Earlier this week, as I was looking for photos to illustrate my Vision of the Future, I stumbled across a photo of the Toyota i-Road, a three wheel electric vehicle that tilts its way through corners in the same was a scooter or motorcycle might. The i-Road debuted at the Geneva Motor Show in 2012 and despite what I am sure must have been a great deal of attention at the time, I had never heard of the vehicle. As I read more about it I found information about the Toyota “Ha:Mo urban transport system” that is currently undergoing trials in Toyota city and was stunned to find that, with a few notable exceptions, the program bears a striking resemblance to the future I had laid out in my previous article. The future, it seems, is already here. Too bad it is going to fall flat on its face…
Ha:Mo, which is Japanese shorthand for “Harmonious Mobility Network” is Toyota’s vision for the future of transportation; a combination of public and private transportation that relies upon public transportation, shared electric vehicles and a computer network that relays traffic information directly to drivers in real time. The crux of the Ha:Mo system is a Zip Car like system that allows you to check out a vehicle at your starting point and then drop it off at a station near your destination. Toyota appears to be serious about making the idea work and the company is dramatically expanding the program by increasing the number of electric assisted bicycles already available at Ha:Mo rental stations and by opening and additional 17 new sites close the city’s main train stations. Their website states that vehicles can be rented for just 200 yen for the first ten minutes of use and for 20 yen per minute thereafter. Sounds promising, right?
As a guy who has kicked around Japan a lot in my life, including an exchange trip to Toyota city where I lived with a local family for several weeks, I am left wondering how this can actually work. Efficient, effective public transportation is already plentiful in Japan and most Japanese cities are already built around it. Look at a satellite image of Japan and you will quickly note that most train lines are surrounded by a sea of houses. The population drops dramatically as you move away from the rail lines and people who live further out commute to the train stations by bus, bicycle or scooter. Almost every train station, large and small, offers some sort of secure bicycle and scooter parking for a modest fee and so it seems silly to me that someone would rent a vehicle for their commute when they either don’t need one or are already using their own.
Visitors to a Japanese city who need to travel outside of the downtown core will generally use the subway, be met by friends or take a taxi. Taxis in Japan are not cheap, but they are safe, convenient and clean and almost always have drivers who have extensive knowledge of the local area. I rode in a lot of taxis while I was in Japan and my average fare was about 1200 yen, usually 580 for pick up and some slight charge per fraction of a kilometer, and for my money I got a worry free ride, the chance to look out the window and door to door service. When you account for the fact that there is no tipping in Japan it’s a real bargain.
My conclusion then is that Ha:Mo will fail in Japan because the country already has an effective public transportation system. It is, I think, also doomed to fail in the United States for the exact opposite reason. Most cities offer no effective public transportation system and, the way things are going, never will. Seattle is a great example. Seattlites have been clamoring for a light rail system for just about as long as I can remember. There have been numerous schemes put forward, millions of tax dollars have been expended for planning and today they only have a link between the SeaTac airport and downtown to show for all their efforts. Sure, people can drive over to the main rail links and ride the full-size Sounder commuter trains into downtown, but as long as I have to drive my ass into Everett I might as well stay warm and happy and drive the rest of the way to Seattle. Having the ability to rent an electric bicycle or scooter isn’t going to make the experience any better.
If I can figure out that Ha:Mo is dead before it starts, it seems like the pros at Toyota who actually do this sort of thing for a living should have reached the same conclusion the first time it came up in a meeting. Why they failed to kill it remains a mystery to me. Despite my experience in-country, I can’t claim to have any special understanding of the Japanese mind but I do know that Japanese industry is replete with projects like this. It is one of those odd peculiarities of the Japanese, they are always looking for the next latest, greatest thing and their companies aren’t afraid to use real money to back a long shot. For now, Ha:Mo lives. The only question that remains is whether or not I can get my ass back to Toyota city and score a ride in an i-Road before they pull them off the rental lots.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.