Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Road Test

The government has begun its experiment with toll-free expressways. As nearly as I can determine from the maps they've been showing on TV, 50 rather small sections scattered throughout the country have been declared toll-free and are being observed for changes in traffic flow on them and on nearby ordinary roads.

The total length of the sections is said to be about 20% of the total expressway length nation-wide. Although there are some areas of Japan in which I haven't driven--basically southern Kyushu, northern Hokkaido, and all of Shikoku--I'm still pretty sure that the segments they chose for the experiment are among the most remote and least-traveled. It seems to me that the only thing making them even marginally useful as a test of going toll-free on the whole expressway system is that they do seem to be pretty much evenly scattered geographically.

Unfortunately for any validity to the experiment, the population of Japan is not even close to being distributed geographically. In fact, without having checked but based on pretty fair empirical knowledge, the 50 sections seem largely to avoid areas of dense population (and, of course, heavy traffic).

Early reports showed an average of 163% usage of the now-free expressway sections, compared with the same time last year, and as much as 270% in one area of Yamagata. I suspect that the beginning of Yamagata's lucrative cherry season may have a lot to do with that figure, as truckers take advantage of reduced costs.

Predictably, nearby railway operators are unhappy, and have responded by offering discounts--some in combination with local taxi companies--to encourage people to ride trains instead of driving on the newly-free expressways. Truckers  interviewed on TV were also predictable in being happy about reduced costs but concerned about the likelihood of increased congestion and traffic jams.

It looks to me as if some of the roads, both national and prefectural, near the test expressway sections will naturally become less congested as many drivers opt to use the expressways instead. Other than that, I see little real benefit for most of the areas chosen on the experiment, since it's virtually impossible to see how any real impact on tourism can be expected from such localized piecemeal changes. From the Tokyo area, I believe it would cost me several thousand yen to drive to even the closest of the free sections, for example.

I also fail to see how the choice of areas can possibly be of any real use in determining the results of making the whole expressway system toll-free.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Stop 'n' Go

The other day a guy drove his van from a parking lot straight into a "conveyor belt" sushi restaurant, injuring a dozen or so people. Most or all of them were sitting in the waiting area between the glass front of the shop and an interior partition. Judging from video of the aftermath, it's surprisingly lucky that nobody was killed: the van was completely inside the store, which was thoroughly wrecked. The driver claims to have mistaken the accelerator pedal for the brake pedal.

I've written about this phenomenon in my now-retired weekly column; you can try following this link to read it while the archive still exists. Accidents caused by drivers who confuse the gas and the brakes are proliferating, and although many of the drivers seem to be older folks, by no means all of them are. In fact, not all of the accidents are in or around parking lots, as one might expect, either. There have been a couple recently on expressways (the drivers reacted--too late, and very badly--to stopped traffic ahead by hitting the gas instead of the brake and slamming into the back of the last vehicle in line, causing multiple vehicle accidents) or on ordinary roads (one I remember was a driver who panicked in a curve, dramatically sped up instead of slowing down, and launched his vehicle through a guardrail into a house beyond it).

Most of the media comments I've heard about these accidents have been focusing on the age of the drivers, implying that their judgment is impaired and their reactions both slow and wrong, or else on the probable fatigue (if in heavy holiday traffic) and/or inexperience (if they're young) of the drivers. I've tended to suspect that drivers only familiar with automatic transmission vehicles are a major part of the problem.

But the guy who drove into the sushi shop was only 59, the accident happened during the daytime in a parking lot, and he's a professional truck driver.

I don't expect to see a follow-up story, so I'll never know further details, I guess, but it doesn't seem as if age, physical condition, or inexperience can be blamed in this case.

For many, many years I have habitually tried to avoid sitting in public places in seats where I can't see the entrance; I like to see people entering before they see me. I suppose I'll have to start avoiding the front areas of shops, bars, and the like, now, lest someone run me down indoors.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Take it to the Bank

Is it only me, I wonder, that resents being forced to open bank accounts? I don't mean "instead of keeping money under the tatami" or "instead of burying cash in the garden". I mean being forced to open yet another bank account for the convenience of some company that owes (or will owe) me money, but wants to pay it into a particular bank, even a specific bank branch, of their choosing.

This practice allows companies to minimize the charges they have to pay for making bank transfers, and in some cases to avoid the charges altogether. Since checks are rarely used here, either by individuals or by organizations, the transfer transaction fees can mount up pretty quickly, even at the rate of a hundred yen or so each time. The company clerks' jobs are somewhat simplified, too, because they have fewer accounts to keep track of.

Often—but not always—the company will arrange for the account to be opened, requiring only that you fill out and sign/seal a form. In a week or so you get your bankbook and ATM card in the mail.

That's registered, return-receipt-requested mail, so you either have to be at home when the postman comes, or else arrange to pick it up or have it re-delivered at a specific time. "Specific" here can mean a window of a couple of hours or as much as a half day. Having to arrange your schedule for the sake of some company's convenience is another annoyance in the forced account process.

Keeping track of the balances in multiple accounts, some of which may be for rather small amounts such as transportation or other expense reimbursements, can be troublesome, too. Lately many—but by no means all—banks allow some transactions or account balance confirmation to be done online. That's better than taking the bankbooks down to the branches of each bank, or poring over mailed statements, but it's still a time-consuming hassle…and remember that this for your client's/employer's convenience, not yours.

Depending on the bank, but in every case that I've personally encountered so far, most changes to bank accounts require that the account holder go to the specific branch of the bank where the account exists, during office hours. This seems to be required for such things as getting a new bankbook or ATM card (some banks have started allowing this to be done by a combination of e-mail and postal mail, to be fair, but it's still a hassle), changing the signature or seal for an account, and closing the account.  That means that although opening the account may be as simple as filling out a form that your client/employer gives you, closing it will probably mean a special trip and very likely a long wait. Leaving an account with no activity for a while is sure to result in phone calls from the bank telling you to use the account or close it, so you can't really just ignore accounts you no longer use.

What's more, in my case, there are a couple of banks that I prefer to avoid using, either because I find them more than usually unethical (the once-scandal-ridden Sumitomo Bank, for example) or because I've been particularly unhappy with their "service" (Mitsui Bank, for example, which happily charged me extra for 24-hour-service on transfers, but took four days to accomplish them because the "24 hours" meant 24 hours after enough people's printed transaction records were finally gathered at the branch to make it worthwhile, and taken by hand to the head branch of the bank, from which they were then—finally--transferred). You can imagine how happy I'd be at being forced to use a bank representing a merger of my two least favorite banks.

Since the justification offered is typically either "everybody does it (implying 'without complaint')" or "it's much more convenient for us", I am not persuaded, and I don't like being forced. However, the alternative is not being paid, and I like that even less.