Compared to other large Japanese cities, Kyoto’s city center has remarkably little rail service. With no train lines running through the downtown area, and only two subway lines, if you want to get somewhere in Kyoto using public transportation, oftentimes buses are your only option.
That option might be getting more expensive for a lot of people, though, as Kyoto’s municipal government is seeking permission to start charging tourists higher prices than locals for using city buses.
There seem to be two somewhat contradictory purposes for the plan. In an interview with Japan’s Kansai TV, Kyoto mayor Daisaku Kadokawa said that the primary objective of the proposal is to reduce crowding on city-operated buses in Kyoto. “We want to improve the level of comfort in both residents’ lifestyles and sightseeing,” Kadokawa said. “Raising the price [for tourists] is not itself the goal, but rather how to address overcrowding, and this is one way to do so.” When asked “Is the goal to obtain more money from tourists?” Kadokawa replied “Not at all.”
However, in its documents outlining the proposal, the Kyoto City Transportation Bureau cites a 14.2-percent drop in Kyoto city bus ridership since the start of the pandemic, as well as having been operating in the red for the past three years, among the justifications for introducing higher bus fares for tourists, as shown in the video below.
Taken by itself, raising rates would decrease ridership even more, but ostensibly the Kyoto City Transportation Bureau feels that will be offset, revenue-wise, by overall increases in the number of travelers as Japan continues to move towards a post-pandemic environment and higher fares are collected from those tourists who are riding the buses. The proposal follows an announcement in March that Kyoto will be stopping sales of its one-day unlimited-ride bus passes, which have been popular with tourists for years.
It’s worth noting that the revised system would not only charge higher prices for travelers visiting Japan from abroad, but also Japanese citizens/residents visiting from other parts of the country. Even people living in other parts of Kyoto Prefecture would be subject to the higher rates, as the proposal divides riders into two groups, Kyoto City residents and tourists.
As to how the new pricing system would be implemented, one idea the bureau is discussing is special cashless payment IC cards for residents, linked to government-issued My Number ID cards tied into the holder’s home address, which would charge the lower of the two fares. Another is designating certain vehicles in the fleet as “tourist buses,” which would ostensibly charge the higher rate to all passengers, though it’s unclear how/if that would prevent tourists from riding non-tourist buses and paying the lower rate.
The biggest potential roadblock for the plan, though, is that under current laws the bus network is prohibited from “unreasonable or unfair fare discrepancies.” It’s unclear whether a tourist surcharge for public transportation would fall under that category, and so the Kyoto government has submitted its proposal to the national government’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism seeking clarification as to whether or not the two-tier pricing system would be legally allowed.
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