SHORT #24: The Disappearance of Shinjuku
how an entire Japanese city was transformed into a parking lot
“I can’t see the city, man.”
“It’s the curvature of the earth,” said Pokei. “You can only see for about 4.5 kilometers before things dip below the horizon.”
“So we have to walk 4.5 kilometers to get to the city from here?”
“No, idiot.” Pokei pointed to a set of headlights on the horizon. “There’s the shuttle bus coming now.”
It had taken us only 30 minutes to drive to the New Shinjuku Parking Land, then 25 minutes to find parking. After catching the shuttle, it would be just another 20 minutes until we found ourselves in the city, New Shinjuku.
It is interesting to note that in Japanese, the word ‘Shin (新)’ means ‘new,’ and ‘Juku (宿)’ translates roughly to inn. So ‘Shinjuku’ already means ‘New Inn’ and New Shinjuku, well, I guess that would mean “Really New Inn”.
While on the shuttle bus, I asked Pokei about the original Shinjuku.
“We parked on it.”
“What do you mean we parked on it?”
“It used to be where the parking lots is, dude. The most busy area in Tokyo. But maybe 20 years ago people started driving more. They needed more parking.”
“So … they just?”
“They just bulldozed Shinjuku. And also a few cities around it too. Made it all into a parking lot, and moved Shinjuku outside the parking lot.”
“Sounds like a lot of work.”
“Only took a year. Japanese efficiency.”
The disappearance of Shinjuku is a fascinating story.
In 2022, Shinjuku City was the home to the busiest train station complex in the world. Somewhere around 4 million passengers per day made their way through the station.
Around that time however, there was a shift in how people thought about transportation. Cars, it was said, were more convenient, and offered people more personal freedom. In response, the local government added street parking, and built new garages on top of the parks, gardens, and empty land. Very soon however, the car traffic overwhelmed the small streets. With surges of up to 2 million cars a day trying to enter the city, and parking garages prohibitively expensive to build and maintain, obviously, this could not work.
So the city’s transportation staff came up with a few ‘best practice’ scenarios, largely based on American planning of the day. They ran the numbers, picked the most economic scenario, and presented their findings to the Mayor.
“Dear Mr. Mayor.” Reported the sweaty-palmed Transportation Minister on the presentation day. “We will need to build surface parking for 2 million cars. It will require approximately 45 square kilometers of land.”
The Mayor’s eyes widened. He laughed at first, and then, when he understood that no one was joking, he shouted. “Baka! It’s not possible! All of Shinjuku City is only 18 square kilometers!”
“Yes. I am sorry.” replied the Transportation Minister calmly. “However, we have a plan. We can annex and demolish the two neighboring cities of Shibuya and Chiyoda as well. This will allow for us to build a big enough parking lot.”
At this, the Mayor fumed, his eyes darting around the room, looking for an excuse to continue unleashing his anger. “The Imperial Palace! Meiji Shrine!” He shouted.
“The Palace and Shrine can be spared. If we get creative. But the moat will need to be filled in.”
A month later, a public referendum called the “Freedom of Urgent Car Kinesthetics” was put to vote. This referendum, which would demolish the cities of Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Chiyoda and replace them with parking lots—with the exception of the Imperial Palace and Meiji Shrine—was approved easily. It passed with 87% of the popular vote in favor.
The razing commenced quickly. Within a year, the homes of 660,000 people were demolished, along with 69 libraries, 27 university campuses, 112 primary and secondary schools, as well as Yoyogi Park, and the world headquarters of Olympus, Epson, and Subaru, among dozens of others.
Miraculously, through the efforts of a public campaign, the famous Shibuya Scramble Crossing and Hachiko statue were both saved from demolition. They now comprise an outdoor museum, located in New Shinjuku Parking Lot Section Y32.
When our shuttle bus arrived at the edge of New Shinjuku City, Pokei and I stepped off, finding ourselves just outside the city gates.
“Yeah man? You want Italian or Sushi?”
“Not really hungry anymore.”
“Oh. Want to go back to the car and drive to New Shibuya instead?”
“Nah. I got a question.”
“I heard they built all of this for freedom. What kind of freedom was it?”
Already on his way through the city gate, Pokei turned round and looked at me, and then stared out into the 4.5 kilometers of visible parking lot behind my back.
“Well. We can see the horizon again. Plus, they have a bike lane going across the whole thing. That’s kinda free and ecological, you know.”
The sun was setting. I joined Pokei to look out into the horizon. I swear I could see the tip of Mt. Fuji, but maybe it was just a shuttle bus in the distance.
“Let’s do sushi then, eh?”
“Yeah man. Sushi.”
This work of fiction is based on actual places and calculations of what it would take to replace the daily passenger volume of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, using cars and parking lots. The calculations used in this story are conservative, and I would say a vast under-estimate of how much space would actually be required. I have pasted the calculations in a Google Doc in case any of you enjoy pondering the numbers as much as I do.
Though I’ve lived in both U.S. and Japan, and been a regular user of both kinds of transportation, the numbers surprised even me. To replace the passenger load of a single train station, not only would you have to delete the entire city that it serves in order to accommodate parking, but also two neighboring cities. This would make the parking lot useless, of course (since an area larger than the cities themselves would need to be turned into parking lots) which is a little bit funny … in a nightmarish kind of way. Note also, that these calculations did not account for the required streets, service stations, charging ports, and other car-related infrastructures, which would raise the space requirement even further.
If anything, it shows just how amazingly space-efficient Japan’s urban rail transportation system is, and also, how a city like Tokyo would be physically impossible, if it relied on the car as much as most American cities do.
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