Monday, June 16, 2014

Sapporo: a relevant Japanese model for North America

I've spoken a lot about Japan and what they do differently for urbanism. However, one criticism I often hear when I bring up Japan is that comparisons to Japan are not actually relevant because Japanese cities are very old and have been built in another era, with Japan living in an essentially medieval feudal state until the Meiji Era in the mid 19th century. The assumption is that, more than just a cultural factor, Japan just has a lot of old city grids and streets, and that the Japanese inherited their cities from their forebears, and since we inherited different cities, Japan is just not that relevant as a model for urbanism in North America. And that's not just true for Japan, mentions to Europe or older North American cities have the same reactions, as if new cities couldn't possibly be built other than for the car.

To be fair, that argument is accurate to an extent. Tokyo, even before the Meiji Restoration, had a population of over 1 million people, a milestone it reached in 1721, making it the largest city in the world even during that time. Consequently, it has an enormous number of streets and extremely small blocks, especially compared to American cities:
A section of Tokyo compared to the street grid of Manhattan

The same section compared to the notoriously small Portland blocks
So even compared to Portland, Tokyo's blocks are much smaller, as little as one quarter of Portland's blocks. The streets are extremely narrow in those blocks, as little as 4 meters across (around 13 feet). In such a context, car speed is significantly reduced by the narrowness of roadways, the presence of pedestrians and cyclists and the number of intersections, making walking and biking much more attractive in comparison.

But Japan isn't only Tokyo (Even if a quarter of the population resides in the Greater Tokyo area). In fact, the cities in the north of Japan developed much more recently. Sendai, the main city of the Tohoku (North-East) region, was founded only in 1602, predating by just 6 years the foundation of the city of Québec. Even better, the northern island of the archipelago, Hokkaido, has only very recently been "colonized" by the Japanese population. There used to be only semi-nomadic people in the area, the Ainu, and colonization of Hokkaido has only started in earnest in the mid-19th century, when Japan was opening up and the Japanese quickly learned all they could from Europeans and Americans to catch up to them. The biggest city of this island, Sapporo, now has a population of nearly 2 million people, yet was founded only in 1868, at roughly the same time as the main Texas cities (Dallas, Austin and Houston).

Sapporo is the one I find most relevant, as it was built following the planning ideas prevalent in America at the time, and many Americans are involved in the early years of the city. The result was a city built on a rectangular street grid with wide streets and big blocks:

Sapporo versus Manhattan block sizes
Sapporo versus Dallas block sizes, both are almost the exact same size
The street grid of Sapporo, the skeleton of the city, is thus extremely similar to 19th-century American cities, what Nathan Lewis on his blog refers to as an "hypertrophic city". And the streets are pretty wide, in the downtown area, the width of streets, including sidewalks, are around 20-25 meters wide (66 to 82 feet), some are as wide as 35 meters (nearly 120 feet).

This is often considered to be the thing that shouldn't be done, as wide streets make it harder for pedestrians to cross them, they incite speeding and allow cars to move faster. How is Sapporo doing, is it yet another car-dominated and oriented city like all those North American mid-19th century cities?

Well, not so much. According to the transport studies of the Japanese government, the share of all trips that are made by car in the entire metropolitan region is 45%, higher than in Tokyo and the Osaka-Kyoto-Kobe region, but lower than in the Nagoya region, despite Nagoya being older and much more populous, and also lower than the Sendai region and the Fukuoka region. In comparison, the car's mode share in the Montréal region is 69% according to the AMT's most recent origin-destination study. Note that comparisons are a bit tenuous as there are different ways to calculate mode share, whether one includes the suburbs or counts just the central city, all trips at all times or just commutes to work, etc... I assume the numbers I found for Japanese cities include all trips in the city and its suburbs, which is what I calculated for Montréal, but the data I found for American cities were mostly commute-to-work numbers which are not directly comparable. I wanted to make comparisons to American cities, but couldn't find appropriate data. Note though that Montréal is considered one of the least car-dominated cities in North America, behind New York, but about the same level as Toronto.
Mode shares of Sapporo and Tokyo
Bus mode share tends to be really low in Japanese cities, so these numbers aren't the exception but the rule. The highest "bus" mode shares are in Nagasaki (12,5%) and Hiroshima (10,0%), which both happen to still have widely used tramway systems, which seems to indicate that trams are considered "buses" in the Japanese survey. You may have seen other mode share data on Tokyo showing a much higher transit mode share than this, this data is for the Greater Tokyo area, the data showing 50-60% of mode share for Transit is likely for the city of Tokyo itself or for commuting only.
Mode shares of Sapporo and Montréal
For this graph, I had to group together "walking" and "biking" into "active" mode of transport and "bus" and "rail" together for Sapporo, in order to make it comparable to Montréal's data which doesn't differentiate between walking and biking, nor between subways and buses.

