TAIPEI: Riding Toward a More Liveable City

TAIPEI: Riding Toward a More Liveable City
Credit: TUBA

What you need to know

In 2016, Taipei hosted the world’s premier cycling conference and plugged bike-commuting as a green transportation option. Two years on, is Taipei any closer to emulating cycling capitals around the world?

Street-smarts, gumption and a dollop of luck are part of the basic arsenal for bicycle-commuting in Taipei.

For expatriate Adam Graudus, his daily commute is a 30-minute endurance event involving boorish scooter and bus drivers, as well as obtuse general motorists.

“Drivers, scooter riders in particular, don’t indicate or look before switching lanes, or backing out of parking spaces. And buses cut in sharply to make a stop even though it means obstructing my lane,” says the video producer, who’s been bike-commuting in the capital for three years.

“In 2016, I was sideswiped by a driver who changed lane without indicating whilst exiting a bridge off Bade Road. We agreed not to file a police report because I wasn’t seriously injured,” says Graudus, adding: “Last year I was knocked over by scooter driver who made a sudden left turn.”

And that's just the physical danger – the city’s air pollution also made Graudus fall ill a couple of times.

On the flipside, the 27-year-old lauds the city’s river bikeway network, which provides well-maintained and congestion-free routes to Taipei’s nooks and corners.

“Also, people here are quite encouraging of cyclists, giving you the thumbs up or a jiayou (加油) [literally "give it gas"] – just for making the effort to cycle on the road. It’s quite a contrast with my bike-commuting experience in the UK,” he adds.

Taipei’s transport vision

Two years ago, more than 1,000 mobility experts, urban planners, activists and academics from 43 countries descended on Taipei to present case studies and bounce around ideas at the Taipei Velo-city Global conference.

Initiated by the European Cyclists’ Federation (ECF) in 1980, the Velo-city Global conference series is designed to plug cycling as a sustainable mode of transport for a livable city. Previous host cities have included London, Vienna, Barcelona, Vancouver and Adelaide. Taipei holds the honor of being the first Asian city to host the conference.

ECF cited Taipei as “a great example of cities who put people at the centre of their development plans.” It helps that Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) is a passionate cycling advocate and completed a round-island bike tour, covering 380 km in 20 hours, to kick off the conference.

Credit: Bike2Work
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-Je (柯文哲) stopping for coffee to support Bike2Work.

Taipei’s public bike-share system is referenced by other Asian cities, from Singapore and Beijing to Shanghai and Seoul, who have sought to set up similar bike-share programs. With a daily turnover rate of 8.3 trips per bike and 200,000 users per month, usage figure for YouBike matches the world’s best.

And women make up 50 percent of the cycling population – a gauge of the city’s cycle-friendliness.

A 2014 ECF report shows cycling mode share (percentage of total trips done by bicycle) in Taipei stands at 5.5 percent. In comparison, mode share figures for American cities with populations over 1 million hovers below 2 percent (2016 American Community Survey Data Report), and at a mere 2 percent in London (Travel in London Report 10). But bikes account for more than 50 percent of trips in cycling utopias like Copenhagen and Amsterdam.

At Velo-city 2016, Taipei Deputy Mayor Charles Lin (林欽榮) pledged that by 2020, commutes via green transport should account for 70 percent of all trips in Taipei, with cycling accounting for 12 percent.

“Taipei’s transport vision is driven by the integration of bicycles with buses, the Metro and walking to boost mobility; transport is about moving people, not cars,” he added.

As Velo-city buzz fades, how has Taipei fared?

For starters, the city’s mobility vision isn’t about creating a bike-commuting capital. Cycling is part of a whole ecosystem that shapes a liveable, safe and inclusive city, Taipei City Government’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Commissioner Tiger Chen (陳學台) tells The News Lens.

“I used to think we should just construct bike lanes to promote cycling,” says Chen, who bike-commuted for four years at his previous office. But on a recent work trip to the Netherlands, Chen changed his rationale.

“Taipei’s environment and context are so different from Holland’s. Their population density is low, the country’s terrain is flat and the temperate climate is conducive for cycling, even in winter or summer,” he elaborates.

