Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Taxi Stand Tune

Pick one megacity in the world where Uber might hesitate to invest in, and it would be Tokyo, and not just because of any regulatory hurdles. Kenji Hall reports from Tokyo in a Monocle video about the elite Nihon Kotsu fleet. We’re talking elegant, old-school charm in the form of a very professional black cab business. Sleek, streamlined and there to serve you in every way you’d want a taxicab service to.

Well, you, and the rest of the population of Tokyo, all 13 million of them. Not only is Nihon Kotsu a taxicab company that seems to do a heck of a good job when it comes to giving top-notch service on a personal level, it plays a vital role in making sure the city’s day-to-day business runs smoothly.

Every day, seven times a day, 365 days a year, Nihon Kotsu drivers clock-in, take a breathalyzer test, pick up their licenses and stand in line for their pep-talk, before all 452 vehicles are ushered out of the garage. Thanks to them, and the rest of the city’s 48,101 taxicabs (owned by 476 companies and more than 16,700 self-employed drivers), 730,000 people get around Tokyo each day, according to the Tokyo Taxi Association.

But as soon of each of these drivers hits the road they’re on their own, contending with the crowded city’s ebbs and flows. “They have to pace themselves and learn how to ‘read the flow’,” says Hall, explaining the logic of morning shifts (rush hour, hospital and hotel clientele, lunchtime surge), mid-afternoon slowdowns (time for lunch, a nap, or lounging in their cars on the waterfront), and the evening rush (steady until past-midnight, when the trains stop running and the bars close).

The predictability of it almost feels like hearing a familiar tune, with different parts (the beat, rhythm and melody) working in unison to make something quite significant happen. In Tokyo’s case, that something is that within one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the world (the Greater Tokyo Area is estimated to have more people than Canada).

Nihon Kotsu is a standout in Tokyo’s crowded taxicab market. But beyond Nihon Kotsu’s good looks and surface charm, it has a lot to teach us about how to mobilize and organize not only an industry and a large workforce, but people within a city. One way it does this is through technology, with on-board computers and hi-tech dispatch system alerts. Another way is through its attention to detail – nothing, from car cleanliness to customer interactions, is left to chance.

I’m interested in how things happen seamlessly at scale and speed, repeatedly, day after day. I wrote last month about Mumbai’s dabbawalas who keep office workers well-fed each day with home-cooked lunches. They should send their folk to meet with Tokyo’s Nihon Kotsu to swap notes.

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