SEIKA, Kyoto Pref. — Sonoko Umemura, an official at the Kansai Economic Federation in Osaka, reserves a car by mobile phone when she travels to Kansai Science City so that she can drive to research centers scattered across an area not well served by the public transportation system.
Umemura, who used to rely on taxis to get around the district, is one of those who welcomes a car-sharing service introduced in early November, the first phase of a pilot project for new transport systems tailored to user needs.
The project, which also features an on-demand bus service, was entrusted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to Kansai Research Institute, which manages the science park.
“Before using this (car-sharing) service, I thought it would be troublesome to use a car that was not my own. But it is a nice, well-equipped car and I find the service very easy to use,” said Umemura, who has now utilized the service twice.
Car-sharing, a concept that started in Switzerland and Germany in the late 1980s before spreading to the rest of Europe and the United States, allows members to only pay for a car when they use it, rather than by the day, as with a rental car.
On the plus side, it is cheaper than owning or renting a car, makes more efficient use of parking spaces and reduces traffic volume, all of which make car-sharing more environmentally friendly.
In the first phase of the project here, which is operating between Nov. 5 and Dec. 27, 10 hybrid cars are parked at two lots — one near the main research center for business use and the other at a housing complex for domestic use.
Members reserve a car via their personal computers or mobile phones. The cost of using the vehicle is charged by the hour and the distance driven. The fee works out to about 1,000 yen per hour.
In the next phase of the scheme, which will begin in May and last six months, more car lots will be set up and users will be able to leave vehicles in lots other than where they picked them up.
“I think car-sharing is ideal here, because the public transportation network is not adequate,” said Akihiko Komaki, project manager at KRI. “The fees are set so that it is less expensive than renting a car or using a taxi.”
The concept has been slow to catch on, with the cars being used 19 times during the first two weeks, and only a few local residents took part.
Komaki said people have yet to realize how easy it is to use the service. “Once people use it, they can see the merits. Our task is to get people interested in the service.”
Businesses and nonprofit organizations operate car-sharing programs in more than 550 cities across Europe, but the idea only arrived in Japan a few years ago. So far, it has been tried in about 10 cities, including Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto and Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.
But most of the programs in Japan are still in the experimental stage and it is not clear whether they are economically viable.
Shinpei Ichimaru, an official at the Foundation for Promoting Personal Mobility and Ecological Transportation, is optimistic, however, saying it will take time before car-sharing takes root with the public.
“Even in Switzerland and Germany, car-sharing did not draw attention in the first few years. It is too early to conclude that the service will not work in Japan,” Ichimaru said, adding that he does not necessarily agree with the view that the strong attachment in this country to owning a car will prevent the idea from becoming popular.
Mitsumasa Takayama, an executive board member of CEV Sharing Corp., which set up a car-sharing business in Yokohama in April — the first in Japan by a private-sector firm — agreed with Ichimaru, saying the concept is only just now beginning to be recognized.
“As it costs less than leasing a car, businesses see the merits of participating in car-sharing schemes,” Takayama said. “We receive four to five new members every day, although the service is far from turning a profit yet.”
Most of the 260 members registered with CEV Sharing are corporate clients and the company only began accepting individual members in July, but Takayama said he sees potential for the service becoming popular with individual drivers because parking fees are expensive in Yokohama.
“The service seems to work best in cities with public transportation networks, where parking is expensive and people do not routinely depend on cars,” he said.
In the city of Fukuoka, an organization that promotes car-sharing was created in May in a joint project by a citizens’ group, a private-sector firm and the municipal government. Ichimaru said that involving citizens is important, because broad public participation is the key to the service’s success.
“Various attempts can be seen in many places across the country. It just needs some more time and financial support until the system takes root in Japan,” he said.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.