Here’s a word of advice to anyone who was considering an epic road trip this Golden Week: consider taking the train. Japan’s roads are set to be even busier than usual during the national holidays, thanks in no small part to a government scheme to lower tolls on expressways around the country.
Life is certainly a lot more affordable for motorists now than it was last summer, when record crude oil prices sent the cost of gas rocketing up toward 200 yen per liter at the pump. In the last few months, it’s fallen to a little over half that much. And if that wasn’t enough to put lead in your pencil, the Aso administration, desperate to ingratiate itself with the electorate, has come up with the bright idea of slashing Japan’s extortionate highway tolls, making driving around the country almost—whisper it—cheap.
The government’s plan is to create a maximum national highway toll of 1,000 yen on weekends and holidays for vehicles equipped with the electronic toll collection (ETC) system, which allows cars to pass through toll gates automatically and have the charges billed directly to a credit card. Reductions of 30-50% on other roads, such as city expressways, are also included in the scheme.
The new discounts are far from straightforward: everything depends on which highway, which day, what time, type of vehicle and, possibly, what blood type you are. But the upshot is that you’ll save real money. A recent weekend trip from Tokyo to Gunma and back, for instance, cost me 3,000 yen less than it would have done beforehand.
All of this has been welcomed by impoverished drivers and, unsurprisingly, has led to a buying frenzy for ETC hardware. Prior to the government’s announcement, only 30% of vehicles had ETC systems installed; after it, they were selling at a rate of over 300,000 a week.
The downside is that cheaper fees result in more traffic—and possibly lunatic levels of congestion. A spokesperson for East Nippon Expressway Company (Nexco) told Metropolis that there was a 28% increase in traffic compared to last year during the inaugural weekend of the scheme.
One of the “beneficiaries” of this was the Tokyo Bay Aqualine, the 14-km tunnel-causeway that connects Chiba with the Tokyo/Yokohama megalopolis. With tolls slashed from 3,000 yen to 1,000 yen, Aqualine traffic was up by 20% according to newspaper reports, and the service area on the island that links the tunnel with the causeway was overflowing. This caused problems for JR Bus Kanto, which had to re-route its highway bus service as a result.
“It has got busier on weekends, and we’re seeing more drivers who only take their cars on weekends,” said a spokesperson for the company. “We’re also seeing more traffic accidents and broken-down cars than before.”
When asked if the toll reductions were a good idea, the Nexco spokesperson sucked in most of the available oxygen in the Kanto area before saying: “Nexco can provide no comments on government/political measures with regard to reduced tolls.” We’ll take that as a “No,” then. They may have to get used to the idea, though: the current discounts will run for two years, and the Democratic Party of Japan has said that it will eliminate highway tolls altogether if it ever comes to power.
So we’re going to save money, right? Er, probably not. The government had to set aside a cool 500 billion yen to pay for the current reductions. And where did that money come from? If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll find the answer in the mirror. Happy driving!
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).