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Friday, Dec. 3, 2010

Cities turning to on-demand buses to assist seniors in far-flung areas

Kyodo News

NAGOYA — The town of Tamaki, Mie Prefecture, started giving senior citizens free rides in minivans last year to cope with the inconvenience of living in sparsely populated areas in aging Japan.

Tamaki, with sprawling flat fields and paddies, is one of seven cities and towns testing a "buses on demand" service featuring a car allocation system developed by the University of Tokyo to move people efficiently.

In addition to Tamaki, the cities of Kasumigaura, Ibaraki Prefecture; Kitamoto, Saitama Prefecture; Sakura and Sanmu, Chiba Prefecture; Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture; and Hatoyama, Saitama Prefecture, have decided to put the test service into practical use.

Tamaki first tried to provide a free bus service in 1997 after a private bus company pulled out. However, the town's bus, capable of carrying 29 passengers, was always nearly empty, ferrying on average little more than four people.

Officials then introduced 10-passenger minivans in November 2009 available on demand. A computer program arranges the vehicle assignments.

Residents who have registered can ride in the vehicles free of charge any time they want to get somewhere between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

They have to reserve 30 minutes in advance and notify the town office of their destination. Up to six reservations can be made at a time.

Reservations can be made by cell phone or on the Internet. Officials said, however, that because most passengers are senior citizens they mostly make reservations by telephone or at the town office window.

When a town official puts a passenger's request into the computer, the screen showing the allocation system instantly displays the route.

As of September, 600 people had signed up.

Masa Kobayashi, 79, said she rides the minibus to the hospital, supermarket and dance lessons.

Kanroku Nakanishi, 90, is pleased he can get to his destination promptly and on time, unlike on a public bus.

"I can spend every day systematically," he said.

Kimiyoshi Nishino, secretary general of the town's social welfare council, said the city's current fleet of public buses, which make 19 runs a day, will be replaced with the minibuses early next year, adding that the town may transfer the on-demand service to a private firm in the future.

Kota Tsubouchi, a specially appointed researcher in human environmental science at the University of Tokyo who is involved in the development of the service, said the cost of managing the system is low because the computer server can be jointly rented.

Utilizing the system, Hokuto in Yamanashi Prefecture began running seven 10-seat minibuses on demand in October 2009 for ¥300 per person. The municipality commissioned local taxi and bus companies to operate the service to avoid angering the existing transportation companies.

The city, a product of a series of mergers between eight towns and villages from 2004 to 2006, covers about the same area as Tokyo's 23 central wards, with residents aged 65 or older accounting for more than 30 percent of the population.

The minibuses pass through narrow roads in the course of covering any of the 950 spots designated as stops. Passengers sometimes get the feeling of receiving a chauffeur service.

A 77-year-old woman, who used to go to the municipal hospital by taxi and pay ¥3,000 one way, welcomes the city minibus service and says she uses it frequently because she doesn't have a car.

Masakazu Oshiba, chief of the city's planning division, said the vans are environmentally friendly because they operate only on demand and are efficient compared with public buses because they have a low load factor.

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