Pollution and Industrial Smog Cloud Taiwan's Bicycle Paradise

Pollution and Industrial Smog Cloud Taiwan's Bicycle Paradise
Photo Credit: Reuters/Richard Chung
What you need to know

Taiwan's ambitions to be a cycling paradise are blighted by industrial eyesores and local governments that turn a blind eye to polluters flaunting regulatory loopholes.

With the annual bicycle festival right around the corner, the Tourism Bureau is again hard at work pumping Taiwan's place in the bicycling universe with lofty powder-puff pay for play articles that seek to lure potential cycling tourists to our shores in search of a life of exotic adventure in the timeless swirling mists of the Far-East.

By the beginning of October the official Tourism Bureau budget is ripe enough to fete cycling writers and bloggers on managed tours of Taiwan's hand picked cycling monuments, which all seem to rest amid the swelling bosom of tourism furniture — hotels, hot springs, knick knacks, food...etc...or they serve to validate government expenditures on infrastructure like meandering bike paths or bike-share programs that mainly cater to students. The copy retains a familiar form along the official Tourism Bureau talking points listed for each writer to earn airfare and a travel stipend. We see glowing reviews of "the Bicycle Paradise" or the cute moniker "the Cycling Kingdom" with its knowing wink to King Liu, the figurehead of Giant Manufacturing Co, Ltd. the maker of several branded bicycles and components.

Take these examples:

"Premier Mao stated that he envisions Taiwan becoming a “cycling paradise,” and relevant strategies are necessary to achieve this vision". --Executive Yuan (2015)
"Combined with the country’s natural splendor with advance infrastructure i.e. good roads, Taiwan makes an ideal destination for cycling. Due to its vast infrastructure budget spent by the government for the maintenance of its roads, Taiwan altogether has over 3,000 kilometers of road network making it a paradise for cycling enthusiasts to venture within." --Arabian Gazette
"Over the last two decades, Taiwan has transformed into a cyclist's paradise, opening thousands of kilometers of interwoven bikeways through some of the island's most beautiful landscapes. The extensive new network of routes has earned the country many accolades, including a spot on Lonely Planet's 2012 Best Countries to Visit list and CNN Travel's top "Cycling Routes That'll Take Your Breath Away," and for good reason. By bike, visitors can cruise past hillsides painted with colorful flower farms, marvel at the geology of Taroko Gorge's marble walls, follow old rail lines through retired mining tunnels, cross thrill-inducing suspension bridges and sample sweet pineapple cakes from local farm stands."--Smithsonian

They get the swirling mists, but of a more ominous variety. Don't get me wrong. Taiwan is an amazing place to be a cyclist. I have ridden through the valleys of awesome. I have seen inspiring things that I can't fully describe and have gloriously suffered in ways that only a cyclist with a love for the ride can fully comprehend. It is not that I don't like Taiwan or that I don't want people to cycle Taiwan. My complaint is quite the opposite. I love Taiwan and I love being a cyclist here. I want riders from around the world to embrace this country like I have. I want them to speak of Taiwan cycling with the reverence of the old European routes. I really do. And too often Taiwan gets in its own way of making good on its claims. I too often feel embarrassed for the people who have read my writing and taken the plunge to visit for a ride only to find their routes choked with pollution levels too dangerous to cycle without tempting asthma. I am embarrassed by glistening natural vistas marred by the industrial blight of smoke stacks, cement factories or the rotting concrete shell of a failed mega-resort. In Taiwan we almost get it right so often and we have a lot of potential, only to overdevelop our way into having all the charm of a shopping mall food court. I wrote about this issue back in 2015. I am writing about this issue today.

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Credit: Taiwan in Cycles
A postcard highlighting how polluting industry often spoils Taiwan's claim to be a biking paradise.

The leading culprit in ruining the Taiwan cycling experience is the pernicious air quality. There is no way to escape it. I might lose more than a month of riding each year due to air quality. During the dry winter months the air can be especially noxious.

In a recent article, Taichung City Mayor, Lin Chia-lung ( 林佳龍) states his strong support for cycling as an integral part of the central city's identity with a commitment to cycling infrastructure.

Mayor Lin indicated that cycling enthusiasts are in for a treat, as the festival features exciting events including Giant Cup, Taichung Cycling Tour and Wheels Ride Festival Taiwan, encompassing activities such as self-challenges and family cycling recreation. Moreover, the century-old Tour de France will be hosting the L’Etape du tour” in Taiwan for the first time on September 17, making cycling an integral element of Taichung City’s brand. The city government strives to expand city diplomacy and forge sister city ties by continuing to create cycling-friendly environments and fostering the cycling movement. --Taichung City Government

This is one face of Lin Chia-lung. The other is of a glad-handing politician eager to garner support from the industrial sector in his bid to woo industrial production facilities to Taichung and push Taichung further over the threshold as Taiwan's second largest metropolitan area.

In addition, Mayor Lin made some noises last April to the tune of reducing pollutants by 40 percent.

In an exclusive interview conducted by “YAHOO TV! Weather Risk” at the Taichung City Government Building, Mayor Lin suggested that the air quality of Taichung has been improving in the last five years. The content of PM2.5 was 22.8μg/m3 last year in average, which was a decrease of almost 40 percent from the level of 35μg/m3 in 2011. There are several sources of pollution, including the exhaust from motor vehicles, carbon black from kitchens, uncovered construction work sites, or open-air combustion in addition to the emissions from power generators.--Taichung City Government

A problem with these claims is that they rely on Taiwan's Environmental Protection Administration, which has long been rumored to be in the pocket of industry and politicians. Polluters are even allowed to report their own numbers. Even the scale of measurement was adjusted to suit Taiwan's higher levels of pollution.

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Credit: Taiwan in Cycles
Taichung is particularly prone to ride-forbidding smog.


In a piece I wish I had written myself, blogger Michael Turton from The View from Taiwan outlines why Mayor Lin may be just paying lip service to the environment.

The midnight spike in air pollution [can be seen using] the app airvisual. In the Taichung area, the app usually shows a spike, a small one, between midnight and 2 A.M. Why? Because factories in Taichung are quietly dumping pollution into the air in the wee hours to avoid EPA fines. I've come to dread Sunday nights because the factories on the hill below our house frequently dump foul-smelling shit into the air.

Turton's speculation is supported by the data. It appears factories and the infamous coal-fired power plant in Longjing spend the wee hours ferociously pumping out pollution that often lingers around the Taichung Basin throughout the day before wafting southward. The thought may be that people are either sleeping or indoors working while the pollution levels spike.

In a 2015 report on the impact of air pollutant on human physiology, National Taiwan University released the following report and recommendation:

Vice-Dean Chan noted that Taiwan’s annual PM2.5 standard of 15 µg/m3 is much higher than the World Health Organization suggested concentration of 10 µg/m3 . Traffic is the major source of air pollutants in Taipei, whereas in central Taiwan, fine particles are produced primarily by thermal power plants. Urging authorities to take more proactive actions against air pollution, Chan emphasized the importance of setting emission standards according to the human capacity instead of industrial development. Prioritizing health over development, emission standards should be set by the Environmental Protection Administration in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Welfare, and not, as in the present, with the Ministry of Economy.

It is a sad irony that a country that so badly wants to be taken seriously as a "paradise", enough to make such grand and public proclamations of the sort, can be simultaneously working so hard to hinder positive development in realizing the cycling fantasy. Air pollution can be hard for a cyclist to escape. Even from the highest peaks the views that memories are made of are often obscured by a yellow-white haze. Nobody should be expected to come to Taiwan and enjoy cycling through Venus.

It is not only the air that interferes with Taiwan's desire to become a cycling paradise. Too often unchecked and unregulated development in sensitive natural and ecological areas serve as a regular reminder to visitors of the blight of concrete and development. The shell of the nearly complete but wholly illegal Miramar Resort in Taidong is the perfect poster child of overdevelopment. Another shameful monument to industrial blight is the Asia Cement Factory near the mouth of the famed Taroko Gorge on Taiwan's east coast. Taroko Gorge is the natural monument that frames Taiwan's KOM Challenge, the world renowned one-day cycling race from the ocean to 3,275m. Not only is the Asia Cement Factory and mining operation an eyesore in a sensitive area, it was also built on a site that was procured through deceptive and illegal means.

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Credit: Taiwan in Cycles.
The Asia Cement Factory near Taroko Gorge in Hualien is an eyesore on one of Taiwan's most beautiful landscapes.


A fantastic paper, "Making Indigenous Lands into ‘concrete’: land grabbing in the embededness of cement industry in Taroko area, Eastern Taiwan" by Yung-ching Lo (羅永清) concludes:

Taiwan experienced rapid economic development in the 1970s and 1980s and it inspired an entire development discourse on the ‘Taiwanese miracle’ (Simon 2002). As Simon’s article ‘The Underside of a Miracle: Industrialization, Land, and Taiwan's Indigenous Peoples’ has pointed out, this view overlooked three important facts that should be taken into account when examining the development in Taiwan. First: rapid development was made possible largely by an oppressive regime of martial law that quelled worker unrest. Second: development took place at immense social and environmental costs. And finally, those costs have been disproportionately borne by Taiwan’s indigenous peoples.

These factors place an enormous weight on the ethnical shoulders of a visiting cyclist. As the cycling world converges on Taroko to close out Taiwan's international cycling season this October 20th, with some of the biggest names in the sport attending, they will not only be faced with Taiwan's immediate beauty and serious climbs, but they will also see the cost of the Taiwan industrial state apparatus.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I produced the protest postcards that accompany this article. They are a reminder of the gulf between our reality and our fantasy as a cycling paradise. Too much work needs to be done before our officials and representatives can even begin to stake authentic claims to be "a cycling paradise". The pressure to change needs to remain constant, even on days when the air clears. This is not how I want Taiwan to be remembered.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this blog from Taiwan in Cycles, a Taichung-based blog dedicated to exploration, analysis and critique of Taiwan’s bicycle culture.