“What we need to push is not long-distance bike commuting but to cycle the first or last miles of a commuter’s journey, and the ability to transfer seamlessly between the various modes of public transport.”

By design, Taipei adopts a multi-pronged approach: from improving cycling infrastructure and upping bus rapid transit service to carving out more pedestrian-friendly streets and subsidizing users’ public transport expenses.

From 214 stations and 7,000 bikes in 2016, YouBike now has 400 stations with 13,000 bicycles. Taipei’s bike lane network currently totals 502.7 km (from 498.4 km in 2016); including 86.4 km of designated bike lanes, 304.3 km of dual-use sidewalks and the 112 km-river bikeway. In 2016, the city announced plans to build an additional 192.9 km of bike lanes by 2019.

From April 2, MRT passengers are allowed to board with full-sized bikes during weekday off-peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) with the exception of busy stations like Taipei Main Station and Zhongxiao Fuxing. Previously, full-sized bikes were only allowed on board on weekends and public holidays.

But do more bike lanes attract more cyclists? A common gripe among cyclists using sidewalk-placed bike lanes is the risk of running down pedestrians. Either from ignorance apathy or the innate human impulse to walk between white lines, some pedestrians tend to gravitate towards the bike lanes.

Yet bike lanes serve a purpose for inexperienced bike commuters, according to Chan Kai-Sheng (詹凱盛) of cycling advocacy group Taiwan Urban Bicycle Alliance (TUBA).

Credit: Taiwan Urban Bicycle Alliance (TUBA)
Chan Kai-Sheng (詹凱盛) of cycling advocacy group Taiwan Urban Bicycle Alliance.

“Segregated bike lanes give commuters a sense of security and they serve as a gateway for the regular bike-commuting,” says Chan, one of TUBA’s founders. Debuting at Velo-city 2016, TUBA was formed by a band of zealous cycle commuters to make cycling more visible in the city. To date, they’ve organized a series of cycling-related events like Bike2Work, Critical Mass, Ride of Silence and the Criterium Bike Race.

TUBA brings cyclists together within an organized platform to hash ideas, initiate projects, engage the government and make cyclists’ voices heard. For example, Chan represented TUBA in the Livable and Sustainable City Autonomy Regulations Draft public hearing and raised the point that bicycle traffic was not listed in the plan.

Grassroots movement

One of their most successful initiatives is the Bike2Work campaign. Founded by TUBA member Pu Chen (陳濮), Bike2Work set up coffee booths at various strategic locations in the city center every Friday morning. Volunteers make and give out free coffee to bike commuters, gather cycling data and propagate road safety. From one location in February 2016, the campaign had expanded to 12 locations by December 2017 when the Taipei City government stepped in to fund the project.

Credit: Bike2Work
Taipei bike commuters receive free coffee courtesy of Bike2Work.

“We see more and more people making the effort to bike-commute on Fridays just to be part of Bike2Work,” says commissioner Chen. “We would love to work more with and support NGOs like TUBA.”

From the Bike2Work surveys, TUBA identified areas with high bike-commuting frequencies like Zhishan, Neihu (內湖陽光) and 城中 (the intersection of Wuchang St. and Zhonghua Road and the neighborhood of Ximen) and proposed ideas to improve cycling infrastructure. The number of Taipei bike commuters has increased steadily. For example, data from December 2016 and December 2017 shows an increase of 10 percent of commuters in Xinyi area and 34 percent at City Hall.

“We received lots of positive feedback from the public and identified three main reasons why Taipei folks bike-commute: out of habit, for exercise and convenience,” says Chan, a 38-year-old software engineer. Bike2Work has garnered more than 1.3 million Facebook and over 850,000 Instagram hits.

“We want to show city folks there are many modes of transport, not just cycling,” adds Chan. “If a motorist tries bike-commuting even for just one day in a year, he can see a cyclist’s perspective. It’s about cultivating mutual respect among road users.”

