Tokyo Train Company Offers Noodles, Tempura to Commuters Who Skip Rush Hour

This isn't the first creative attempt to reduce overcrowding on the world's busiest metro system.

by Bettina Makalintal
Jan 22 2019, 7:43pm

If Dante had created his levels of hell during this century, he might have included taking the subway during rush hour as one of them.

In the winter, you’re jam-packed against sniffly people, hoping as best as you can that nobody will sneeze on you before you reach your destination. The problems only get worse with warm weather, when riding the subway means getting really, unexpectedly familiar with other people’s sweaty backs and body odor. It is an enjoyable experience for no one.

And while New York’s subways—which make up the sixth busiest metro system in the world, according to a brief by public transportation advocacy group UITP—might seem overcrowded, the experience of commuting is apparently much, much worse worldwide.

Tokyo’s metro system has almost double the number of riders of New York’s, making it the world’s busiest. Trains are so over capacity, in fact, that beginning next Monday, one transit company will use free food to get commuters to change their travel schedules, as reported by CityLab.

For two weeks, passengers of Tokyo’s Tozai subway line can win coupons to a soba noodle shop if they go through ticketing gates at designated stations either before or after rush hour. In order to win a free bowl of soba noodles and tempura from Tokyo Metro Co., according to the Japan Times, riders must participate in the altered commuting schedule for 10 straight weekdays.

There is a catch, though: the amount of free food depends on the number of people who take part. Riders will only get tempura and noodles if over 3,000 people do the challenge, reported the Times. If 2,000 people participate, the reward will be only one piece of tempura, and if there are even fewer participants, there won’t be any prize at all.

As recently as last year, the Tozai line, which runs across the city from east to west, was Tokyo’s busiest subway line. It operates at 199 percent capacity, which means the number of people riding is basically double the train’s stated carrying capacity. With over 76,000 commuters taking the Tozai line during rush hour, CityLab wrote, even if a full 3,000 riders participated, the initiative would still only cut about 4 percent of riders.

The push to change Tokyo commuters’ schedules isn’t new, according to CityLab. In 2017, the city launched a campaign to get companies to offer more flexible work hours or the option of working remotely. That said, a separate report by the Japan Times suggested the campaign hadn’t resulted in noticeable changes to overcrowding on trains.

Still, in a subway system that’s so busy that metro companies have employees who manually push people onto trains just so that the doors will close, perhaps the lure of free noodles is enough to change things for even just two weeks.