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Even though the event is still five years away, Tokyo is incredibly psyched about hosting the 2020 Olympics. As a country that prides itself on hospitality, and also one that can be surprisingly sensitive to how it’s perceived by foreign visitors, Japan has been looking for ways to put its best foot forward for the games, and some politicians are saying that now is the time for Tokyo to finally get serious about getting rid of its unsightly overhead power lines.

Considering the importance Japanese culture puts on aesthetic beauty, travelers from overseas are often surprised by how much of Japan’s power grid is located above ground. Even in Tokyo’s 23 wards, a whopping 93 percent of energy is delivered by cables strung up on power poles.

As we’ve talked about before, there are a couple of advantages to using overhead lines. They’re far less expensive to install, for one thing, and in the case of flooding or landslides, they’re much easier to get to for repairs than subterranean cables.

Still, power lines are hardly pleasant to look at, which is why some politicians are proposing an initiative to convert portions of Tokyo to an underground system in time for the start of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. Given the massive size of the metropolis, though, removing power poles from all of Tokyo isn’t a viable option, though. Instead, the plan would primarily focus on major thoroughfares classified as todo, or “metropolitan roads,” which run through the center of Tokyo.

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Under the initiative, overground power lines would be removed along metropolitan roads located within an eight-kilometer (five-mile) radius of Chuo Ward’s Nihonbashi bridge. In actuality, the switch to subterranean power lines has already been made along many of these streets, with just 15 percent of those roadways with 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) wide sidewalks still having overground power lines. As such, the metropolitan road portion of the plan would entail converting the system for some 80 kilometers of roadways.

In addition, the plan would also seek to eliminate power poles from ward and city-administered roads (which are smaller designations than metropolitan road) near major Olympic venues. Koto Ward’s Ariake Arena, scheduled to host volleyball competitions, and Ajinomoto Stadium in Chofu City (which is still part of Tokyo), where soccer matches will take place, are two likely candidates to reap the benefits. Under the proposed framework, the Tokyo metropolitan government would foot the bill for any costs not covered by federal funding, meaning the local ward and city administrative units would pay nothing for the conversion.

▼ A concept image of Ariake Arena

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Aside from beautifying the city in time for its influx of foreign travelers and media outlets, proponents say that moving the power lines underground, and thus removing the poles holding them up, will make it easier for the disabled to navigate sidewalks. And while overhead lines are more resilient in the event of floods and landslides, should a major earthquake strike the capital, toppled power poles could prevent emergency response vehicles from quickly reaching victims and others in need of assistance.

However, the conversion would be neither cheap nor simple. Removing power poles isn’t just a matter of knocking them down like Godzilla (even if the King of the Monsters does now reside in Tokyo). The expenses of reinstalling the power lines underground have to be added on top of those for clearing away the old infrastructure, and the preexisting mass of subterranean water and gas pipes doesn’t figure to make the process any easier. Many power poles also double as street lamps. People may not like the idea of electric lights on Mt. Fuji, but they’ve sort of grown accustomed to having them in downtown Tokyo, so after the power poles are removed, new, less obtrusive lighting fixtures would need to be put up.

Altogether, it’s estimated the project would add 17.5 billion yen (US$147 million) to Tokyo’s 2015 budget alone, meaning that its cost may end up being as much of a hurdle as anything athletes will be jumping over at the 2020 Olympics.

Source: Tokyo Shimbun
Top image: FC2
Insert images: Nifty, Tokyo 2020 Olympics official website