Japan’s Elderly under Threat as Rural Public Transport Networks Suffer Sustainability Problems

16 Jan 2020

Jonathan Soble, C4IR Japan Editorial and Communications Lead, Tel. +80-7549-7788; jonathan.soble@weforum.org

· New analysis finds that 30% of municipalities were rated “low” for transit system sustainability, 43% were rated “medium” and only 26% rated “high”

· Unreliable rural transit systems are putting particular strain on senior citizens as Japan’s rural population is ageing relatively quickly compared to urban areas

· A white paper published by the World Economic Forum offers a framework for potential solutions based on six guiding principles

· Read the white paper to learn more about rural transport sustainability

Tokyo, Japan, 16 January 2020 – A majority of Japan’s rural public transport networks suffer from sustainability issues that require immediate, meaningful action, according to a new study by the World Economic Forum. The findings have important implications for mobility planning around the world, particularly in countries with declining rural populations.

Transforming Rural Mobility in Japan and the World, used local-survey data to show a detailed picture of current and future sustainability of rail, bus and taxi services in 23 municipalities of Hiroshima Prefecture. It found that only 26% of the municipalities had highly sustainable transit systems. Of the rest, 43% were rated “medium” and 30% were rated “low.”

Keeping rural transport networks viable is crucial not only for the convenience of local residents, it also has important implications for health and safety, particularly for the elderly. Ease of access to transport can mean the difference between making or skipping a crucial hospital visit. Elderly people who drive –something they are more likely to do when public transport options are lacking – are at greater risk of traffic accidents.

Poor local transport can also prompt residents to leave declining towns and keep potential new residents away, deepening the spiral of economic and demographic decline.

“The trends seen in Japan will soon be seen in rural areas around the world,” says Michelle Avary, Head of Automotive and Autonomous Mobility, World Economic Forum. “As populations age and more young people move to cities, transportation options for the elderly will shrink in rural areas. We have to start thinking about improving on-demand mobility as a service options for rural residents just as we already do for those in urban areas.”

The study was conducted by the World Economic Forum in partnership with McKinsey & Company. It developed an innovative Rural Public Transport Sustainability Index to visualize the situation of municipalities across five financial and demographic indicators. Because the authors recognize there is no one-size-fits-all solution to rural transport issues, the study further identified the city archetypes based on their existing transport infrastructure and specific local challenges.

The study found universal concern about transport sustainability among municipal leaders – 83% of officials rated the issue “highly urgent,” while the remaining 17% described the situation as “urgent” in the municipalities surveyed.

In many cases, mobility has become a serious drain on public finances. In one municipality, subsidies for the local bus service were found to equal more than 3,000 yen per ride. Even when there is sufficient demand, ageing workforces often mean a shortage of drivers. The average age of taxi drivers in Hiroshima Prefecture is 63, an increase of seven years compared with a decade ago.

Yet despite the sense of crisis, the study also revealed that municipal officials often lack the data and supporting tools they need to make evidence-based mobility-planning decisions. One in five municipalities was found to have no accurate ridership data on privately operated bus lines, for instance. When they did possess such data, it was mostly aggregated by operator or bus line; only one of the 23 municipalities possessed data on ridership at individual bus stops.

While the study focused on diagnosing problems in rural transport systems, it also suggested a framework for potential solutions, based on six guiding principles called DRIVER: Dynamic route, Resident-involved, Intermodal, Versatile, Efficient, Right-sized. By showing priority within those principles by city archetype, it helps narrow the required mobility solutions.

The World Economic Forum will continue its work on rural mobility in 2020, with particular focus on how new mobility technologies can close the urban-rural divide in transport.

What leaders say:

Dominik Luczak, Partner of McKinsey & Company Tokyo Office

“McKinsey & Company has developed unique insights and expertise on the future of mobility. While naturally we focused more on the urban mobility, this paper, in collaboration with World Economic Forum, adds important perspective from rural mobility by using Japan as a case study and shows how the latest technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution can transform it.”

Chizuru Suga, Head of Centre for Fourth Industrial Revolution, Japan Centre

“Healthy Living in ageing society is the vital agenda globally, while Japan, one of the most ageing societies, is positioned to shape model cases to share to the world. Accessibility to anywhere they want for the elderly is an essential part of their quality of life and this white paper casts important questions globally.”

Hiroshima Prefecture

“Hiroshima Prefecture has tried hard to develop sustainable mobility in rural areas. We believe collaboration with World Economic Forum can expand our perspective, accelerate our initiatives and explore a variety of solutions for the rural mobility. As a first step, this white paper provides us with an insightful message.”

Notes to editors:

For enquiries for McKinsey & Co. Media Relations, please contact:

Abi Sekimitsu Tel. +81-3-9205-7326, abi_sekimitsu@mckinsey.com

Rei Hayashi Tel. +81-90-1658-1259, rei.hayashi@mckinsey.com

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All opinions expressed are those of the author. The World Economic Forum Blog is an independent and neutral platform dedicated to generating debate around the key topics that shape global, regional and industry agendas.

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