Utility poles and crisscrossing overhead power lines are a common feature of the landscape in most parts of Japan. These eyesores are not worthy of an advanced economy and are also disappointing tourists from abroad. Burying power cables will not only aesthetically improve urban landscapes but also make towns and cities more resilient to major disasters. Now the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are providing an impetus to efforts to remove utility poles in the capital and bury power cables underground. The government and the Diet should take steps to promote similar efforts across the country.

The metropolitan government adopted a plan in 2014 to bury power lines in central Tokyo areas where venues for the Olympics will be concentrated. In a recent policy speech, Gov. Yuriko Koike expressed her resolve to push efforts to move the capital’s power grid underground. The efforts in Tokyo, if they bear fruit, should help promote similar moves in other parts of the country.

Work to move power lines underground remains slow. Japan already has more than 35 million utility poles and their number continues to increase by about 70,000 each year. Tokyo’s 23 wards are the most advanced areas in terms of moving the power grid underground, but only 7 percent of their roads have been cleared of utility poles. Comparisons with other countries show just how far Japan lags behind in the introduction of subterranean power distribution systems. In London and Paris, all power lines were installed underground even from before World War II. Among Asian cities, Hong Kong has all its power lines underground, while Seoul has buried 46 percent of its electricity cables.

Utility poles can hamper the flow of vehicular traffic and obstruct pedestrians, particularly in areas with narrow streets. Eliminating them will help make streets in such areas more barrier-free, increasing the convenience and safety for people — especially the elderly and those with disabilities. In the event of disasters like major earthquakes, utility poles could topple and block roads, causing problems for evacuation and rescue efforts. Installing subterranean power distribution systems will help lessen the damage from such disasters.

Removing the poles and burying the cables will also offer a more pleasing environment, not only for tourists but for local residents as well. Such efforts should be vigorously pursued in tourist destinations.

Despite the clear problems that the ubiquitous presence of utility poles and overhead cables pose, the work to move them underground has made little progress — with cost being the biggest obstacle. The most frequently used method is to dig a trench deep in the ground and run power and communication lines through them, but it costs about ¥530 million per 1 km — 10 to 20 times the expense of erecting utility poles and overhead cables above ground. The cost is shared by the parties that manage roads — the government and municipalities — and the power companies and communications firms that use the trenches.

It is encouraging that the infrastructure ministry is seeking to trim the cost. Starting in April, the ministry began allowing the cables to be buried at a shallower depth than before — 35 to 60 cm below the surface — on roads with low traffic volume. It is estimated that this move will reduce expenses by up to 10 percent. Last month, the ministry also began allowing the installation of both power and communications lines in a narrow shallow gutter made of concrete. This new method will be 30 percent cheaper than burying the cables in a deep trench. It is also testing yet another method of burying power lines in the ground that is expected to cut the expense to ¥80 million per 1 km. Private-sector firms are also starting to develop other less expensive methods. In addition, the government has introduced tax incentives for companies that bury their power and communications lines.

While it is important for the government to explore ways to reduce the cost of installing subterranean power distribution systems, the Diet should accelerate steps to create a legal framework to promote the elimination of utility poles and overhead cables because it would add momentum to ongoing efforts, which are proceeding too slowly. The Liberal Democratic Party twice tried to submit such legislation but was thwarted by circumstances involving Diet proceedings. With the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, the time is ripe to try again.

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