Health and Healthcare Systems

A roadmap for repairing rural mobility in Japan - and beyond

Japan's cities are linked by world-beating high-speed trains - but rural areas are less well-supported

Masafumi Kawasaki
Manager, McKinsey & Company
Dominik Luczak
Partner, McKinsey & Company
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  • Outside its cities, Japan's public transport system is in decline.
  • Rural mobility is crucial to quality of life for many Japanese, especially odler generations.
  • A new set of principles for rural mobility reform can help decision-makers address this issues usefully.

Japan’s public transit is the envy of world.

In Tokyo, clean and efficient subways carry 10 million passengers a day—a million more people than live in all of New York City. Just as amazingly, the lines are profitable, unlike in many places, collecting roughly five yen in revenues for every four they cost to operate.

Japanese inter-city rail is a marvel, too. Shinkansen high-speed trains dart between Tokyo and Osaka 368 times a day, carrying 4.7 million people annually. The express departs 15 times an hour at peak times (a frequency that will increase to 17 per hour this spring). Delays are measured in seconds.

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And yet, if you venture beyond Japan’s densely populated urban areas, the picture for public transit looks less rosy.

Japan’s population is shrinking, and the fastest declines are happening in the countryside. Transport networks that were built to serve more users than exist today are struggling to survive. I recently surveyed 23 municipalities in Hiroshima Prefecture for a new World Economic Forum study and found that just 26% rated 'high' on an index of transit sustainability. Of the rest, 43% scored 'medium' and 30% ranked 'low'.

Keeping rural mobility viable is crucial. At stake is more than just convenience. The availability of buses, trains and even taxis has important implications for health and safety, particularly for the elderly. Just getting out and about has a positive effect on health, but transport can mean the difference between, say, making or skipping a crucial hospital visit. And elderly people who drive themselves—something they are more likely to do when other options are lacking—are at greater risk of traffic accidents.

Poor local mobility can also worsen spirals of economic and demographic decline. It can be one reason residents leave declining towns, and potential new residents stay away.

The problem is not limited to Japan, but here it is particularly acute. The country’s overall population peaked a decade ago, a result of low birth rates and limited immigration. But in rural areas the decline has been going on longer, as young people move to cities in search of jobs. Outside metropolitan areas, the population is expected to decrease by another 20% by 2045.

Rural populations - led by China and Japan - are declining across the G20
Rural populations - led by China and Japan - are declining across the G20 Image: World Economic Forum, UN

Public transport networks are straining to adapt. Bus usage, for instance, has decreased by 36% over the past 20 years outside the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. In one town, I found that public subsidies for the local bus service worked out to more than JPY3,000 ($27) for every ride.

Rail services are struggling at least as much. In the Chugoku region of western Japan, 60% of train lines cover less than half their operating costs. In a few places, rural lines have stopped running entirely.

In ageing, depopulating regions, public transit is hobbled not only by a lack of riders—but also a shortage of staff. The average age of taxi drivers in Hiroshima Prefecture, for example, is 63, an increase of seven years compared with a decade ago.

Local leaders know the issue is serious. In every municipality I surveyed, officials rated the challenge of transport sustainability as “highly urgent” or “urgent.” Yet often they lack the information and tools to make smart, evidence-based planning decisions. For instance, several of the municipalities I looked at had no accurate ridership data for privately operated bus lines. And those that did have numbers mostly didn’t have useful ones—their data was aggregated by operator or bus line. Only one of the 23 municipalities possessed ridership numbers for individual bus stops.

Data will inevitably be vital to strengthening rural mobility, both in Japan and around the world. New mobility solutions, made possible by the technological advances collectively known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, can help public transport operate more economically even as demand declines, meaning more convenience for users.

To make best use of the opportunity, local governments need to implement the right mobility solutions for their particular circumstances. The World Economic Forum has developed a set of six guiding principles for rural mobility reform, called DRIVER. Matching these principles with specific municipal archetypes can help decision-makers hone in on required directions for transformation.

Some parts of rural Japan are already experimenting with solutions that fit their needs. In 2017, the town of Jinseki Kogen, in Hiroshima Prefecture, replaced its fixed-route and on-demand bus services with a taxi subsidy for the elderly, the disabled and people without a drivers’ license. User numbers and reported satisfaction soared, for only a modest increase in cost. One unexpected benefit: the number of elderly people who gave up their licenses jumped sixfold in the first year of the programme.

We look forward to further innovations—both in solutions and decision-making processes—that will help transform rural mobility in Japan and around the world.

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