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EDITORIAL | Ensure Passenger Safety as Rideshare Ban is Gradually Lifted 

Operating a rideshare or other unlicensed taxi is prohibited under the Road Transport Act, but the taxi shortage has prompted the partial lifting of this ban.

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A user requests a pick-up from a local government rideshare service and gets into a vehicle on the afternoon of February 29th in Komatsu City, Ishikawa Prefecture (© Kyodo)

"Rideshare" refers to drivers using their own private vehicles to transport passengers in return for compensation. Starting in April, the previous ban on the practice has been partially lifted. 

A shortage of taxi drivers is becoming a chronic problem in urban areas and popular tourist destinations in Japan. Assuming that safety is ensured, rideshares offer an attractive complement to taxis as a means of transportation

The lifting of the ban paves the way for a "Japanese-style ridesharing" system. Under it, taxi companies will be responsible for operational management and vehicle maintenance to ensure safety. These companies must request and the government must grant permission before they can operate in this manner. 

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has given the go-ahead for establishing four rideshare zones. They are centered on urban areas of Tokyo, Kanagawa, Aichi, and Kyoto prefectures. But rideshare operation is restricted to certain days and hours when there tends to be shortages of taxis. From May, operations are due to be allowed in eight other areas, including Osaka and Fukuoka prefectures. 

The system will be approved for use beyond these areas, too, if the local governments agree to certain conditions. Those include restrictions, such as limiting ridesharing to certain days and times. 

There is a noticeable shortage of taxis at night near Misaki Port in Miura City, Kanagawa Prefecture on March 2. The city plans to conduct a "rideshare" experiment. (© Kyodo)

'White Taxis'

In Japan, the practice of regular drivers offering ride services for money is referred to as "white taxi behavior" since the vehicles in question have white license plates. The operation of unlicensed taxis like these is prohibited in principle under the Road Transport Act

However, many taxi drivers gave up the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic. Subsequently, while demand has been increasing, it has been difficult for passengers to catch taxis in some areas. Economic activity has been returning to normal and the number of inbound tourists (foreign visitors to Japan) has recovered. Consequently, Japan is turning to rideshares to compensate for the taxi shortage. 

It goes without saying that safety is a vitally important consideration when providing such services. 

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Foreign tourists getting off a taxi at Tokyo Station's Yaesu Exit on December 27, 2023. (©Sankei)

New Responsibilities for Taxi Companies

Under the new rules, taxi companies will guide drivers on driving techniques and provide other assistance to would-be rideshare drivers. The drivers must also satisfy certain prerequisites, including not having had an accident within the previous two years. Furthermore, taxi companies are responsible for ensuring that drivers do not drink before transporting passengers. This is to be carried out by using breathalyzers that can be monitored remotely and by other means.

The government intends to decide by June whether or not to totally lift the ban on rideshares, including whether to allow businesses other than taxi companies to engage in such operations. 

There are also high hopes that rideshares will become a new industry that can boost the economy. However, the outcome could prove counterproductive if totally lifting the ban severely impacts the operations of taxi companies and leads to a further decline in the number of taxi drivers. 

As the use of rideshares gains wider acceptance, its benefits and challenges will become clearer. 

Hopefully, this question will be discussed respectfully in a manner that considers all factors. After all, the goal should be a sustainable system that increases the number of people moving about in society. 

The taxi stand in front of JR Shin-Osaka Station was busy on October 17, 2023 (© Sankei by Yuta Yasumoto)

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(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun