WSJ on Cars and Japan: Myth and Reality

The sky will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect. By this time, everyone knows that these are the words of US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton mocking the rhetoric of her rival, Senator Barack Obama.

But the words might as well have been in this morning’s Wall Street Journal article on the demise of the car in Japan Japan’s Young Won’t Rally Round the Car. Doubtless the smart growth, anti-automobile and anti-mobility choirs are already in rehearsal. We will soon hear that, if Japan can travel less by car, only a simple attitude change will be required to end the fabled “love affair” with the automobile in the United States (and Western Europe, where the love is even greater, given the cost of using cars there).

The Journal reports that car sales are down in Japan and implies that more people are riding public transport. The article makes the all-too-frequent mistake of using a couple of facts and combining them with out of context ad hoc cases to develop a story line. The result is a fairy tale.

Let’s look at the facts. From 1990 to 2004, according to data published by the Japan Statistics Bureau, per capita car travel in Japan rose 26 percent, almost as much as the 29 percent gain in the United States. By no means has there been an abandonment of the car in Japan. The overall car travel market share rose 22 percent from 1990 to 2004. At the same time, the public transport modes of rail and bus both loss approximately one-quarter of their market share. One public transport mode did very well --- the airlines increased their market share by nearly half. This data is posted on the Demographia website.

Choir practice has been cancelled.