The air is fresher, the birdsong that much clearer, families stage picnics on once bustling city center roads. Rejoice! For it is Car Free Day and Taiwan has been liberated from the tyranny of the internal combustion engine.
Did you not notice? Are the eight-lane-wide streets that carve their way through cities nationwide not choked up with exhaust-spewing vehicles?
The reality — as evidenced by the continual traffic jams and eye-watering smog — is that Car Free Day remains very much on the peripheries of modern life. It lives in well-meaning events that garner limited press coverage and generate sloganed T-shirts.
This is not to laugh at, nor dismiss, the actions of those who seek to improve the world, but to question why governments do not throw their weight behind this fantastic idea. Today — and only today — Shifu Road and the plaza in front of Taipei City Hall are closed to traffic. It is wonderful this is happening. The pleasure, camaraderie and community that people, families — even pets — will feel as they recreate and enjoy life in the very same space that is monopolized 364 days a year by the instruments of mass death — the oil-guzzling vehicle — is impossible to quantify.
Yet, while mass public transportation and pedestrianization of city centers — in conjunction with the humble bicycle — could transform the nature of modern city living, most metropolitan environments are choked up with traffic.
Why so? For sure, rising standards of living and disposable incomes gave vehicles like the scooter the kick-start they needed. In post-war Italy, bomb-damaged cities were perfect territory for the nimble Vespa and since that two-stroke took hold, it has never lessened its grip.
Likewise, the scooter in Taiwan offers a cheap, relatively fast way to move about the urban landscape and since the mid-1970s the number of motorized two-wheelers zooming along the nation’s roads have increased sevenfold. In fact, despite having a population only one-fifth that of Japan, a study by the Eastern Asia Society for Transportation Studies shows that Taiwan had roughly 11.5 million scooters compared with Japan’s 14.5 million. That means there is nearly one scooter for every other man, woman and child in Taiwan.
In part, this can be explained by greater levels of wealth, but it is also linked inextricably to government policy. In the US, home to the gas-guzzling vehicle and the environmentally destructive mindset that justifies its use, the legacy of government and auto industry back-scratching is most evident. US automaker General Motors, tire manufacturer Firestone and hydrocarbon major Standard Oil — among others — bought over 100 tram system operators after World War II in 45 US cities and then ripped up the tracks, dismantled the electricity lines and turned the routes into oil-consuming bus operations.
Despite being environmentally friendly, trams in the US remain a quaint, largely tourist-oriented reminder of a bygone age. Even to this day the US auto industry is actively involved in lobbying the political process. In 2009, US automakers spent more than US$50 million lobbying Congress, and provided a further US$15 million in campaign contributions.
The problem of cross-contamination is not limited to the US political process. Under the supposedly left-of-center Labour Party government in the UK, the then-deputy prime minister was referred to as John “Two Jags” Prescott on account of the pair of luxury Jaguar limousines he had at his disposal. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), for his part, is seldom seen without his cavalcade of vehicles. What would it take for this man, who professes on his Web site “to look after the interests of the underprivileged and preserve the natural environment,” to go to work by MRT, or better still, bicycle?
On this special day, there is the chance to reflect. Is Car Free Day the result of the largesse of our political leadership or has it burst forth through the hard work of those people campaigning to save the environment? Groups like London’s Reclaim the Streets who occupied arterial roads in the UK capital and converted them into temporary playgrounds, San Francisco’s Critical Mass cyclists who go on mass “ride-slows” at rush-hour through the city, Thailand’s I Bike Bangkok, who live by the mantra “a cyclized city is a civilized city.”
Yes, commuters are frustrated by these flower-loving hippies who are stopping them from getting home after a day’s work, but changes involve sacrifice. No doubt, people trying to get home after a grinding day at the office in Yangon were inconvenienced by the thousands of monks who took to the streets in a spontaneous uprising in August 2007.
Today is Car Free Day and that calls for celebration. Yet, given the realities, how can anyone really celebrate? Cars continue to kill and maim thousands on the roads of Taiwan, while scooters continue to emit their two-stroke fumes, park in walkways, scream out their exhausting sounds and zoom into pedestrian space — all the while guzzling down the precious hydrocarbon resources that ensure Taiwan remains reliant on old-school fuel and helps to drive us all toward environmental catastrophe.
Greenpeace International director Kumi Naidoo, when viewing the rapidly melting north pole, recently said: “This is a defining moment in human history … In just over 30 years we have altered the way our planet looks from space … Fossil fuel companies are still making profits despite the fact that climate change is so clearly upon us.”
We are all culpable for the demise of the planet, but by accepting our role in the problem we can also embrace our potential to be part of the solution.
Sam Sky Wild is a copy editor at the Taipei Times.
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