OPINION: Taipei Should Have a Car Free Day

OPINION: Taipei Should Have a Car Free Day
Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

Taipei and Taiwan's other cities would benefit enormously from a few days break from the tyranny of the gas-guzzling automobile.

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Winter is coming, and with it arrives a thick layer of particulate matter, nitrous oxides, and harmful ozone emissions.

Those living in central and southern Taiwan are more than familiar with the inevitable decrease in air quality that starts around November of each year. Indeed, the air quality index reached “red” – unhealthy for all people as prescribed by the World Health Organization (WHO) – 470 times in the year 2017.

While many say this points to a marked improvement in air quality – 997 unhealthy days were recorded in 2015 – 470 is still a lot more than zero.

Particulate matter (PM) is one of the main culprits contributing to poor air quality, particularly PM 2.5, which is small enough to embed itself deep inside our lungs and even invade our bloodstreams.

Not only does PM 2.5 aggravate medical conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, it can also increase mortality from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Indeed, the WHO estimated that PM 2.5 emissions accounted for 3.1 million deaths globally in 2010.

Contrary to the popular narrative that blames Taiwan’s air pollution problem on wayward Chinese emissions, an estimated 60 percent of emissions are generated right here in Taiwan. Of these, a staggering 30-37 percent comes from transportation.

In order to combat this, the Taiwan government is working to push people into adopting electric vehicles, with plans to replace all petrol-powered city busses with their electric counterparts by 2030 and completely outlaw the sale of motor vehicles by 2040.

While this is certainly a big step in the right direction, nudging people out of their reliance on motor vehicles and onto a bicycle (or their own two feet) would have an even greater effect.

Taiwan’s infrastructure ignores pedestrians

While public transportation accounted for nearly 42.8 percent of daily trips in Taipei in 2016, this percentage plummets to just 18.1 percent when factoring in all of Taiwan – with just 11 percent of commuters walking or cycling across the nation, according to a Department of Transportation report.

Safety is a major reason many people choose driving over walking, cycling, or riding public transportation. Taiwan has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities in the developed world, with nearly 4,000 deaths recorded in 2016 – of these fatalities, 43 percent were pedestrians.

More importantly, cities in Taiwan are just not built for walking. Sidewalks are the unofficial parking lot for scooters, and many shop-owners set up tables, chairs and product displays in the area that is supposed to be reserved for pedestrians.

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Credit: Google Street View
Read More: Pedestrian Nightmare: No 'Refuge' on Taiwan's Dreadful Crosswalks

The boundaries of pedestrian-only paths and precincts are also widely ignored by motorists.

This has the short-term effect of forcing pedestrians and cyclists into traffic in order to complete their journey – and the long-term effect of pushing them off their feet and into private vehicles.

Going car free improves air quality and encourages sustainable behavior

Every year, cars are virtually wiped off the streets of Israel as citizens celebrate Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar – resulting in a remarkable 70-99 percent decrease in nitrous oxide pollution throughout the country.

When streets in Los Angeles blocked access to motor vehicles during the city’s CicLAvia events, PM 2.5 emissions fall by over 50 percent, while Paris slashed nitrous oxide emissions by 20-25 percent after banning cars from some of the city’s main arteries.

However, the unofficial award for ‘most impactful car-free event’ goes to the historic Haenggung-dong neighborhood of Suwon City, South Korea. The neighborhood banned cars for an entire month, moving parked cars to designated areas outside the neighborhood and encouraging residents to walk, cycle or ride public transportation.

A year after the event finished and cars returned the neighborhood, residents could not wait to force them out again – and voted to permanently ban motor traffic on weekends.

Cars have monopolized public space in Taipei for far too long

Walking through the streets of Taipei can range from frustrating to overwhelming. Sometimes you find yourself on a narrow sidewalk, stuck behind a trio of grandmas holding umbrellas, while other times you feel as if you’re being pressed from all sides and have no choice but to shuffle along with the rest of the crowd.

Weekends offer little respite from the stifling congestion, as public parks fill to absolute capacity – to the point where children are forced to line up for the swings at Da'an Park and are limited to five-minute “swinging sessions”.

Demand for public space is clearly not being met, but not because Taipei lacks the space. It’s because an obscene amount of public space is off-limits to pedestrians.

Cars have held a monopoly on public space for far too long – the City of London determined that 80 percent of its public space is sacrificed for the sole use of cars, either parked or moving – and it’s starting to take its toll on public health, air quality, and those poor children at DaAn park who have to line up for the swings.

With one of the world’s best public transportation systems and a large group of people who are ready to embrace some extra breathing room, Taipei is perfectly poised to go car-free – and there is no reason the rest of Taiwan shouldn’t follow close behind.

Read Next: Taiwan's Road Safety Reports Mask a Worsening Record

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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