National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Creating a barrier-free transportation environment in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Not too long ago, domestic media organizations would rarely have anything negative to say about the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but as the actual games draw nearer, there’s been a greater willingness to find fault with preparations and even raise a bit of alarm. Everything from Tokyo’s deadly summertime heat to the out-of-control budget is now up for discussion.

The most pointed criticism has probably been in the area of services for visitors with disabilities. The organizers vowed to make everything as barrier-free as possible so that people with disabilities can attend and participate in the games freely, but it’s already generally accepted that few restaurants and hotel rooms in Tokyo are truly barrier-free. An even more pressing worry is transportation.

A preview of this problem was provided in an article written by Keitaro Tanaka for Gendai Business on Jan. 10. In the piece, Tanaka describes an incident he witnessed at a taxi stand outside an unnamed JR station in Tokyo around midnight in November 2018. A man in an electric wheelchair and his female companion were trying to catch a cab and, eventually, one of the new JPN Taxis arrived.

JPN Taxis are those somewhat boxy looking wagons, with higher roofs and deeper interiors. They follow universal design standards for taxi cabs, which means theoretically they can service any and all fares, including those who are sometimes refused service such as people with disabilities, the elderly and families with children. According to the JPN Taxi home page, the vehicle can theoretically be made wheelchair-compatible in a relatively short time.

“Theoretically” is the operative word here, because, according to Tanaka, the driver of the taxi in the incident he witnessed had a great deal of difficulty preparing the vehicle for a wheelchair, which involves folding up seats, installing two slope plates to allow access to the taxi and then securing the chair with a series of belts and straps. It was obvious the driver had had little if any experience with these operations. The man in the wheelchair told Tanaka that he had been through this before, and that it wasn’t unusual for such preparations to take an hour.

His companion was less magnanimous. She said they had already tried to catch a cab at the taxi stand in the station rotary, but had been rejected, so they moved to a stand near the station, where they were passed up by other JPN Taxis before this one agreed to take them.

In the meantime, other fares were becoming annoyed with the delay, but were able to catch subsequent cabs. A drunk-looking man complained to the man in the wheelchair, who was lost for words.

Eventually, the driver was able to get the wheelchair in the vehicle. It had indeed taken an hour.

JPN Taxis are manufactured by Toyota. Nissan also makes a universal design taxi, which came out first, but Toyota has the bigger share. Toyota is an official sponsor of the Olympics, and, more importantly, a Worldwide Paralympic Partner, a contract that runs through 2024. The transport ministry provides maximum subsidies of ¥600,000 per vehicle to transportation companies and plans to have 44,000 universal design taxis on the road by the time of the Olympics. The Tokyo prefectural government also provides subsidies.

Tanaka talked to several cab drivers who admitted that, although they had received instruction in how to use the apparatus in a universal design taxi, it was insufficient because conditions are different in the real world. One even admitted to refusing to pick up a person in a wheelchair because the person hailed him from the street. He didn’t think he could leave his cab standing while he set up the apparatus. Another took a more mercenary approach: It wasn’t worth it if, after taking time to set the wheelchair in the cab, the passenger was only going a kilometer or two.

Toyota told Tanaka that they are working on the problem, but it seems obvious that efforts to provide barrier-free transportation have been focused on the vehicles and not on software, such as training drivers, and traffic infrastructure. In a letter to the Tokyo Shimbun, a bus driver explained how all his company’s vehicles are nonstep, which can accommodate wheelchairs, but most bus stops cannot. Guardrails that protect pedestrians from traffic often place the opening in inconvenient places for wheelchair users, in turn inconveniencing other passengers because it takes more time to park the bus. The police are not cooperative when his company asks for their help, and the transport ministry is slow to respond. Barrier-free buses are pointless without barrier-free bus stops.

According to an article in the Tokyo Shimbun on Sept. 21, the situation regarding taxis has not changed that much in the past nine months. In a series of tweets, actress Chizuru Azuma complained about a recent experience in Kyoto where she and a companion in a collapsible wheelchair were rejected by a driver after she hailed his taxi on the street. The writer of the article, Junichiro Nakagawa, said the same thing happened to him in Kyoto, only the cab was a JPN Taxi and the wheelchair in question was electric, which the driver said they couldn’t accommodate because he was not properly trained. Nakagawa and his friend had to wait another 40 minutes before a taxi arrived that could take them.

However, what Nakagawa found particularly disconcerting was the attitude of people who responded to Azuma’s tweets, calling her heavy-handed and viewing the driver as the victim in the exchange. These critics think people in wheelchairs demand too much. This attitude is itself an obstacle to a more complete barrier-free transportation environment. 

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