For cyclists in Taipei, two things changed this weekend. On Saturday, the Taipei MRT system opened 12 more stations to cyclists and their bikes, bringing the number of stations with bicycle access up to 27 of the 69 stops. Then, on Sunday, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) announced new traffic rules for cyclists on city streets that will take effect at the end of this month.
The city's growing population of cyclists will no doubt welcome the chance to board the MRT with their bikes at more stations. Cycling has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years and this enthusiasm is as apparent in the heart of the nation's congested capital as anywhere.
On weekends, bike paths along the city's riverside parks draw cyclists of all ages. There is no doubt that the city has responded well to increasing interest, and its expanding network of bike paths has proved a popular investment.
Unfortunately, Taipei's bicycle infrastructure seems to revolve around one word: recreation.
Taipei's interest in cycling has a lot of potential. The nation's greenhouse gas emissions are climbing at a disturbing rate. At the same time, higher oil prices have brought down fuel sales as more people opt to leave their motor vehicles at home. Gasoline sales dropped 7.9 percent in January compared with last year, while passenger traffic on Taipei's MRT rose 7.4 percent. Reducing dependence on oil supplies and cutting the number of cars on Taipei's crowded streets is good news for a country that is having a difficult time cleaning up its act.
But in this context, biking -- a cheap and clean mode of transport -- remains a highly unattractive alternative for getting around the city, and officials have done little to coax cyclists out of the parks.
The MRT system remains closed to cyclists on weekdays and none of the major streets has bike lanes. Those taking Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) trains into the city cannot bring bikes at all -- unless they are taken apart or folded. And while the administration will allow passengers to carry bicycles onto the trains for a trial run on Saturday, details of the scheme suggest that the TRA is hoping to tap into the popularity of recreational cycling, rather than promoting bicycles as an alternative mode of transport.
Measures that treat biking as a mode of transport are few and far between. But the MOTC's new regulations are at least an indication that officials are giving some thought to the matter.
The regulations will require bikes sharing the road with motor vehicles to follow traffic signs and lights. In addition, the ministry said bicycle crossings would be added at intersections -- as bikes may not use crosswalks -- and cyclists would be allowed to park their bikes in spots previously reserved for scooters.
But if biking is to gain ground as a common way of getting around -- as it has in many northern European cities -- officials will have to do more than offer the occasional piecemeal change in policy. The city needs a clear map to harness a well-timed trend and wean more residents off gas-guzzling vehicles.
Taipei's officials should be assessing the obstacles to this and promoting bikes as a viable option. The MRT system will expand considerably in the next few years, hopefully further reducing congestion in the streets.
With the right infrastructure for cyclists and increased access to the MRT, getting around town with nothing more than a bike and an EasyCard could become a practical alternative for many commuters.
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