By on October 11, 2013

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.

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9 Comments on “Toyota City’s “Ha:Mo” – The Harmonious Mobility Network...”

  • avatar

    These look like fun! I’d rent one for a couple of hours just to see how they drive.

    It’s interesting to see how they steer by raising and lowering the front wheels to lean. The wheels don’t “steer” by turning.

    Whether the business model will work or not remains to be seen. Car2go is popular here in Denver with close to 300 cars available. At $0.38 per minute they are priced right. The Smart cars hold two people or enough groceries to make them attractive to people who don’t have cars and want to go shopping. Car2go’s per minute rate includes gas, insurance and parking. You can park them in any legal street spot without paying.

    Being so small, I’m not sure if the Ha:Mo would work for shoppers in Japan. Public transportation is great, but not if you are carrying a lot of stuff.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Infrastructure is pretty permanent stuff. It costs a lot to build, and once it’s there; replacing it with something else is even more expensive. Countries develop around their transportation infrastructure. Post-war Japan developed a rail transportation infrastructure that was beyond state-of-the-art. It perfectly suits Japan’s high population density.

    Post-war U.S. is built around highways, which are essential for a country of the U.S.’s size and are much more flexible than the previous transportation network, which was rail. All but a handful of postwar U.S. cities (the handful being “mature” cities in the northeast and midwest: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit., St. Louis) developed around the road transportation infrastructure that was built simultaneously with them. “New urbanists” to the contrary, people prefer not to live in apartments or townhouses. I live in what was a 19th century, “streetcar” suburb of Washington, designed and built before the automobile. It consists of houses on small (less than 10,000 sq. ft.) lots. My community is very walkable and bikable . . . but it is not of a density that supports the expense of rail transportation. “Light rail” is cheaper than underground subways, but doesn’t offer that much of an advantage over a bus that runs on city streets, which is much less expensive.

    As others of the B&B have noted, increasing numbers of “knowledge jobs” do not require everyone to be in the same physical space 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. No matter how you get there, there is a tremendous cost (in both time and money) associated with working that way; and the employer must pay additional costs to support the workspace. With improving communications infrastructure, it’s going to be far less expensive to have people working at home.

    So, I think the future of commuting is going to be limited; and spending huge amounts of money to create a new infrastructure to supporting commuting seems to me to likely be a waste of money.

    And, as I said, even before the automobile, when given a choice, people prefer not to live in multi-unit dwellings. I personally have no interest in living in a mansion or in incurring the expense in maintaining “God’s green acre” around my house. However, I do not want to share in my neighbor’s family arguments, the flushing of my neighbor’s toilets, or my neighbor’s audio entertainment choices; nor do I want my neighbor to share in mine. A small front yard and front porch gives me more opportunities to interact with my neighbors than a long hallway, a bank of elevators, and a lobby in some apartment building.

  • avatar

    There’s an important development to keep in mind.

    Self driving technology. Its coming fast. There will be a day when you flop your butt into a car and it drives you to wherever you want to go. No driving at all. I am excited for this but partly saddened because I do like driving. But with so many cops around and slow drivers (because of the cops!), I don’t like driving as much as I used to. My area doesn’t have much traffic!

    This technology will be costly but will get cheaper fairly quick. There is another thing about self driving technology… No need to park your car right there. It will just drop you off then go somewhere else. You call for it to come to pick you up when you are ready to go.

    This is important because it means that future self driving cars may become part of a taxi service. Many people may decide never to own a car but call up a taxi. Taxi drivers will become an endangered species.

    I think Toyota is thinking about this development and decided to keep the Ha:Mo program going. These Ha:Mo may be intended to drive themselves. You may see the first Ha:Mos in a taxi fleet…

    • 0 avatar

      That’s the difference between my vision of the future and the Ha:Mo project. I suppose that if Toyota is expecting the development of self drivers in the next few years, they might is just using the Ha:Mo program as a reason to set up the infrastructure and trying to get a jump on the next step in the process. That’s a compelling idea.

      • 0 avatar

        I also think a self-driving automotive network is likely. I’m not sure why the car companies would push it–as Toyota may be doing–because a big advantage will be the lack of a need to own a car, I suspect.

        I don’t particularly like the idea. I drove across the country the first time when I was 17 (I rode across the first time when I was four), and there’s an adventure that disappears when cars drive themeselves, especially when you just type in your destination, rather than meandering all over Vermont during leaf season, or similar.

        Sure, a lot of people (though small #s percewntagewise) probably won’t be killed or maimed, and how can you argue with that. And elderly, and otherwise impaired people will have automobility, which is great. But adventurousness and imagination will go out of going from one place to another. It’s too damn bad.

        If I were going to be young enough when this happened, I’d get back on my bicycle. (Seattle to Boston, 1975)

        • 0 avatar

          Car sharing programs make sense even without self driving technology, yet they aren’t particularly popular. Sure less peple would own a car, but I don’t expect anything dramatic. I believe human-driveable cars will remain for many years, although autonomous cars could eventually become mandatory.

  • avatar

    Those i-Roads look like an absolute hoot to drive! Finally a vehicle that combines a cycle with a car’s advantages instead of its disadvantages.

    I’m going to wait until the aftermarket offers the Hayabusa transplant kit.

  • avatar

    Bicycle sharing services are actually quite awesome. It is definitely the fastest way of commuting in the city centre. Additionatly, the service is incredibly cheap, with a yearly subscription of 3€ and the renting being free for the first hour (at least in my city).

  • avatar

    They didn’t show how it’ll respond to roads litter with potholes.

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