National

Kyoto struggles to keep buses running on time amid surge in overseas visitors

Kyodo

As more foreign travelers visit the historic Japanese capital of Kyoto crowded and delayed city buses have become a headache for local citizens, prompting traffic authorities to take steps to ensure smoother passenger services and encourage the use of subway lines.

For over 40 years, passengers in Kyoto have generally boarded buses through the rear door and paid the fare when getting off from the front door.

But with the city now attracting around 55 million tourists a year, Kyoto City Bus services, whose routes include popular tourist attractions, have become constantly crowded with tourists often carrying large baggage.

As some travelers also often have difficulty in paying the fare promptly with coins at bus stops, it has become difficult for the city buses to remain punctual.

According to the Nihon Bus Association, the bus industry body, the boarding system for route buses varies by region, with passengers paying fares when they get on through the front door in flat-fare zones in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya.

In the face of complaints from local citizens about delayed bus services, the Kyoto Municipal Government’s traffic bureau conducted a practical experiment last October to switch doors for boarding and alighting, and making passengers pay the fare when they get on.

Since the test showed the change in entry and exit doors contributed to reducing the average stoppage time by 11.5 seconds, the bus operator plans to change its boarding system for the route connecting Kyoto Station and Ginkakuji Temple this fall and eventually introduce the new system on 61 routes where a flat fare system of ¥230 is applied.

The front area of Kyoto city buses has often been crowded as passengers tend to prefer staying in that area to get off from the front exit door. But the test showed changing the exit door to the rear contributed to smoother exits.

To encourage use of subway lines, the traffic bureau also decided to raise the price of a one-day pass for the city bus from the current ¥500 ($4.7) to ¥600 on March 17 and cut the price of its one-day pass for use of both city buses and subway systems by ¥300 to ¥900.

“The pay-first system is rational and familiar to foreigners so I think the change will be effective,” said Fumihiko Suzuki, a transportation system journalist.

“But I’m not sure if tourists will become accustomed to using both the bus and subway systems, as there are only two subway lines in Kyoto and the places they can go by subway are limited compared with the elaborate bus routes,” he said.

With the number of foreign tourists to Japan estimated to have hit a record 28.69 million in 2017, up for the sixth straight year, Kyoto is not the only place facing difficulties in keeping a balance in the use of public transportation between tourists and local citizens.

Osaka and Fukuoka are plagued by traffic congestion caused by chartered tourist buses parked on streets. On Miyako Island in Okinawa, a shortage of taxis has become a problem following a surge in the number of tourists to the southern island by cruise ships.

An official at the Japan Tourism Agency said that as more people are traveling on independent tours, rather than group tours, public transportation systems in other cities will also likely be affected by the nation’s current tourism boom.