Anyway, Sapporo manages some respectable numbers for sustainability. Its transit system is much less dominant than Tokyo's and actually doesn't perform better than Montréal's. Its advantage over Montréal comes almost exclusively from active modes of transport, walking and biking, which are nearly three times as high as Montréal's. So people in Sapporo walk and bike in great numbers. And Montréal's relatively poor performance can't be blamed on the climate, Sapporo is just as cold and even more snowy than Montréal.

So, how do they do it?

The streets

As I said, Sapporo's streets, especially in its downtown area, are pretty wide, but this is based on the distance from property line to property line, including sidewalk and roadway. Sapporo made the choice of giving only as much space to cars as they absolutely need, their lanes are essentially all 3 meters wide (10 feet) only, and most streets have 4 lanes (2 in each direction), rarely do they have more. On-street parking and large shoulders are rare.

What do they do with the rest of the street? They have sidewalks, very wide sidewalks. Their sidewalks tend to be around 3 meters wide (10 feet), sometimes even more. Now, some cities like New York and Dallas have similarly wide sidewalks in their downtown areas, but the main difference I see is that, in Sapporo, they respect the pedestrian space much more. Meaning that when they plant trees, add poles and signs, they do it at the very edge between the sidewalk and the street, whereas too often in North America, we tend to put these objects nearer to the middle of the sidewalk. Also, their curb cuts tend to be much less invasive on the pedestrian space, with cars facing a short ramp that takes them to the level of the sidewalk rather than taking the entire sidewalk to the level of the street.

The last image is at the limit of the subway system, in a suburban area, despite this, the sidewalk is comfortably wide and the street is only as wide as it needs to be. In all cases, every pole and tree is put at the extreme limit in order to preserve space for pedestrians and cyclists and to protect the sidewalk from cars. Also, the sidewalks are well maintained.

On the other hand, look at these examples of similarly wide sidewalks, wasted by trees and crap put way too close to the middle of the sidewalk, demonstrating how pedestrian space is seen more as a buffer between buildings and street.
Sainte-Catherine street in Montréal, note how the poles and trees are planted far from the curb compared to Sapporo
Dallas, the sidewalk is even built to indicate to pedestrians that half of the sidewalk is for objects, not people
Dallas again, with an otherwise large sidewalk poorly maintained and with poles put almost in the middle of it
The result of the lack of on-street parking, of wider uncluttered sidewalks, of narrower lanes, is that walking and biking in Sapporo is quite comfortable. Moreso than similarly built North American cities. I had written a bit earlier on the importance of providing adequate pedestrian space in cities, but after being to Sapporo, I must admit omitting at the time the impact of objects put in the way of pedestrians, reducing their walking corridor.

Japan zoning: density and mixed use

My post on Japanese zoning is by far the most read on my blog, and is likely to remain this way. I've talked about how Japanese zoning includes mixed uses by default and how it's much friendlier to a mix of different housing types and greater density. Sapporo being a very recent city, it bears the mark of Japanese zoning more than most other Japanese cities. To summarize a bit the principal points of Japanese zoning:
  1. Maximum use zones rather than single use zones, residential still allowed in commercial zones
  2. Height limits depend on street width
  3. To build malls or offices, you need to allow dense residential uses also (use bundling)
So since Sapporo's streets are wide, it means that tall buildings are common in a lot of the city, typically near subway or train stations. Likewise, as there is residential density in those places, shops and restaurants seek these places out to be within proximity of potential customers. Which creates nice hot spots of density all around the city.

In North American cities with our very strict planning, we tend to adopt an idea that buildings' sizes should be inversely proportional to their distance to the downtown area: skyscrapers in the downtown area then heights falling as you go farther until you hit single-family housing. That's not how Sapporo plays it, at all. If you look at the city from vantage points, you can see "ribbons" of mid-rise and high-rise buildings extending from the downtown areas, grouped around the subway lines.

Click on pictures for bigger versions.

