Have you ever wondered whether you will able to smoothly turn in your driver's license when you grow old? If there's no convenient public transportation where you live, you may be reluctant to give up driving. In this lab visit, we interviewed Professor Sakiko Murakami, who is conducting research with the aim of developing regional transportation in local cities in order to address such problems.
Q: Please tell us about your research field and research topic.
A: My research field is "regional management," which simply means community development. In my seminar, my students and I conduct research on general community development, such as the kind of local organizations that can best solve local problems and promote regional development. For example, we plan and run regional workshops and hold discussions with residents about how local issues can be addressed. Personally, I'm doing research on "local public transportation," in particular on how residents in "transportation deprived areas," such as mountainous and depopulated regions where bus routes and taxi service have been discontinued, are organizing their own transportation services.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about this?
A. The residents typically establish an NPO corporation or a local council that provides a pick-up service.
Q: For taking elderly people shopping or to the doctor, for example?
A: There are various kinds. For example, some services operate only within the local area - picking people up at their homes and taking them to local stores or medical facilities. Other services connect to existing means of transportation, for example taking people to and from the nearest bus stop, which may be several kilometers from their home.
Q: Are such services mainly used by elderly people?
A: Yes, the main target is elderly people who do not drive or own a car. Recently, elderly people turning in their driver's license and giving up driving has been taken up as a news topic, but in some rural areas it is difficult to get around if you don't drive. In urban areas, subways, trains, and buses are familiar and easy to use, but for a person living in a rural area and accustomed to a car-driving lifestyle, it's not easy, after turning in your driver's license, to make the jump to using public transportation. I think a challenge for the future is how to develop means of public transportation that people want to use.
Q: What made you want to do this kind of research?
A: When I was a student at Hirosaki University in Aomori Prefecture, I was doing research on community development under Professor Keiji Kitahara. At that time, while researching "shopping-disadvantage people," I realized that there were elderly people who felt inconvenienced because they had no way to go to the store. In this way I became aware of the importance of, rather than building more stores, building means of transportation that allow people to go to existing stores. Especially for people who don't drive, getting around is difficult. Even where there a bus service, the number of buses may be small. Home delivery services and mobile stores are can also provide "shopping support," but I felt that transportation support was also necessary, and so I became interested in conducting research on public transportation.
Q: Can you tell me about your research method?
A: Basically, I go to a site and conduct a fact-finding survey. I may also interview or conduct focus groups with residents who actually use public transportation. I also interview managers and staff at NPOs, councils, and administrative organizations.
Q: What are the challenges in doing this research?
A: For the operators of public transportation, a big problem is that the number of users is decreasing. And as the population shrinks and ages, users are also aging. Furthermore, the organizations that operate transportation services are also aging, and becoming smaller and smaller. In the face of population decline and the decrease in the number of public transportation users, how to sustain services is a constant issue. What I think is most important is to approach these challenges positively, and work closely with local governments on ways to promote community development.
There are also some challenges with my research method. I'm actually a "paper driver," and plan to remain one for the rest of my life, which means that I also sometimes have trouble with transportation. Once when I went to a village in western Japan to conduct research, I found that there was no bus that could deliver me to my appointment by the scheduled time. This can make things difficult.
Q: So you can understand how people feel when they have no means of transportation.
A: That's right. That's why I decided to be a paper driver: I want to prove to myself that it's possible to live without driving a car. The city of Hirosaki, where I spent my school days, is quite compact, and it was very satisfying to me that I could live without a car. There were buses that went into the nearby mountainous areas, so the local transportation system was quite adequate. I think that my no-car experience as a student left its mark on me. That may be why I'm determined to break down the "common sense" that having a car is part of life.
Q: Easy-to-use systems and arrangements can make it easier to get around without a car.
A: I think we are in an era where even many young people don't have a car, and people "share" things. I think that's good; you don't necessarily need to own things - you can rent, or lend and borrow, and share. I want to make students aware of "share" services like the pick-up service run by a residents' organization in the city of Kitakami.