Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: In Taipei, technology trumps safety

There is some back-slapping going on over at Taipei City Hall following the introduction of the "e-bus" system. The changes offer real-time data and updates on bus schedules and arrival times, as well as access to the information via cellphone and the Internet.

Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) promoted the changes in old-fashioned style by arriving at the press conference on a public bus. This theatricality suggests that Hau is beginning to warm to his mayoral duties.

But it also appears that Hau doesn't make use of the city's bus network very often -- if at all. If he did, he might feel a little embarrassed that such high-tech baubles are being given priority over the fundamentals: passenger safety and comfort.

However pretty the flashing signs erected at bus stops and whatever number of megabytes of data can be downloaded, the reality is that the quality of greater Taipei's bus services has, overall, stalled or deteriorated -- with some bus companies noticeably worse than others.

When President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) served as Taipei mayor, changes were made that greatly increased the quality of public transportation. Dedicated bus lanes were introduced and drivers were required not to cram passengers into their vehicles. Over time, drivers became more professional, more courteous and more respected.

Over eight years in office, Hau's predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) let these standards slip. While some of the companies purchased new buses and trained drivers to respect passenger needs, others failed to continue the momentum achieved under the Chen team.

Today, regular users know that taking a bus involves any number of irritants: rude drivers, fatigued drivers (many work 12-hour shifts, which is illegal in other countries), drivers who skip stops, reckless drivers (note the number of drivers who grip a bar to their right with one hand as they steer), drivers who continuously brake and accelerate to maintain speed and drivers who ignore the fact that passengers have to hold on for dear life to avoid falling over.

As for road quality, some bus lanes are so pot-holed and bumpy that the minimal shocks on some buses cannot cope -- yet there is no sign that drivers care about these problems, nor that the government is even aware of them.

The buses themselves in some cases are cause for concern. It is not clear how well the vehicles are maintained, but it is very clear that poor road quality is taking its toll on some of them, while other -- brand new -- vehicles are manifestly unsuitable for passengers who cannot nimbly climb three, four or five steps before finding a seat.

But of the greatest concern is the number of drivers who seem oblivious to the needs of the elderly, the infirm and small children. All too often the bus user will watch as the elderly board a service and rush to the nearest seat or otherwise struggle to find their balance as the driver lurches off.

All of this is a matter for training and random inspections. The city government seems to attach little importance to either of these essential tasks.

Until such time that the city government can serve the practical, day-to-day interests of its voters, distraction by high-tech products and services that add little real value or convenience to public transportation will be the order of the day.

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