Millions Likely to Clog Tokyo Streets After Major Earthquake Government Says

April 4, 2008

Mass gridlock would suffocate Tokyo if a major earthquake hit the city as millions of stranded people took to the streets to walk home, according to a Japanese government report released this week.

The Central Disaster Prevention Council report found that more than 12.5 million people in the Japanese capital would head home on foot in the immediate aftermath of a 7.3-magnitude earthquake that knocked out public transportation.

Two million pedestrians in the most congested parts of central Tokyo would be stuck for hours in conditions as crowded as a packed commuter train, according to the report.

It’s a harrowing scenario that could paralyze emergency service vehicles and pose serious physical, medical and safety issues for those crushed by the throngs, Natsuo Ito, a spokesman for the Central Disaster Prevention Council, said.

“There would be extreme chaos and confusion,” he said.

With some 35 million people, the greater Tokyo area is the most populous metropolitan region in the world. Workers from outer Tokyo and neighboring prefectures stream into the city every day on trains — often packed toe-to-toe — and endure commutes of more than an hour.

Walking home to the suburbs is already a daunting prospect, and one that would be made worse by a massive earthquake. The government report projects that the 20-kilometer walk to Wako city in Saitama prefecture (state) would take 15 hours versus five hours under normal circumstances.

By March 2009, the council plans to develop and propose specific measures to control earthquake-related mayhem, including ways to prevent people from rushing home all at once and to improve communication systems for family members seeking to confirm each other’s safety.

It will also enlist the cooperation of schools and companies that could serve as temporary shelters for stranded people, the report said.

Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, although Tokyo has not been hit with a major quake since the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake killed 140,000 people. An earthquake of that size, about a magnitude 8 on the Richter scale, occurs once every 200 to 300 years.

Smaller temblors come naturally within that cycle, so a magnitude 7 earthquake could strike Tokyo at any time, Ito said.

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