SUZUKA, Mie Pref. – While the use of cars has forced many Japanese bus services into a corner, a community service initiated by the city of Suzuka has proved a hit among residents of depopulated regions in Mie Prefecture.
Experts say the bus service could become a model for farming villages where public transport is either in short supply or nonexistent due to the use of cars.
Popularly known as the “C-bus,” the 29-seat vehicle covers a distance of about 25 km once an hour between hilly areas and the center of Suzuka in the northern part of the prefecture.
A line bus that used to ply the route several times a day before the C-bus service was introduced in March 2000, carried around 2.5 passengers per run, compared with 13.4 by the community bus.
The C-bus service collected about 27 million yen in fares in the initial year, far exceeding the 10 million yen projected by city officials.
The car boom that followed the era of high economic growth beginning in the 1960s has left many bus companies in the red.
The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said the number of bus passengers as a percentage of those using ground transport dropped from 32.2 percent in 1965 to 7.7 percent in 1998.
It said 85 percent of bus operators in the country are running at a loss, with bus lines being cut as a result.
As of 1997, about 500 municipalities operated buses in depopulated regions, including school buses and vehicles for the physically impaired and the elderly to transport them to care facilities.
The C-bus service is a boon for the hilly community, whose population is both aging and declining.
Suzuka spent two years surveying demand for the service and the needs of potential passengers. Instead of relying on a simple questionnaire, it adopted a “group interview formula” that companies often use when developing commercial products.
City officials assembled seven to eight homemakers and the elderly in each community to hear what they really thought about the service.
The city simplified fares by only charging 100 yen or 200 yen and commissioned Mie Kotsu Co. to assign its buses to the route.
Some members of the municipal assembly had doubts about the C-bus operation but city officials found that elderly people and high school students who cannot drive wanted the service so they would not be reliant on their families for transport.
The city office set up a bus stop near a large-scale retail store. It also asked the bus company to install a bar for each seat for the elderly to hold on to and auxiliary steps at the entrance and exit of the bus.
Namiki Oka, a trustee of the International Association of Traffic and Safety Sciences, noted that with some 200,000 passengers a year, the service is truly a “public facility,” considering that only 130,000 people use the Suzuka civic hall a year.
Oka, who is well-versed in bus operations in Europe and the United States, said the city office succeeded with its bus system because it took the needs of passengers into consideration.
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