Friday, July 1, 2016

Overseas Adventures: Transporation Culture in Taiwan

My grandfather turned 90 this year and my family decided that we were all long overdue for a trip to see him at his home in Taiwan. It has been some 15 years since I visited the tiny island where my parents grew up and I was born. My last trip was a two-week stay where I mostly spent time accompanying my grandparents on their early (4:30 AM kind of early) morning walks at the local athletic complex and visiting with a few aunts, uncles, and cousins. At the time, my views on transportation were still very much car-centric and going to Taiwan always meant an opportunity to experience some interesting cars that we will never see here in the US, mostly because we will likely never see a return of Renault or Peugeot to the American market. However, as my views on transportation have evolved with time, the things that caught my attention when I visited Taiwan this time were rather different.

For a tiny island that is smaller than alpine nation of Switzerland in geographic area, Taiwan houses a population not much smaller than that of the entire continent of Australia. Packed into dense coastal cities, including the capital city of Taipei, and filled with sub-tropical forests and mountainous terrain running through its center, Taiwan has a colorful history and faced a number of unique challenges to keep up with economic development in Asia. Once a bastion of semi-conductor manufacturing and design and still home to design and manufacture of many major mobile device and bicycle makers, Taiwan has proven itself capable of borrowing the best ideas from the countries around the world to help drive its transportation renaissance, leaving quite the impression on me during my recent travels.

While my wife and I were staying in Taipei, a tightly packed metropolis with nearly 3 million residents (almost the same number as the city of Los Angeles), we quickly found that getting around the city was a breeze. The Taipei MRT system, a combination above and below ground subway, offered clean, comfortable, and timely transit between many key areas of the city. Access to the subway came courtesy of the EasyCard, an RFID based system that could be swiped to enter and exit subways stations. Fares were a paltry NTD$16, approximately $0.50 US, to most places and the most expensive ride we took the entire visit came to no more than NTD$28, which is less than $1 US. With stations readily available near our home base in town along with just about everywhere we wanted to visit, getting around was superbly pain free.

When the MRT was not an option for any reason, we soon discovered just how versatile the EasyCard really was. In addition to paying for the MRT, the bus system also used the EasyCard system and allowed riders to pay their fares using the same card. Bus routes criss-cross the city and run with great frequency throughout the day to popular destinations. In some tourist spots outside the major city, buses were a better means of getting around than renting a vehicle or requesting a private driver. Since mobile phones are as prolific as people, apps are plentiful that show bus schedules and upcoming arrivals for all public transit, making it easy to plan out routes throughout the day.

And if a bus could not get you where you wanted to go, the EasyCard could be used to pay for many taxis throughout the city, requiring just a tap once at the start and again at the end of the ride. Taxis were certainly plentiful and the majority of them were spacious and all of them were clean. Drivers we encountered tended to be elderly men of retirement age who mainly drive part-time to supplement their pensions and most knew the city's labyrinthine streets well enough to sneak us through even the most intense traffic jams.

Another alternative that took full advantage of was Taipei's bikeshare system, known as UBike, which also conveniently accepts the EasyCard. Simply use any of the kiosks to enroll up to six EasyCards along with any mobile phone number to get started. Tap the EasyCard to a dock to unlock a bike; ride it around town in the many available bike lanes or on the wide sidewalks; return the bike to another dock and tap again to end the ride with any fees automatically deducted from the card balance. Don't want to share a bike with others? No problem. Purchase a bicycle from any number of shops around the city and ride it around at your leisure, knowing that there is almost always a bike rack to lock up at, especially around MRT stations and petty theft is extremely rare. Many stations even provide multi-level bike racks to maximize bike parking.

The absolute ubiquity with which the EasyCard is accepted is a huge leap ahead of nearly any other city's infrastructure and is what makes Taiwan's transportation infrastructure feel light-years ahead of what we have here in the US. To add even further to that perception, the EasyCard is accepted all over the island and could be used to pay for purchases in all kinds of places, including at vending machines in the airport. Even better, the card can be replenished at any of the ever-present convenience stores that seemed to be more ubiquitous than Starbucks. That sort of flexibility means adoption is nearly universal and even as tourists, it makes sense to spend the NTD$100 (about $3 USD) to acquire an EasyCard just to make it genuinely simple to get around.

Even getting from one end of the island to the other proved extraordinarily convenient and straight-forward. Taiwan's High Speed Rail (HSR) runs from Taipei in the north straight to Kaoshiung in the south and is a fast and comfortable way to get to just about any major city along the island's western corridor. The HSR travels at nearly 300 kph and is based on technology developed with assistance from Japan's famed Shinkansen bullet train creators. All-electric, super smooth, and super quiet, the train whisked us from Taipei to Chiayi, a distance of 125 miles or so, in just over an hour and a half, with multiple stops along the way. That same distance, done in Amtrak's antiquated rail system, even using the faster and more costly Acela Express, takes about 15 mins longer despite fewer stops. Best of all, a one-way ticket costs around $30, compared to the $75 for standard tickets on the Northeast Regional and close to $100 each way on the Acela Express. And while this is one of the few times that the EasyCard is not accepted, those very same convenience stores where you can refill your EasyCard also have kiosks to sell HSR tickets. You can also purchase online and download your ticket to your smartphone.

