What does the decision to award the 2020 Olympic games to Tokyo have to do with the New York mayoral election?

More than you would think. This fall, New Yorkers are going to choose what direction they want for their city in the next four years. Tokyo’s Olympic bid highlighted why it is a city New York should strive to be.

Tokyo features a strong portfolio of existing public works, political stability that assures support for new public works (made possible by low unemployment and high income equality) and an enviable public transportation system.

In fact, Tokyo’s comprehensive transit network has received a great deal of attention in the wake of the International Olympic Committee’s decision, with many in the media calling it a key feature of Tokyo’s ability to pitch itself as the “safe” Olympic choice.

It’s an issue worth thinking about as voters head to the polls in New York—a city whose own failed bid for the 2012 Olympics relied on a promise that the city would build several key pieces of transit infrastructure. 

The mayoral frontrunners paid too little attention to the issue of transit on the campaign trail—other than vague demands for better outer-borough service and the (very misguided) suggestion that the MTA cede more control to the municipal government.

New York’s Money Problem

So why do people rave about Tokyo’s trains and rant about New York’s? Much of the difference boils down to one issue: money.

The New York subway currently operates at a loss. Its $2.50 fare covers somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the actual cost of transporting a rider, depending on how one measures the MTA’s operating expenses.

Because funding is always tight, improvements are slow and the agency is forced to cut service wherever possible.

In Tokyo, the two main subway systems make a profit, which they invest into the maintenance of their impeccable quality of service.

The key difference is there is much less “wasted” train service in Tokyo because there is a relatively even distribution of ridership among stations. On the Tokyo Metro, about 100 times more people use the busiest station every day than the least busy station. That may sound like quite a discrepancy, but in New York, the gap is eight times larger.

Anyone who has ridden a New York subway line from end to end knows this is an issue. The train stays empty until it nears Manhattan, fills to the gills for the ride through the city center, and empties out again for the remainder of the trip into another outer borough. All in all, 43 percent of New York subway stations have ridership figures below those of the least busy Tokyo Metro station.

This means the MTA gets a poor return on its investment when it has to staff, maintain, and operate trains to stations that don’t get many riders. And that, in turn, means less money that can be spent where it’s really needed elsewhere in the system.

How Does Tokyo Do It?

Certainly, the Japanese capital’s relatively uniform density plays a role. But Japanese train companies—which are generally private—also aggressively invest in the areas around their stops. Their business model integrates transit service with transit-oriented, mixed-use real estate development, which ensures a constant flow of people to and from their stations.

This, above all else, is the reason Tokyo doesn’t have empty train stations, and consequently why its trains are profitable.

Developing around transit isn’t unique to Japan. In the U.S., the Washington Metro and Dallas’s DART system have experimented with integrating plans for mixed-use real estate development with station construction. Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway—a public agency—is widely recognized as a pioneer in simultaneously building underground rail lines and developing the lands above them. Such transit-oriented developments promote “smart growth” around stations that minimizes pollution and maximizes convenience.

Smart Growth

The logic behind it is simple. By combining subway construction with property development around stations, a transit company can assure it has the funds to support continued investment in the rail line, which is unprofitable on its own. Because the transit company itself is the developer, the station and the surrounding real estate can be designed expressly to serve one another.

In New York’s case, the goal would not be to build new stations, but to retrofit existing ones into real nodes of neighborhood activity. All across the outer boroughs, there are dozens of underused and poorly situated stops crying out for this kind of redevelopment.

This is the twenty-first century business model the MTA needs to implement–one where the agency’s role is proactive not reactive.

Rather than sitting by as Brooklynites are displaced due to gentrification at the hands of private developers, the MTA–which has no profit motive–should be the driver for reinvigorated outer-borough neighborhoods that are both profitable and equitable. That means ample opportunity for incentivizing local businesses, supporting mixed-income housing alongside office space and thinking about other development strategies key to good urban planning.

It’s not a sexy topic for politicians to discuss, and it doesn’t easily condense into a single talking point. But demanding greater city control over the MTA won’t make the agency solvent. Redesigning neglected outer-borough stations by reinventing their immediate surroundings would help.

Only then might the subway once again become a transit system, like Tokyo’s, worth writing home about.