Urban guerrillas fight back in Tokyo Car owners learn maneuvers to survive in a parking jungle

March 07, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- When the capital of the country that got rich by tearing up the auto markets announced the world's highest parking fine, at $1,400, Tokyo made front pages everywhere last summer.

After that news came waves of worldwide publicity about a virtual high-tech war on urban car owners -- a new, improved version of "The Clamp," fiendishly "smart" parking meters, tough rules against issuing license plates for even a two-cylinder microcar without a certificate proving you have a place to park it overnight.

But owners of everything from Daimler sedans to delivery vans have fought back with a half-year of low-tech, upscale urban guerrilla warfare. They are winning far more skirmishes than they lose.

Take, for example, the $1,400 parking ticket. It turns out that the fine had two weaknesses:

* The odds were overwhelming that you'd never have to pay it, unless you left a car illegally on the streets of a prime area like Ginza every night for weeks. A reliable source says police figures might show that "at most a hundred or two, more likely a few dozen" of the mammoth fines were imposed. An estimated 230,000 cars are parked illegally in Tokyo at any moment on a typical business day.

* If you did leave a car long enough to be eligible, the fine still wouldn't cost any more than monthly parking rental in Ginza and other prime places, which, of course, instantly rose to levels just a bit higher than the new levy.

"I got a fake parking certificate through the dealer when I bought the car, and I just make sure I never park in the same place more than a few nights in a row," said Junichiro Kato, a cram-school English teacher.

"I've had a few parking tickets downtown, but altogether they cost me a fraction of what it would cost to park legally. Why spend so much money [for a real parking certificate] when I get caught so seldom?"

Then there are Tokyo's high-tech parking meters, which electronically detect the moment a car leaves so that the next driver can't use any unexpired time.

Formidable as the meters are, the police list only some 15,000 of them in an area that is home to 30 million people. There are more than 5 million cars within a 30-mile radius.

More meters would only increase the number that go unchecked every day. The city's 900 parking officers work by pairs in 200 minicars.

"One place I've never been caught is at a meter, so I overstay my time at them constantly," Mr. Kato said. "I just have to keep an eye out for the patrol cars."

In a variant on computer dating services, two companies went into the perfectly legal business of matching car owners with monthly spaces, at $200 a customer. Business boomed amid last summer's publicity blitz, but by last month the two companies said they were finding few customers.

The guerrilla skirmishing goes on around the clock.

By day, police are busy breaking up forgery rings at downtown dealerships. That's where salesmen are regularly frustrated when customers come in with everything it takes to buy a car except a place to park.

By night, underground syndicates charge restaurant and night-club patrons a few dollars to shuffle their cars from space to space every 20 minutes, playing keep-away with the parking patrol.

Even before the city declared war, owning a car was a protracted struggle in most of Japan.

Mandatory and devilishly detailed inspections, usually taking a day or two, typically add $1,000 or $2,000 in fees and repairs to the annual cost of ownership. Driving lessons can cost up to $2,000.

Even so, almost 56 million cars are registered in Japan, nearly one for every two people. That is lower than U.S. and European ratios, but in these land-short and highway-poor islands it is plenty to make people curse automobiles even as they go on buying them.

"Our car-oriented society is on the verge of suffocation," the newspaper Asahi intoned at the time Tokyo declared its war on car owners.

In Tokyo, besides the more than 5 million cars registered, uncounted hundreds of thousands of others drive in and out every rush hour. Traffic at key points falls into gridlock several times a week. Police blame the thousands of cars illegally parked near critical intersections.

Gakken, a textbook publisher, recently came out with tapes that guide drivers around the city's most notorious recurring traffic jams, one "hidari" (left) and one "migi" (right) at a time.

The city administration plans to create 2,600 new parking spaces, but those plans confront the world's highest real estate prices. The spaces will cost up to $160,000 each.

At any price, 2,600 spaces will account for a minuscule fraction ofthe problem.

If the war on car owners can claim a victory, it may lie in trimming the number of new-car purchases. But in a society proud of its egalitarianism, even that might have been a Pyrrhic victory.

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