Sunday, September 25, 2016

Commuting in Osaka

Tropical Storm Malakas is pounding Osaka. I'm high and dry now - indeed literally quite high in our 38th floor apartment - but I was low and wet just a few hours ago on my way home from the office after a thorough soaking on the short walk from the office to subway.  Following some internet sleuthing based on radar tracks such as the photo below, I took the decision to close our offices early, at 13h, to allow everyone time to commute home safely before the storm hit. But I felt like I was walking through an automated carwash at 13h and the sun was shining again by 17h30. So much for my typhoon landfall prediction skills.

This blog post is about commuting, mostly on this subway, and mostly in a drier state. I've been at it for a couple of weeks now, mostly because I have not yet invested in a bicycle, which I have great confidence will bring this quotidian experience to a close. Indeed I have never commuted with fossil fuel based transportation in my life, having always walked or biked to work during past stays in Nairobi, Paris, Bern, Toronto and Boston.

Let me start with the positives. Every train departs the station at precisely the minute listed in the schedule. Every station has a map of which specific train car you might prefer based on what you wish to do immediately after exiting (i.e. transfer to a certain line, get on an escalator rather than stairs, go to the washroom, etc). Every single departure time and track number is available on google maps in real time. If all this logistical perfection is not amazing enough, consider that every station has a toilet which is not only cleaner and more handicapped accessible, but even decorated with more tasteful artwork, than the average American restaurant. This, I kid you not, is a photograph of a public restroom in a busy urban subway station:

The downside? At least for the first week I was starting my commute on the 'JR rail loop line' from Osaka main station.  Me and about one million other people. The crush of humanity in the real world is bad enough, but with many of them staring directly at their cellphones, half way in some virtual world while barging through the station, it becomes like a real life collision avoidance video game. Of course playing Pokemon go, one can both stare at one's cell phone and see the people in front of oneself thanks to its virtual reality interface. Game goal: Avoid collisions with people in the real world and ensure collisions with pikachu in the virtual simultaneously.

Speaking of virtual reality computer interfaces with the real world, I read an article in the International NY Times this week about the USA opening up the roads for self driving cars. President Obama was quoted as proudly announcing that daily commutes will no longer need to be stressful, as people will have the freedom to sit back and relax and let someone else (google) take care of the driving. Typical of many high tech 'solutions' to quotidian problems, this one neglects the existing, superior technology that the rest of the world has already been using and perfecting for decades for precisely this purpose: the train.

Well, I started this blog a few days ago cooped up in the apartment due to storm Malakas, and am just finishing it up now on the weekend. But the weather has turned nice, so yesterday I plunked down a few hundred bucks on a new Japanese style (ie low seat) commuter bike and tested the time required to pedal 8km to work (without stopping to catch pokemon, but still collecting mileage on my egg incubator and buddy candy count). It appears to be about 10 minutes faster than the subway, and I did not even splurge on one of the ubiquitous battery powered pedal assist bikes. Biking is a great way to get to know local neighborhoods and appreciate the changing seasons (both being things we could not experience back in Nairobi, and one can't do on a subway either). Yet another good example of old technology as the best solution to modern challenges.

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