Of course, infrastructure is only a part of what makes for a successful transportation network. Since Taiwan's population is immensely dense, there are still a lot of cars on the streets. Private citizens have no real restrictions on car ownership, aside from the fact that the streets of Taipei lack parking and thus finding a place to safely leave your car long-term can be a challenge. To help accommodate that, automated parking structures have popped up in tons of places all over the city. These structures, many barely wider than a car, fill in many of the nooks and crannies between the numerous mid-rise buildings that seem to make up much of Taipei's residential housing. Some are entirely automated, requiring no human intervention while others are manned by a single attendant, but all of them help meticulous car owners to avoid the possibility of having their car damaged by others since the automated parking structures eliminate the possibility of door dings and make theft a lot less plausible.

And in Taiwan, people who have cars tend to treat them well because cars are comparatively expensive. The median household income in Taiwan is significantly less than it is in the US while cars end up costing close to the same as they do in the US. That means people who can afford a car have worked hard to save up for them and people go to extreme lengths to protect their investment. With the traffic and difficulty of parking, compact and mid-size cars are easily the most popular, especially given that Taiwan levies a fuel charge based on the vehicle's engine displacement. Still, there is a fair amount of wealth being thrown around and there certainly was no shortage of flashy supercars cruising the streets. There was also no shortage of luxury car makers represented, including a lot of Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes cars. Sadly, the domination of CUVs has spread to this tiny island as the number of compact CUVs, including the Honda CR-V, Lexus NX, and MB GLC, was shocking.

But with limited space, traffic is a problem. During rush hour, roads are clogged with hundreds upon thousands of private cars, taxis, and scooters. In fact, scooters seem to be pretty much everywhere that you see: lined up on sidewalks both legally and illegally parked, wiggling their way through traffic, the sound of their tiny lawnmower sized engines screaming away as they struggled up to speed. Full-size motorcycles were rare and large displacement bikes, like my BMW K1200S, were basically non-existent. Scooters are so overwhelmingly prevalent that the roads are even configured to make it easier for scooters to execute safe left turns. There are "bike boxes" at nearly every major intersection where scooter riders and bicyclists can safely come to a stop to make a left turn without needing to cut across multiple lanes of traffic. The whole scheme is so brilliantly simple, it makes me wonder why we have not adopted it here in the US?

However, as present as all of this motorized transportation is, the real brilliance to Taipei's transportation culture is that there is a logical progression of access. Nearly everyone walks nearly everywhere to start. Students learn from a young age to walk to and from school, relying on public transit if they are going extended distances. Those that are slightly older ride bikes all the way through college, where cycling is considered a completely normal form of transportation. Young adults with their first jobs might get a scooter to use on their daily commute or enjoy on weekends, but few can afford a car. And it isn't until typically well into their working lives that people are able to purchase a car. As people age, they tend to decide that they do not want to deal with the hassle of traffic and return to relying on public transit and walking. This progression means that everyone experiences all of the major modes of transportation throughout their lifetime. It makes them uncharacteristically aware of the dangers that each mode experiences when they intertwine on city streets and therefore, people are much more patient, if not also much more courteous.

Unlike in the US, where, as a pedestrian and cyclist, I frequently have run-ins with aggressively impatient drivers who come uncomfortably close at absurdly high speeds even in crosswalks and around bike lanes, drivers in Taiwan tended to creep slowly around pedestrians crossing the street or cyclists riding on roads. They still enter a close proximity, but because their speeds are low, it tends to not come across as being aggressive. Even in situations where my senses were alert due to a potentially risky encounter, the drivers tended to deescalate by being apologetic rather than confrontational. This sort of engagement feels refreshing, especially given that traffic in Taipei can be on par with traffic in LA, except with roads designed for much smaller vehicles.

To say the least, there is much to admire about how different Taiwan's transportation culture is compared with most major cities in the US. Despite having experienced public transit in many different places in a variety of different states, none of them have left me with the same kind of powerful impression as I got from just a week in Taiwan. The key difference is the level of convenience and integration. No US system I have used has allowed me to transition so seamlessly between so many different forms of transit without needing to switch to a different form of payment. No US system makes it so convenient for me to replenish my payment card. No US system is so well integrated that no matter where I travel in a state, I can use the same form of payment everywhere I go. This unprecedented kind of convenience coupled with well thought out planning and well executed infrastructure is what sets Taiwan apart in my mind. Add to that a very different attitude about providing a safe environment for pedestrians and cyclists, and it should be clear why I left with such a positive impression.

There is a genuine opportunity for American cities to look to a place like Taiwan to find ways to improve the quality of life of its citizens. It will likely take a generation or two for America's car-centric culture to catch up to the more multi-modal future that seems to be the trend overseas, but I believe that with the right kind of guidance, we can catch up to the rest of the world sooner rather than later.