Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Train Culture vs. Car Culture"

I've had the concept of "car culture" in mind for decades now, but life without cars is generally referred to under the category of "public transportation". But there's a culture to city rail travel as well (and you don't hear the term "private transportation" so much for ordinary car ownership, come to think of it - or do you? Is that a popular term?). I've been living in train culture, feeling the situation and ambiance of it, but it was only yesterday, while viewing video footage I took in 1991 (including a lot of train views and sounds), that the concept jelled and I realized that the term "train culture" really ought to be in common use, just as "car culture" is.

The intricacies of this are hard to pin down, but the main factor is having a city (Tokyo in this case) functioning with virtually no one really needing cars, so a lot of people don't own a car, and a number of fundamental things are different than they are for those living in car culture cities:

Young job-seekers are not asked if they have a car on application forms - it's understood that they will be commuting to work via train, and employers pay the train fee (which might be a law here - I'm not sure). In fact, if an employee were stupid enough to try driving to work, the company would forbid them from using the company parking lot (which only has a limited number of spaces for deliveries, taxis, and executive management - if it has any parking at all). Not only would they not be able to park at the company, it would be illegal to just park their car on a nearby street, so they would have to spend something like Y50,000 a month on a parking space possibly a twenty minute walk from the company. And - to top all of that off, it would take them from three to five times as long to get to work as it takes to get there by train (for those living in the 'burbs that is, it wouldn't be as bad if they lived fairly near the company). (No one pressing up against you in a car, but hours in a traffic jam every morning is no picnic either.) Since coming to work by car would be abnormal and anti-social behavior, being late due to traffic would not be considered a legitimate excuse. Someone committing suicide on your line is a perfectly acceptable excuse however, and carries the benefit of being verifiable and shared by thousands (misery loves company...).

High school couples who meet for a date are not concerned with what kind of car each other has (since neither of them has one), so they don't waste money and time on fire-breathing machinery acquisition & maintenance. Rich kids can't drive to the date in a BMW, and poor kids have nothing to feel ashamed about in the form of driving a piece of junk. It's a more level playing field. (Granted, people find other ways to vertically position people, but that's beyond the scope of this particular page of text.)

Car-owning high school students are not forced to work late at night at restaurant jobs to pay for gas and car parts for their old clunkers.

When you meet people, parking is not an issue, since everyone comes by train.

If you buy something, you have to carry it home (or have it trucked), so shopping becomes a logistical issue of how much you can carry (this is one of the things I most miss about cars - not being able to toss things in the trunk!). Second to how much you can carry, is the issue of what time you plan to carry it home on the trains. If you have an armload of boxes, the last express for the day, leaving at 12:10 a.m. is going to be a problem. When you have to force just yourself onto a train, having things with you can be tricky. You have to hold them over your head and then toss them onto a rack in the train. That may not sound very difficult, but there is no guarantee that you can get anywhere near a rack, and even if you can, it might already be jam-packed full.

When cars are vandalized in your apartment building parking lot (which only has enough [expensive, by the way] spaces for about 20% of the apartments, and still there are some vacant slots), you of course are irritated by the concept of some idiot going out and damaging other people's property for no good reason, but not owning a car, you are immune to car vandalism (bicycles are another issue, but the financial exposure is much less).

When - and this is peculiar to Japan I think - the entire train system completely shuts down every night between 12:00 - 1:00 a.m. (depending on the line and the station on the line), not to start up again until around 5:00 a.m., the looming deadline of "last train" is a wonderful way to escape either overtime going on endlessly, or situations and/or people that you've had enough of. You can even adjust the time somewhat by claiming distant connections that require leaving by 10:30 p.m., etc. Going the other way, a couple that want to spend more time together can conveniently miss their last trains, thereby gaining an extra five hours together before the train system comes back to life in the morning. (Taxis are not a - cost wise - realistic option if you live outside the central area.)

Etc. etc. That's all that is coming to mind right now, but in any case, suffice it to say that going everywhere by train is a fairly radically different way of living than going everywhere by personal car.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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