Monday, February 15, 2010

Japan: Far too much roadway for one country

There is a Japanese myth that tells of a country, a nation of cars. It is a country where automobiles capture the imagination of the young, and the ethos of that people is melded with the machines. To the Japanese this country is across a vast ocean, but like in most stories of this kind, it is actually themselves.

Japan has become a car society, and they are willing to sacrifice greatly for it. They are willing to pave over more of their country, and die in greater numbers than that far away country to appease the auto gods.

Of course the fabled country in Japanese myth is the United States, but let's compare. Japan has 377,835 km2 of land area. They are number 61 in the world. The US has 9,629,091 km2 of land, number 3 in the world. Japan has 949,101 km of paved road, number 6 in the world. The US has 4,209,835 km of paved road, number 1 in the world.

That means that Japan has 2.5 km of paved road for every km2 of land. The US has 0.43 km of road for every km2 of land. Japan is willing to pave over their rice fields for their cars, even though their food self sufficiency is only 40% (An exaggerated, terribly over optimistic figure).

They are also willing to sacrifice their people in greater numbers. For every billion vehicle-kilometers, 10.3 Japanese die for every 9 Americans, even though Japanese travel less then half the distance annually that Americans do, 24,000 and 57,000 miles respectively.

This ridiculous situation grows worse by the day, especially at this time of year when they are crazily spending up every last yen of their budgets on road work. This also effects me, because the country is planning to build two more roads, one an elevated highway, and the other a road to service it, that will pass uncomfortably close to my home. This while the population shrinks and ages at a rapid rate. Its population could drop by half this century, meaning year by year the burden on each person of maintaining these roads will grow and grow.

It's time Japan rethink its automobile fetish. It will need all of its people and resources to maintain their people in the years to come, but what it does not need is more roads.


Clarissa at Talk to the Clouds said...

Hear, hear. I hate to point fingers since, yes, the US (where I live) has a real problem and seems unwilling to really act on alternatives. However, it's really disheartening to have to rely on a car, want to take trains more like I did when I visited Japan, and then to see so many Japanese people so fixated on cars! I understand it for my friends from Fukui, but ... I really wondered about the wisdom of recent proposals like eliminating the tax on freeways. I can see where it might be good to make sure there are some lower-cost travel choices of some kind for poorer families, etc., but just encouraging car travel seems like movement in the wrong direction. (It seems that lots of people in Japan realized this, too, though.)

Daniel said...

Thanks for the comment, Clarissa.

It's not just the roads, but also unsustainable communities that keep popping up around. With no access to rail, those places are going to be dependent on cars, and as gasoline gets more expensive and the environment goes sour, those places will soon be ghost towns.

As for freeway tolls, my prediction is that they'll have to bring it back or they'll need to find a way to tax people on where they choose to drive. Those roads are totally unsustainable otherwise. I think the Democratic Party had the idea that they would improve business and increase tax revenues with free roads, but I don't think that will happen any time soon.