The nation’s famed mastery of rail travel has been aided by some subtle behavioral tricks.
It is a scene that plays out each weekday morning across Tokyo. Suit-clad office workers, gaggles of schoolchildren, and other travelers gamely wend their way through the city’s sprawling rail stations.
To the casual observer, it is chaos; commuters packed shoulder-to-shoulder amid the constant clatter of arriving and departing trains. But a closer look reveals something more beneath the surface: A station may be packed, yet commuters move smoothly along concourses and platforms. Platforms are a whirl of noisy activity, yet trains maintain remarkable on-time performance. Indeed, the staggering punctuality of the Japanese rail system occasionally becomes the focus of international headlines—as on May 11, when West Japan Railways issued a florid apology after one of its commuter trains left the station 25 seconds early.
Tokyo is home to the world’s busiest train stations, with the capital’s rail operators handling a combined 13 billion passenger trips annually. Ridership of that volume requires a deft blend of engineering, planning, and psychology. Beneath the bustle, unobtrusive features are designed to unconsciously manipulate passenger behavior, via light, sound, and other means. Japan’s boundless creativity in this realm reflects the deep consideration given to public transportation in the country.
Rail stations, whether in Japan or elsewhere, are also great places to see “nudge theory” at work. Pioneered by behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who was awarded the 2017 Nobel Memorial Prize for his work, and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, the theory posits that gentle nudges can subtly influence people towards decisions in their own (or society’s) best interests, such as signing up for private pension schemes or organ donation. In the U.K., there’s a government office devoted to the idea, the Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”), and their work often shows up in the transit realm.
In 2016, for instance, London Underground operator Transport for London partnered with the behavioral science department at the London School of Economics to develop ways of encouraging riders to queue on both sides of station escalators as a means of increasing their capacity in the capital’s Holborn Station. Among other measures, simple hand and footprints were also painted on each side of the “up” escalators.