Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
To ease the morning rush traffic, the city’s Metro will reward riders with buckwheat noodles and tempura for traveling outside peak hours.
For all the efficiency that Tokyo’s subway system boasts, the morning commute is hell. At peak hours, trains and platforms are notoriously crowded, so much so that the city has to hire “pushers.” The city has also long been trying to ease crowding by asking riders to stagger their morning commute hours, and this time around, they’re appealing to people’s stomachs.
According to the Japan Times, the Tokyo Metro Co. is launching a nearly two-week-long trial on Monday urging commuters on the busiest line—the Tozai line, which runs east-west through the city—to head to work either before 8 a.m. or after 9 a.m. Those who sign up for the program and take part in it for at least 10 consecutive days will be rewarded with free soba noodles with tempura.
And as any office worker—or “salarymen,” as the Japanese calls them—anywhere will tell you, free food is hard to pass up. (For those who don’t know, soba noodles are the healthier but equally delicious cousin of ramen, and tempura is heavenly fried goodness.) To participate, riders will have to register their transit card and, according to the Times, use it before a designated time for each station along the line.
But it has to be a collective effort.
If fewer than 2,000 people sign up for the initiative, there will be no rewards give out. But if riders meet that threshold, each will get a coupon for just one piece of tempura at a restaurant that’s agreed to participate. If at least 2,500 people participate, then they will get a coupon for a bowl of soba at participating restaurants. To get coupons for both a bowl of soba and a piece of tempura, Tokyo wants to see at least 3,000 people signed up and taking part in their initiative.
On average, 76,616 people ride the Tozai line between 7:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., according to 2017 data from 2015 data from Japan’s transport ministry. So just 4 percent of the travelers will have to adjust their schedule in order for participants to get their free savory bowls of soba and tempura. But, as the Times point out, the 27 trains that run during that time are meant to shuttle a little over 38,000 riders, which means the line operates at nearly twice its capacity. And for commuters to see any difference, many more people will have to eat up the government’s offer—which may be tricky.
The initiative is part of a larger push from Tokyo for companies to offer their employees flexible work hours. Called Jisa Biz (jisa means time difference), the campaign launched in 2017 for the very purpose of making room on Japan’s packed trains, in part to prepare Tokyo’s transit system for the 2020 Olympics. “If, for example, one in every five people decides to shift (commuting times), the congestion in trains could be resolved, even if just by a little bit,” Naohisa Okamoto, a professor at the Urban Transportation Lab at the University of Tsukuba, told Japan Times in 2017.
More than 200 companies took part, including big players like Panasonic Corp. and Microsoft’s Japan branch. And in the past, rail companies have offered incentives like extra points on their mobile payment card or shopping vouchers. According to the newspaper though, the initial campaign elicited only a “lukewarm” response.
That may have to do with the grueling work culture of Japan, in which employees are expected to work long hours. And being on time is certainly part of the expectation. Last summer, in response to concerns over karoshi—death by overwork—the Japanese parliament passed a law limiting overtime work to fewer than 100 hours a month and fewer than 720 hours a year (still a lot by American standards). Yet habits and a competitive work culture have to change, as The Economist writes:
Japanese continue to work long hours because, almost without exception, big companies continue to judge employees by input not output. They base promotion and pay not on merit, but on age and years at the company. It is almost impossible, by law, to fire incompetent staff hired on permanent contracts.
At the same time, Japan’s train stations have been more successful than most at nudging passenger behavior. And now, they have the appeal of two of Japan’s best culinary treasures to sweeten the deal.