Few, if any, of the nearly 57 million tourists who visit Kyoto this year are aware the city once boasted the most extensive tram network in Japan.
Kyoto is a beautiful city and the cultural heart of the nation. It is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration this year. It’s also the 40th anniversary of a less celebrated episode in the city’s history – the closure of the tram system, or “Shiden” as it was known.Author provided
Today, we are seeing a new trend of cities trying to ban cars from their centre. And many cities, including Sydney, that once boasted extensive tram networks are struggling to introduce or extend light rail systems.
With hindsight, Shiden’s closure was one of the biggest mistakes in Kyoto’s history. The city is now struggling to break free of car domination.
Japan’s first tramwayGabon Sandi, Author provided
Shiden operations began in 1895 as part of an economic revitalisation strategy. The first step involved building an 8km canal (including lengthy tunnels) connecting Kyoto to Lake Biwa in 1890. This provided water for Japan’s first commercial hydroelectric plant, which powered the new tramway.
Shiden grew over time. By the mid-1960s 70km of lines connected all the major tourist attractions across the city – the Golden Pavilion, Silver Pavilion, Imperial Palace, Nijo Castle and Kyomizu Temple.
Why did Kyoto abandon Shiden?
In the 1960s, Japan experienced rapid economic growth and urbanisation. By 1970, the population of Kyoto had grown to 1.4 million. This had three major impacts on the tramways.
First, car ownership in the city nearly tripled from 140,000 in 1965 to 380,000 in 1980, according to Kyoto City planning documents. Traffic congestion caused tram delays, resulting in reduced passenger numbers and profitability.
Second, Kyoto experienced “doughnut population growth” – a declining urban core and growing suburbs. In response, the municipality chose to service the suburbs with buses.
Third, the municipality developed a subway network. The first north-south line opened in 1981.
Public opposition ignoredAuthor provided
In the years leading up to the closure there had been intense public opposition to the move. The Shiden Preservation Group, headed by Kyoto University academics, argued that better management of the tram network and an integrated transport strategy was the way forward.
They organised a petition, signed by over 200,000 citizens, to save the trams. Retaining Shiden would help avoid air pollution from increased road traffic, they argued. In addition, Shiden would become a significant tourist attraction, as well as meeting the needs of local people.
Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The tram system was ripped up and bus routes spread across the city. The first section of a new east-west subway opened in 1997 and the line was completed in 2008.
Lessons from Melbourne
In general, public transport networks in Japanese cities are world class. A handful of cities have managed to retain their tramways. Hiroshima, which has a 35km tram network, is the best example.
To reflect upon the wider consequences of Shiden closure, it may be useful to consider the example of Melbourne. The two cities have some interesting similarities.
Both were former capital cities, built on a grid system. Both were early adopters of trams – 1889 in Melbourne and 1895 in Kyoto. They both host world-class universities and a tourism industry that contributes significantly to the local economy.
And both cities faced a critical decision in the 1970s on whether to retain their tram network.
In Melbourne, pressure to shut down the tram network was resisted, with very strong public and union support (which was lacking in Kyoto).Taisyo/Wikipedia, CC BY
The Melbourne experience suggests that several key opportunities might have arisen if Kyoto had kept Shiden.
1. Shiden would have gradually been upgraded with new technologies and longer trams with greater passenger capacity. The Green Mover Max in Hiroshima is a good example of the sort of tram that could have been running on Kyoto streets today.
2. Prioritising tramways may have helped to develop more pedestrian spaces in central Kyoto. Bourke Street Mall and Swanston Street in Melbourne are good examples of this.Bahnfrend/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
Kyoto, on the other hand, has struggled to manage city centre traffic and has only made minor changes in recent years, including increasing the size of the pavements on some major avenues.
3. Shiden could have dealt better than current systems with increased tourist numbers. Recent media reports indicate that buses are struggling to run on time as more tourists travel around the city. An integrated transport network of bus, tram and subway might have alleviated these problems.Author provided
Authors: Brendan F.D. Barrett, Specially Appointed Professor, Center for the Study of Co*Design, Osaka University