Tokyo’s baffling transit system

When I learned that Tokyo has 37 million inhabitants making it the largest city in the world, I began to wonder how people get to work on time. 37 million people, that’s equal to all of Canada. The simple answer is public transit but nothing about Tokyo’s public transit is simple.

The service is provided by 48 different operators, some private, others public. They handle 40 million trips around the city every day. There are 158 lines, 2,210 stations – that’s nearly one for every two square kilometers – and the network runs 4,715km. No wonder tourists get lost or walk into barriers that won’t open like I did when I tried to transfer between two lines with the wrong ticket.

The main operators are the Tokyo Metro, the Toei Subway and the JR East Line. Besides them, there are monorails, ferries, buses and trams. The services are integrated to a degree, but don’t take it for granted that the ticket you bought will let you transfer from one line to another, as I found out.

On the up side, more than one operator can take you from station A to station B; you can get creative but figuring out how isn’t always easy. We weren’t the only tourists standing like islands in the stream of fast-moving commuters gazing up at the signs, checking the route maps on our phones and looking puzzled, especially at Tokyo Station the busiest of them all. Along with the two subways and the JR Line, it has the famous Shinkanshen trains and various other regional and national trains which together account for 3000 trains per day.

Toei subway cars
Toei subway cars

Getting around as a family, we had a few laughs, a few false starts and a few sharp words, but in the end, we always got to where we wanted to go in good spirits – sometimes by the long way round.


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