Access to local transportation in rural areas tied to healthy lives for elderly Kamikawadani of Joetsu City in Niigata Prefecture is an isolated community that in winter is cut off from the outside world by over three meters of snow. Ms. Miyo, 76, lives alone here, going daily to the fields where she grows her own vegetables.
Although she does not require nursing care, she has back pain and suffers from numbness in her arms and legs. Formerly, she used an NPO shuttle service to visit the hospital. This 40-minute trip would cost more than 10,000 yen by taxi, but was provided at a low cost by the NPO. However, the NPO was forced to stop offering the service two years ago.
Why was the service halted? There were an increasing number of senior citizens that wanted to use shuttle services. However, competition intensified due to deregulation and led local bus companies to cancel money-losing routes. Although it was illegal at the time for the NPO to collect fares, it continued to provide its services, with fare collection being legalized in a 2006 revision to the Road Transportation Law.
This change was met by strong opposition from taxi companies, which were not doing well financially. The government then set some conditions that excluded people like Ms. Miyo who do not require nursing care. These conditions caused the revenue of the NPO to decline, forcing it to cease offering its shuttle service.
Ms. Miyo now depends on the local buses that run four times a day. No one knows what will happen to these buses once the children that go to school by bus are gone. Yoriko Sugimoto, chief managing director of the National Shuttle Service Network, deplores the situation, saying, "less opportunities to leave the house increases the risk of becoming bedridden. Some people who are unable to get to a hospital have reduced their medication from three times a day to only once.
The government continues to promote social measures to allow people to live at home even in their old age. If the government is serious it should first ensure access to local transportation because being able to move around is directly connected to people living healthy lives.
Ms. Miyo has refused her son's emphatic pleas for her to come and live with him, saying, "I wouldn't be able to weed in Tokyo." (Column by Yumi Isozaki, Mainichi Shimbun)