Not all cyclists are rule-abiding, courteous citizens either. In a survey by DOT on cycling safety, nearly 40 percent of pedestrians complained about cyclists who ride on arcades or sidewalks, and 20 percent of respondents abhor cyclists who weave in and out of traffic or ride outside of designated cycling lanes.

But more importantly, the city government is increasingly engaging cyclists and treating cycling as a rightful mode of transport.

“City Hall is starting to clarify traffic sign rules and introduce regulations about riding on sidewalks, how cyclists should behave and trying to push for child bike seat regulations,” Chan says.

Credit: TUBA
TUBA organizes events designed to inspire greater participation in cycling, including this mobile bike DJ at a Critical Mass event.

Plugging green mobility

TUBA’s survey revealed that a common commuting mode for Taipei residents is a combo of YouBike, MRT and bus. In line with the city’s transport vision, City Hall runs campaigns like Green Transportation Day (綠色運輸日) to push green mobility.

In 2017, Taipei rolled out five new “Main Line” buses that connect the city’s arterial roads. These buses run at four-to-six-minute frequency with an average waiting time of five minutes. This April, an additional 11 bus lines will be rolled out.

Starting April 16, commuters can purchase a 30-day “All Pass Ticket,” at NT$1,280 (US$44) for unlimited rides on MRT and buses, and free use of YouBike for the first 30 minutes. Commuters can enjoy discounted fares when they transfer between Youbike, MRT and bus. Under the city’s Neighborhood Environment Enhancement program, 324.2 km of green pedestrian lanes have been carved out in secondary streets.

In 2016, the percentage of public transit user stands at 42.8 percent, and 60.4 percent including cyclists and pedestrians, according to DOT.

Policy and education

Post Velo-city, the Taipei City government added “safety” into their main transportation policy slogans: “green,” “share,” “intelligent/smart.” Although 2017 traffic fatality statistics shows the lowest figure – 65 deaths, in the last 10 years; 90 percent of the fatalities involved those aged between 18 to 25. And as of 2016, motorcycles accounted for 58 percent of traffic fatalities within Taipei city. In Taipei and the metropolitan areas, motorcycles outnumber cars by more than two to one (there were 3.14 million motorcycles versus 1.47 million cars in 2017).

“Our most pressing issues are traffic congestion, air pollution and road safety,” admits Commissioner Chen. “There are just too many private vehicles on the road.”

Emissions from motorized vehicles (dubbed “mobile pollution sources") are the main source of air contaminants in urban areas, severely impacting air quality and public health, according to a report from Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). Advocating bike lanes and subsidizing the purchase of electric auxiliary bicycles are some of the measures proposed by the EPA to control “mobile sources of air pollution”

In recent years, the city has reduced parking spaces for motorcycles, eradicated free parking for cars and introduced parking fees for motorcycles.

Pushing for active mobility and public transport is not enough, according to Professor S.K. Jason Chang (張學孔), the director of Advanced Public Transport Research Center at National Taiwan University.

“The city government needs to come up with a clear policy to manage private cars and motorcycles, and provide incentives to promote the use of green energy,” says Chang, also an adviser to the Taipei City government on the policy and planning of urban development and mobility.

“Smart City equals livable city. Unless your population, the elderly and kids can safely walk across the street and your kids can enjoy the alleys or sidewalks without worrying about safety, and our traffic fatality rate is reduced by 50 percent, we are not qualified to be called a Smart City.”

Educate, educate, educate

From the various initiatives and projects implemented since Velo-city taipei, the city government seems to be on the right track, but Chang thinks more resources should be spent on education and awareness campaigns for road users.

“Education is daily work – you can’t take one shower every three months and stay clean. It’s a behavioral and cultural change,” he adds. “We need to run a series of programs to educate on appropriate interaction and manners among road users and manage the conflicts between cars, motorcyclists, bicycles and pedestrians.”

As bike-commuter Graudus sums up: “In the UK, the biggest issue I had with motorists was people deliberately trying to run you off the road because you are a cyclist. Here, it’s a lot less malicious and more about people just not thinking about what they are doing on the road.”

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Editor: David Green