japan’s unique, complex and powerful values — some age-old; some slowly adapting to new ideas — that drive this balancing act, this dynamic, rather than tech companies that exist in Japan as much as anywhere else. There is no excuse for not understanding this now. Design is about values and ideas, rather than engineering and problem-solving. “Soft eyes” rather than hard eyes.

Design brings form to ideas. It translates our values as a society into the hard and soft infrastructures of everyday life. In the past, those values were expressed as unyielding concrete freeways, deathly individualising suburbs, cheap loans and multiple cars parked on the lawn. Yet we have a choice as to the values that we design around for our next cities, for both the adaptation of yesterday’s concrete jungles or the new cities we build for the next billion.

The relevant technologies, from bikes to buses to Blockchain, are tried and tested and ready to roll. Our shared problems are clearer each day, and should give us every motivation for systemic change. The potential of people, place and ecology is richer than ever.

Now we must learn how to put these things together in order to reveal the places and people around us, designing for shared spaces and services rather than the individual, digging our streets out from under the shadow of the car.

“And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile,
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife,
And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?”
— Excerpt from ‘Once in a Lifetime’ by Talking Heads

Ed. This is part three of a three part series. Do read Part One and Part Two if you end up here first.

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the…

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

Dan Hill

Written by

Dan Hill

Designer, urbanist, etc. Director of Strategic Design at Vinnova, Swedish govt’s innovation agency. Visiting prof UCL Bartlett IIPP + Design Academy Eindhoven

But what was the question?

Essays and journal entries concerning technology and the city. Title lifted from Cedric Price’s “Technology is the answer. But what was the question?”

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