As Tokyo celebrated the start of the one-year countdown to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games with various events last week, traffic control tests on an unprecedented scale were held to forestall anticipated traffic jams on the metropolitan expressway system, which will serve as the main artery for transporting athletes and Olympic officials.

Along with measures to shield athletes and spectators from Tokyo’s scorching summer heat, steps to curb the likely traffic jams will be key to the success and smooth operation of the games — the preparation for which is well on course a year from the opening ceremony, including construction of event venues as well as recruiting volunteers to assist visitors.

The New National Stadium — whose initial design was withdrawn due to fears of cost overruns, raising concerns over the narrow window for construction — is now about 90 percent finished and on track to be completed in November. The highly competitive initial sale of tickets is an indication of strong public interest in the first Summer Games to be held in Japan since 1964. One problem that has surfaced is the shortage of accommodations for spectators from outside Tokyo who managed to secure tickets but are finding it hard to reserve hotel rooms in and around the capital — as organizers of the games and officials have already reserved hotel space in massive numbers. Prices of rooms in many hotels have reportedly spiked to double or triple their usual rates.

In its long history, the Olympics have never been held in the center of a big metropolitan area with the dense population and brisk economic activity of today’s Tokyo. Unlike in some past games, there will be no such facility as an Olympic park that houses a concentration of game venues. Instead, they will be scattered across the highly congested metropolis.

To ensure efficient operation of the games, smooth transportation of athletes and officials will hold the key to success. Far-reaching and detailed plans for controlling traffic during the games will be needed. What are also needed will be efforts to win the cooperation and understanding of the people and businesses that will be inconvenienced by the necessary traffic controls.

For the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the metropolitan expressway network — part of which was completed in time for the event — played the key role in the transportation of athletes and officials. Similarly, the metropolitan expressways in and around the capital are expected to be the main pathways for thousands of vehicles carrying athletes and officials in the 2020 Games. The problem is that the chronic congestion of the metropolitan expressway could become twice as serious with the addition of thousands more games-related vehicles if no steps are taken to reduce the traffic volume.

The traffic control tests started on Wednesday — exactly a year to the day ahead of the Olympics opening ceremony — sought to cut the number of vehicles coming into the metropolitan expressway by closing off dozens of entrances to the network or significantly reducing the number of toll gates open to traffic coming from other expressways into Tokyo. Steps were also taken to reduce the traffic volume on regular streets in central Tokyo by shortening the green traffic lights on the Kan-nana ring road circling the center of the capital.

Reports show that due to such controls, congestion in some of the key sections of the metropolitan expressways was reduced by 70 to 80 percent compared with the same day a year ago. During the games next year, the organizers hope to reduce the weekday traffic volume on the expressways by 30 percent — to a level observed on an average weekend day. However, the tests also showed that traffic coming into Tokyo on the Tomei and Tohoku expressways in sections connecting to the metropolitan expressway were snarled for up to 15 km. Organizers are also considering implementation of a “road pricing” system to adjust expressway tolls depending on the time of day to curb traffic volume.

Large-scale traffic controls in big urban areas have been introduced in the past, including during the Group of 20 summit in Osaka at the end of June. But while G20-related events lasted four days, the Olympic and Paralympic Games combined will run for about a month in total, and the impact on local residents of traffic controls for such events will be much greater.

Detailed plans for traffic control need to be created based on the outcome of the latest tests — and sufficiently shared with all of the parties to be affected — for the smooth operation of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

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