Japan’s trains, including local commuter systems and longer-distance routes that span most of the country, are frequent objects of admiration for their speed, efficiency and almost excessive timeliness. The system’s overall effectiveness depends in large part on Japan’s unique geography and some very smart alignment between transportation and real estate planning. But on a day-to-day (or minute-to-minute) basis, some fascinating psychological tricks also help keep things running smoothly.


According to CityLab, Japan’s trains rely heavily on so-called “nudge theory”, or small signals that almost unconsciously influence riders’ behaviour, keeping foot traffic moving smoothly through crowded stations. These go well beyond the basics of clear boarding indicators, well-designed maps, and fully audible announcements - which too many US transit systems already have trouble executing.


For example, Japanese train systems use calming melodies to signal departures instead of harsh buzzers, which studies have shown prevent injuries by keeping passengers from rushing. Slightly more Machiavellian is the use of ultrasonic sound, inaudible to older passengers, to disperse crowds of potentially disruptive teenagers.


The use of subtle nudges also extends to train operators, who are expected to gesture with their hands and state any intended action out loud. That increases mental engagement and decreases operating errors.


Much more serious is the use of calming blue lights on certain parts of platforms, which have been shown to reduce suicide attempts by people jumping in front of trains. Suicide in general is a major social problem in Japan, and suicides by train also cause frequent, serious disruptions to the otherwise smoothly operating system.


Calming blue lights have been shown to decrease suicide rates.


Preventing small or large disruptions is crucial to the efficient functioning of mass transit; just ask any New Yorker who has ever boiled with rage when new passengers cram into a subway car without letting exiting riders off first. But for American supporters of mass transit, such refinements may take a back seat to the chronic under-investment that has left systems including the New York subway and Amtrak an increasingly unsafe and inefficient mess.