When the nearest bus stop is far away and taking a taxi is too expensive, elderly Japanese who need a convenient yet economical way to get to the hospital or supermarket can turn to on-demand bus services introduced by their local government.
Chigasaki city, about an hour from Tokyo by express train and where the elderly make up 30 per cent of the population, is a new entrant into the business.
Last December, the city introduced an on-demand bus service from 7am to 8pm every day, using an eight-passenger vehicle.
Users of the service, which is outsourced to a local taxi firm, must pre-register with the city office. They book the bus by telephone at least an hour ahead of the pick-up time.
A one-way trip costs a mere 100 yen (S$1.20), well below a minimum 710 yen for a taxi. Pre-schoolers ride for free and do not need to register. The bus driver is left to coordinate the bookings and decide the best route to pick up users and take them to their respective destinations.
In principle, users can be picked up and dropped off only at designated spots. But many of these spots coincide with ordinary bus stops.
The on-demand service added many pick-up/drop-off points so that users do not have to walk far from their homes or to their destinations.
"These additional points coincide with garbage collection points," said Mr Satoshi Yamazaki, a spokesman for the city, referring to the common practice in Japan of assigning points in each neighbourhood to which residents have to take their garbage for collection.
Mrs Yoshiko Kuroda, who is in her 70s, uses the service about three times a month.
"It is convenient," she said. "I no longer have to walk up a long slope to catch the bus."
Nearly 320 of Japan's 1,741 municipalities are operating similar on-demand services, many in areas where declining populations have put traditional bus services out of business.
Latest population estimates show that the number of elderly people aged 65 and above in Japan has reached 25 per cent of the population, and will reach nearly 40 per cent by 2060.
To meet the needs of the growing ranks of the elderly, the Japanese government is reportedly planning to double the number of municipalities offering such subsidised on-demand services to about 700. Some of these on-demand services even make use of taxis instead of mini-buses. In Fukuoka prefecture's Yame city, for instance, an on-demand service utilising taxis to navigate narrow country roads offers door-to-door convenience for users at 300 yen a trip.
Despite all this, Chigasaki's on-demand service, which has been available for more than six months, is struggling.
The average number of users per day is only 13, far short of the target of 36. Usage also drops off sharply on weekends and holidays.
"On weekends, older people probably avoid going out as it is crowded or they depend on family members for transport," said Mr Yamazaki. Some users have also griped about the long booking time required. But according to Mr Tatsuo Sekino, director of the city's Urban Policy Division, the one-hour booking time is to ensure that the service will not compete unfairly against taxis, which charge higher fares.
It is also a costly service to run, costing Chigasaki city nearly 20 million yen. "It is a heavy strain on the city's coffers. But we are obliged to operate transportation services for residents," said Mr Sekino.
Mrs Kuroda hopes the service will not be terminated because of the lack of demand. "When Japanese society ages, the number of users will definitely go up," she said.
This article was first published on September 08, 2014.
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