Written in 2016/10/11, Pittsburgh
Human traffic in Tokyo is astonishing. Especially when you stand in the middle of Shibuya Scramble Crossing.
Shibuya Scramble Crossing is one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world, with approximate 100000 people passing through every hour¹ and it is estimated that about 3000 people are passing through the crossing at the same time during the busiest hour². There are millions of words that people around the world put together to describe the crossing: “The craziness of Shibuya Scramble Crossing”, “The busiest crossing across the world”, “The tilted crossing”. It is a really incredible design piece from both practical and aesthetic perspectives.
Shibuya Scramble Crossing is very close to Shibuya Station, where the Hachiko³ (the famous loyal dog in Japan) Square locates. Upon exiting Shibuya Station, there it is, the scramble. It is called a “scramble” crossing because it not only allows pedestrians to walk across the road but walk across the road along the diagonal when the traffic lights turn green, which means, the crossing becomes a car-restricted area so pedestrians can walk in all directions. When the traffic lights turn red, nobody is allowed to walk in any direction and thus road is completely clear for the cars, which can either go straight or turn left (people in Japan drive on the left side of the road). For cars heading towards north, east, and west, turning right is not allowed during any time of the day. For cars heading towards south (道玄坂方面), turning right is only allowed from 22 pm to 5 am with the exception for transit buses: they are allowed to turn right during anytime of the day⁴. Cars that are turning right (when allowed) but blocked by other vehicles going straight, would have to wait in the waiting area, and they are only allowed to drive on when the road is clear, which means vehicles going straight and turning left always have a higher priority in passing the road.
The traffic lights at Shibuya Scramble Crossing have a 2 minutes and 18 seconds cycle, within which 47 seconds are set for pedestrians to cross the road, 47 seconds are set for vehicles driving along north-south direction to pass the road, 36 seconds are set for vehicles driving along east-west direction to pass to road, and about 8 seconds for switching between lights.⁵ Obviously there is an asymmetry in time between vehicles driving along north-south direction and east-west direction. Part of the reason is that the traffic load between two directions is different: the north-south route coincides with the Yamanote Line (山手線), one of the busiest railway routes in Tokyo. Also, buses entering from north are allowed to turn right (for cars, only in midnight, as described above), which may take more time. The timing is so subtle. For pedestrians, the waiting time is pleasantly acceptable even if they just missed the green light and had to wait for another cycle. In the meantime, 47 seconds are just enough for them to cross the road even when they cross in the longest diagonal. For cars, the time is just enough to allow all the cars in line to pass through, and the waiting time is just short enough to cope with an impatient driver. Everything at Shibuya Scramble Crossing seems chaotic yet everything works within a well-organized, invisible time system.
The earliest scramble crossings in the world were introduced in Kansas, Missouri in United States and Vancouver in Canada in 1940s⁶. Most of the scramble crossings were designed to cut down traffic accidents by dividing pedestrians and vehicles completely. Study from Transport for London indicates that implementation of a scramble crossing can reduce pedestrian casualties by as much as 38%⁷. Most of the scramble crossings are located in bustling area, where the traffic is heavy and pedestrians in large numbers have the need to cross the road in all directions. Another benefit of scramble crossing is that it spares people from the trouble of climbing up and down to go to the other side of the road by an overpass or a tunnel, which is often introduced to busy crossings. An overpass or a tunnel solves traffic problems in a similar way: it divides pedestrians and cars (sometimes not completely). Even though they are able to remove the waiting time for both pedestrians and cars, they cost a lot in construction and maintenance for the government.
Shibuya Scramble Crossing has a long history. The photo below was taken in 1956. If you look carefully, you can even recognize the shop in the bottom right corner with a brand that reads “三”, which is a Japanese character . This shop is still in operation today. Back then Shibuya was a residential area without any commercial activities. There was no traffic light and all the work was done by traffic police until 1975, when Q-Front Building, 109 Building and other big shopping malls for young people rose. Since then, more and more people gathered in Shibuya for shopping, entertainment and dating. Shibuya became the center of youth fashion and culture. But while Shibuya was rising, traffic started to get worse, especially for the Shibuya intersection. Japanese government soon introduced scramble crossing to address the growing traffic problem. It allowed both pedestrians and vehicles to take full advantage of the road. Pretty soon after the implementation, the number of traffic accidents dropped significantly.
Today, it is hard to imagine how this intersection can function without this system: how to deliver 3000 people to the directions they are heading for at the same time if Shibuya intersection was not designed as a scramble crossing? Even for a scramble crossing, 3000 people are just too much. Sometimes it makes people wonder how this system came to work as it looks like two armies charging towards each other when the lights turn green. How do 3000 people walk in such a limited area while not conflicting with each other? In my eyes, it is not just the system that is working, but also Japanese culture. Japanese value forbearance and comity. They tend to give precedence to others in all occasions. Obeying rules and crossing the road with courtesy are appropriate behaviors for Japanese. That’s why even though it is a complete chaos when the crowds meet in the middle yet no one gets hurt. Also, Japan has a set of strict traffic regulations, people who disobey the rules will get punished severely.
In 2020 Tokyo, the introducing video presented at the end of the closing ceremony of Rio Olympics, there are more than one scene for Shibuya Scramble Crossing. Apparently, Shibuya Scramble Crossing has already become not just a symbol for Tokyo, but the entire Japan. The crossing appears in movies like Lost in Translation, Resident Evil, Tokyo Drift, Grasshopper and so on, in music video like One way or Another by One Direction, in TV series, in games, in almost everywhere. It has become a place for people around the world to visit and admire. More and more observation decks are being built to cater people’s needs: sit down and get the most amazing view of the crossing with a cup of tea or coffee in hand. The Starbucks on the second floor of Q-Front building on the crossing north side is the highest grossing Starbucks in the world. People are crazy about this place. They come here from all over the world and take tons of pictures from different angles during different time of the day. There is actually an article written specifically about how to photograph Shibuya Crossing⁸ on the internet. Tomohiro OKAZAKI, a design team, even designed a paper model of Shibuya Scramble Crossing and made a short video out of it⁹. Shibuya Scramble Crossing today has truly become a piece of art that is weaved by thousands of moving people. It now has meanings beyond its functionality — It has become a place that can evoke emotions, and arouse inspirations. Someone used symphony as a metaphor for the crossing, especially in rainy days: thousands of colorful umbrellas moving towards different directions, just like a high-level symphony.
I went to Shibuya Scramble Crossing twice when I traveled to Japan in the last summer. It was really amazing to stand in the middle of the crowd in the middle of the road. I found myself surrounded by all types of people — salary men, young couples, students, musicians and fashionable single ladies with heavy makeup. Everyone’s face and movement became a part of this big design and I became a part of it. At Shibuya Scramble Crossing, everyone becomes a sight in other people’s eyes, which reminds me of a poetry — The Part of Article written by Zhilin Bian, a Chinese poet:
As you are enjoying the scenery on a bridge
Upstairs on a tower people are watching you
The bright moon adorns your window
But you adorn others’ dream
That kind of feeling was truly indescribable and unforgettable, and that made the scramble one of the places I miss the most since I left Japan.
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