The result of this is that the dense areas of Sapporo go much further away from the downtown area than most North American cities and there is a strong tendency to mix uses, so that dense residential areas tend to be within walking and biking distances from corner stores, supermarkets and malls. What helps this proximity is the reduced parking lots in dense areas, as parking minimums are lower in Japan, plus stores will do underground parking and even parking on the roof of malls to have a more compact form.
Mall in Sapporo with some parking in front...
...but see the ramp in the center of the picture? It takes cars to a parking lot built over the mall

The only parking lot in front of this suburban mall is a bike parking lot
Cars must take the ramp to their own parking upstairs
The market has provided Sapporo with enough parking where it is required, in a form that takes little space, not hurting the walkability of the city:

This parking garage is in the middle of the huge entertainment/red light district: Susukino
Note that there are some problems with the mode of development of Sapporo. In places around subway stations farther from the downtown area, places aren't fully built out, leaving 10-story apartment blocks standing in the middle of currently vacant lots, creating a weird effect. As the areas get built out, the urban fabric will be better and it doesn't hurt the walkability of what is currently there, but many neighborhoods around farther subway stations look a bit like smiles with teeth missing, or even stonehenge.

Some would also say that this makes Sapporo's skyline look pretty poor and mundane as it doesn't look much like a mountain but more like a long hill with few distinct buildings in the mix. They may have a point, but skylines in my eyes are pretty irrelevant to how nice a city is to live in. And anyway, they just have to wait for the night to fall to compensate.
Sapporo at night from Mount Moiwa
In closing, I think Sapporo is a city worth studying for its modernity and for its roots so similar to many North American cities. It shows what could have happened had we not put such strict zoning straitjackets on mid 19th century cities, preventing their downtown areas to spread around transit lines. It shows that even hypertrophic cities can do a lot to make walking, biking and transit viable alternatives to cars. Though cities founded in the mid-19th century may never look like Florence, Tokyo or Paris, it is yet possible for them to develop in a more sustainable, walking-friendly fashion, as Sapporo demonstrates.


  1. The sad thing about New York City (the hypertrophic city at its best and most hypertrophic) is that many of their generous sidewalks were severely shaved back in the 1950s and 1960s to provide more room for on-street parking. Jane Jacobs even lamented and fought against that very thing when writing "Death and Life." Imagine what you could do with an extra 9 or 10 feet of sidewalk on top of what's there now.

    1. I have heard of the sidewalk shaving. Overall, I think it's symptomatic of the fact that we tend not to respect pedestrian space in North America. Check out those pictures from large sidewalks in North America, it is quite clear, even in the construction of the sidewalk, that the actual pedestrian walking corridor is the same 4-5 feet as anywhere else, anything extra is actually just a buffer waiting for something else, used for poles, trees and meters. The idea, I guess, is that pedestrians don't "need" more than that. Maybe not, but cars don't need 12-foot lanes either, they don't need shoulders, they don't need a lot of the space they have, yet we give it to them nonetheless, because that's the default: if you have space left over, give it to cars.

      In Sapporo, and Japan in general, it seems to me that they go the other way, they default to giving leftover space to pedestrians and cyclists, and give almost only the strict minimum to cars. And when they have to put stuff on the sidewalks, they're careful of putting them in a way to deprive pedestrians of as little space as possible (at least, on arterial streets). They respect pedestrian space.

  2. 1. Tokyo itself is no more ancient than Montreal or Sendai, being no more than a small town in 1603 when the Tokugawa moved the capital there. And it was burned to the ground in 1945, with very few buildings standing. Almost all of Tokyo was built after 1945 and it still looks like Tokyo, so there is no inherent problem in building a decent city after the 19th century.

    2. How large a role does it look like parking is playing in keeping Sapporo less nasty than modern Canadian and American cities? Japanese rules require little or no parking and certainly do not aim to keep parking free like CA and US do. Few of the streets in Sapporo look like they're built with an on-street parking lane. Are car owners required to prove a leased stall as they are in Tokyo?

    Your review of how zoning and building practices lead to different results even in a less distinctly Japanese city like Sapporo is fascinating. Thanks for this post.

    1. True, there are few buildings in Tokyo that have been around more than 50 years. However, I should have clarified that even when buildings change, there are things in cities that tend to change little over the years, the street grid is one of them. Many a street in European and Asian cities has existed for a millenia or more, and areas that used to be mixed commercial tend to remain mixed commercial unless "urban renewal" policies consciously choose to change it. Each generation tends to replicate the patterns of the generation that preceded them. Cities maintain surprising continuity over time in these elements. So Tokyo's very small blocks and narrow alleys are an inheritance from earlier iterations of the city.

      Parking is a crucial element indeed. Sapporo does have the same "proof of parking" system and ban on overnight off-street parking as most (all?) of Japan does. The Japanese do not obsess over free parking, especially not in cities, though malls and stores in areas far from transit stations do offer free parking, plenty of it. It seems to me that the Japanese find it normal to pay for parking in a way North Americans don't (some act as if "free parking" is in the bill of rights or the charter), and there is a strong market for private parking spots where demand exists for it. But regulations don't force them to build parking where there is little demand for it.