Photo/IllutrationTourists and locals board a city-run bus from the front door during the demonstration experiment of a new boarding and fee-paying system at a bus stop in Kyoto’s Shimogyo Ward in October 2017. (Hideo Sato)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--The ever-increasing number of tourists using buses here has added pressure on a public transport system struggling to stay punctual, leading the city government to introduce the first new fare system in nearly half a century.

The city-run bus network has for decades employed the system of “board at the rear and exit at the front,” where passengers pay their fares to the driver before disembarking since 1972.

Now, plans are afoot to change the system to “board at the front and exit at the rear” and “pay first.”

According to the Kyoto Municipal Transportation Bureau, the current system came under strain in recent years as the number of foreign visitors taking public buses increased.

Perhaps because foreigners feel ill at ease with the unfamiliar system, more people tend to stay in the front section of buses, clogging up the gangway for other passengers who want to pay and get off.

Tourists also often take longer to pay the fare, adding extra seconds of travel delays.

To find a solution, the city has trialed a “board and pay at the front and exit at the back” system a number of times on weekends since October 2017.

The test was held on one of the busiest lines, Route 100, which leaves JR Kyoto Station then travels to major tourist destinations such as Kiyomizudera temple, the Gion district and Ginkakuji temple, and is the most congested route during high seasons for sightseeing.

In the test, real passengers were asked to pay when boarding at the front door, move to the rear of the bus, then disembark through the rear door.

The results were clear. The average time required per passenger to get on and off the bus was cut by 0.2 seconds, resulting in a reduction of 11.5 seconds, or 20 percent, in the time a bus stayed at each stop on average.

More than half the feedback received from passengers was also positive, and the city government decided to proceed with the plan.

The city operates 83 routes and plans to introduce the new system in 61 flat-fee routes for now.

When the change will be implemented has not yet been decided. As not all bus stops can accommodate the required refitting work, the authority said it is hoping to “introduce the change one by one from routes we can start with.”

Designer Daisuke Wakihara, 35, who rode on a bus in the experiment, is optimistic about the change.

“When tourists with luggage gather in the front section of a bus, other passengers cannot move about and the bus takes time to depart once it stops,” he said. “I think if we pay first and encourage passengers to move to the rear, people will flow through more smoothly.”

According to the Nihon Bus Association of bus operators across Japan, which boarding system to use is down to the discretion of different operators, but the association’s public relations officer said, “I have a sense that boarding at the rear is much more common.”

Aside from in Kyoto city, the “board at the front and exit at the rear” system is more common for public bus services in the Tokyo area, including those provided by the Tokyo metropolitan government, Yokohama city and Kawasaki city. In those areas, a flat fare is charged regardless of distance traveled, so paying when boarding is not a problem.

On the other hand, in major cities in the Kansai region, the “board at the rear and exit at the front” system is more common among bus operators. For example, the cities of Osaka, Kobe and Takatsuki in Osaka Prefecture, which were among the first to introduce a single-manned operation of buses after the end of World War II, have the same system as Kyoto even though they have a set charge on either all or most of the routes they operate.

Yukio Wada, chief editor of Busrama International, a bimonthly magazine about buses, said there is an “odd theory” that the “tradition of boarding at the rear and paying later remained in Osaka, as Kansai people don’t want to let their money go until the very end.”

“But, we don’t know for sure what made the difference between the Kanto and Kansai regions.”

“In the old days, when I happened to not have enough change, drivers and conductors used to say, ‘You can pay the next time.’ I imagine such flexibility disappears when we are asked to pay upfront,” Wada said.