Thousands take part in trial as Tokyo eyes easing traffic jams, commuting crowds during 2020 Games


By using telecommuting and staggered working hours, the central and local governments as well as companies in Tokyo on Monday began a trial to help ease traffic jams and commuter congestion aboard trains during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

During the trial, which runs through Sept. 6, the state and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government will evaluate how effective the measures are that also include restricting traffic on expressways and laying on extra train services during early-morning hours to promote off-peak commuting.

About 8 million people commute in the Tokyo metropolitan area each day, and an estimated additional 650,000 spectators and tourists will travel to areas hosting Olympic events on peak days during the 2020 Summer Games. The games will be held between July 24 and Aug. 9, followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 25 to Sept. 6.

Four entrance gates to the Metropolitan Expressway near the athletes village in Chuo Ward and competition venues will be closed from morning to night on Wednesday, exactly a year before the Olympics kick off, and Friday this week when high traffic volume is expected.

Railway companies in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including East Japan Railway Co. and Tokyo Metro Co., operated extra train services early Monday morning. They will offer the services for a few more days.

Olympics minister Shunichi Suzuki, who usually commutes by official car, rode on the subway Monday to a station near the Cabinet Office.

“The train was (largely) empty and I felt comfortable,” Suzuki told reporters after arriving at his office at 11:30 a.m. under the staggered working hour system. “We can’t tell people not to use cars if government officials use official cars” for commuting, the minister added.

At the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office in Shinjuku about 2,800 employees, who were given laptops, will work outside the office at least once a week during the trial periods from Monday to Aug. 2, and from Aug. 19 to 30.

On Wednesday and three other days during the trial periods, the employees will work from home or someplace other than their offices.

On these four days, the Tokyo government expects to see only one-third of the some 10,000 workers in its main building commute to the office.

The metropolitan government will urge its employees to avoid the use of public transportation during peak commuting hours between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.

During the trial, personnel are being urged to bring their own water bottles and lunch boxes to reduce the amount of trash being generated, which they hope will cut down the number of garbage trucks being driven on the roads. They are also urging employees to reduce the use of office supplies, which should also cut down on the need for deliveries.

At 8:30 a.m. Monday, there were only a few workers at the human resources department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which usually has around 130 employees.

“I spent more time in the morning with my 18-month-old daughter, and the train ride was comfortable,” said a 33-year-old male official who arrived at the office at 11 a.m.

Central government bodies will also implement steps such as telecommuting, staggered work shifts and urge officials to take days off during the period between Monday and Aug. 2, covering up to 20,000 personnel — roughly half the total workforce.

Some private companies plan to allow their employees to work from home, while delivery businesses will review their routes and ship items early in the morning or at night in a bid to avoid traffic jams.

Experts and government officials hope that Olympic efforts to expand telework might serve as something of a legacy for the games.

Tokyo 2020 “is a chance to actively introduce telework, which can create a stress-free lifestyle,” said Azuma Taguchi, a professor of engineering at Chuo University.

He is among the loudest voices urging authorities to take serious measures to tackle Olympic traffic, warning of potentially “fatal congestion” in railway stations if action is not taken.

Others also see the Olympics as a chance to break existing work habits.

“This is a chance to make telework a legacy of the games that will take root” in society, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko said in a recent forum to promote flexible work.

And some officials are hoping that a more open-minded approach to work could encourage people to take “workations” — working remotely from far-flung locations with attractive leisure options.

Several towns have already used government subsidies to build offices intended to attract people for temporary workations or encourage companies to set up satellite hubs.

Shirahama, a small town in western Japan, now has two office buildings packed with workers.

“We made sales pitches to companies that we have beaches, hot springs and good access to an airport that connects with Tokyo’s Haneda airport,” local official Masakatsu Ogawa said.

The town’s revenue from corporate tax has skyrocketed “but we also received benefits that can’t be expressed in figures — a vibrant community with young people from the cities,” he said.

The town has already started planning construction of a third office building, and has big dreams, said Ogawa.

“We’re aiming to become Japan’s Silicon Valley.”