The Planned Expressway to Taipei Would Be a Disaster

The Planned Expressway to Taipei Would Be a Disaster
Photo Credit: CNA
What you need to know

Stopping the Danbei road project will contribute more to the goals of building a sustainable city than all of New Taipei’s plans combined.

Decades of evidence show that new freeways don’t fulfill their promises of relieving or solving traffic congestion. Yet Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Agency still approved plans for a new four-lane highway to be built along the Tamsui River.

New Taipei City officials such as mayor Hou Yu-Ih want residents to believe the project, called the Danbei Expressway (淡北道路), will be an exception to the history of failed road expansions. But the project virtually ensures that more cars will come into Taipei — a city whose roads do not have more space for car traffic or parking. 

Not only will the road fail to solve congestion problems. It will irreparably harm the city by setting back its environmental goals and cutting off access to the river.

Failure on its own terms: Increasing car use and congestion

Private cars are one of the least space efficient ways to move people in dense cities. Like any major road building project, the Danbei Expressway encourages car use. The stated goal of the project for reducing congestion is geometrically impossible given the space constraints at the end of the road — Taipei. 

When it comes to road expansions, induced and latent demand are two well-known concepts that help describe what happens with new road projects. New road capacity encourages more residents to drive their existing cars more often (latent demand) and purchase new cars to take advantage of new infrastructure (induced demand). 

Expensive roadway expansion projects in Los Angeles and Houston exemplify this vicious cycle of transportation planning. Expansion typically returns a roadway to pre-congestion levels, and in the case of Los Angeles it only took one year for evening commute traffic to be worse than pre-project levels. However, the negative impact to Taipei traffic could be felt immediately as the narrower, existing roads at the end of the project would have to cope with a new funnel of car traffic coming from Danhai New Town.

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Image Credit: Jeffrey Tumlin, Nelson\Nygaard
An assault on public transport

Taipei’s former director of transportation, Pu Da-wei (濮大威), argued against the project, saying that it goes against the government’s “mass-transit first” policy.

Quality public transportation makes city life possible. There's no question that Taipei Metro has become a part of the cultural fabric of Taipei. Stations are hubs of activity, and the MRT system map, both existing and planned routes, exerts great influence on where residents choose to live, work, and go out.

RELATED: Return to Basics: Redesigning Taipei's Metro Map

The space efficiency of transit means that there’s more room for parks, sidewalks, and homes, versus the alternative of wider roads and parking lots. The affordability of transit means greater access to education and job opportunities for the economically disadvantaged and those who are unable to drive (especially Taiwan’s growing aging population). Mass transit moves large amounts of people without contributing to the significant health costs of air pollution and vehicle crashes.

The Danbei road project is not a one-time cost, but one that future generations will be saddled with as they have to pay for the negative health and environmental externalities. Funds spent on the maintenance of the road and its indirect costs would be better spent improving and maintaining mass transit. 

The importance of riverfront access

Taipei’s riverside remains a unique and cherished greenspace for city-dwellers and visitors alike. The Danbei road project would cut through the Tamsui River Mangrove conservation area — an area that not only hosts birds and crabs but also a trail for pedestrians and cyclists to pass through and enjoy the natural sights. 

In recognition of the negative feedback loop of continually increasing congestion that comes with building new highways, cities around the world have actually been removing and converting highways.

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Photo Credit: stari4ek@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Cheonggyecheon, Seoul

Paris converted the highway along the Seine into a popular pedestrian and cycling space. San Francisco and Seattle both used to have elevated freeways blocking the city from their respective waterfronts and have replaced them with boulevards with pedestrian promenades. Seoul’s former congested Cheonggyecheon expressway was demolished and replaced with bus rapid transit and a popular park. In contrast to 1950s American-inspired planning that prioritized suburban commuters, many cities have been working instead to repurpose their road space in a way that contributes to local quality of life. 

Even Taipei has joined the trend by removing elevated highways on Chongqing South Road in 2019 and Zhongxiao Road in 2016. In the space previously taken by Zhongxiao Road there is now a landscaped plaza around the historic Beimen (North Gate) landmark and a much more pleasant pedestrian environment around the railway museum that opened this year. Chongqing Road will soon have wider sidewalks and cycle space. Previously both these landmarks and all the buildings around the road were obscured by the elevated highway structures. 

Bogus public relations behind the project

Ironically, New Taipei has been on a blitz promoting their sustainability goals on a slick website that is supposed to show how New Taipei’s initiatives align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Increasing car trips is, not surprisingly, at odds with the spirit of multiple SDGs such as SDG 11, sustainable cities and communities, and SDG 12, responsible consumption and production.

To address environmental and traffic criticisms about the project, New Taipei officials claim they will work on adding more sustainable transit infrastructure to Provincial Road 2 once the Danbei Expressway is complete. Realistically, it will be just as difficult to improve Provincial Road 2 due to the political barriers present today for the Danbei Expressway. 

While inaction on climate change is always easier, New Taipei should take the high road and spend money improving transit today or reducing the cost of commuting with public transit even further than the current 1280 NT transit pass. Stopping the Danbei road project will contribute more to the goals of building a sustainable city than all of New Taipei’s plans combined. 


READ NEXT: OPINION: Taipei’s Monthly Transit Pass Is Too Expensive 

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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