In this week’s edition of his weekly online video, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said Taiwan should have its own “Tour de Taiwan” bicycle race — though it already has one — and that he would like to see more people cycling. Taiwan is one of the world’s major bicycle manufacturing bases, so why shouldn’t it be among the top markets?
Cycling cuts fuel use and pollution as well as boosting health. Many will be happy to heed the president’s call to cycle more often. Time will tell if the government’s good intentions are realistic, but several problems demand attention before Taiwan can become a cycling mecca.
Over the past few years, local governments have built more than 1,100km of bicycle paths, and there is NT$3.8 billion (US$116 million) in funding available to construct a further 1,500km. Most of these routes, however, are for tourism, not commuting. For example, bicycle routes on each side of the Tamsui River (淡水河) are popular with cyclists on weekends and on weekday evenings, but their isolation makes them impractical for commuting or shopping.
Taiwan is densely populated and its narrow roads crowded with vehicles and pedestrians. In most places it is not possible to allocate a separate lane for different vehicles. An example of this is the bicycle route recently established on Taipei’s Dunhua N Road. City government planners marked off a section of the slow lane for use by cyclists only, prompting complaints by motorists and scooter riders that there was less space. At the same time, cyclists complain that the route is poorly designed and often blocked by parked cars and scooters, as well as by buses and taxis that stop for passengers. Dunhua N Road is one of the widest arteries in downtown Taipei. There will be even more complaints if bicycle routes are established on narrower roads.
The problem is that the government has not defined the status of cyclists among road users. In many countries, bicycle routes are part of the sidewalk, marked off with white lines from the part used by pedestrians. While these countries see cyclists as akin to pedestrians, Taipei categorizes bicycles as vehicles. But because bicycle routes can’t be fully separated from the rest of the road, different kinds of vehicles are bound to get in each other’s way.
Most of these problems can be avoided by good planning and communication. Unfortunately, the government began construction without public hearings to find out what cyclists needed and without informing local residents. This is a classic example of how government agencies under Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) authority fail to respect and communicate with the public.
Instead, “experts” with paper qualifications formulate plans behind closed doors. The results are projects that look impressive on paper but are rather less impressive in reality — the reconstructed Yuanhuan traffic circle, the Maokong Gondola and the MRT Neihu Line among them. The Dunhua N Road bicycle route looks set to join this inauspicious list.
Before compounding the problem by building more poorly planned routes, the Taipei City Government should learn what cyclists actually need. Planners need to properly define the status and rights of cyclists among road users and improve route design, otherwise the Dunhua N Road experience will repeat itself all over the country — and Ma’s dream of a cycling paradise will fall flat.
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