Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Returning Taipei to its early vision

By Bret Hinsch

No city is frozen in time, and Taipei has changed faster than most. When I first lived in Taipei for a year back in 1985, it was a grimy and unpleasant place. My memories of that time include packs of mangy dogs and rickety buses spouting clouds of leaded black exhaust.

Who could ever have predicted that Taipei would become what it is today? In the past few decades the city has been transformed, having been reoriented around an exemplary MRT system. Embracing public transit has been the most obvious cause of the city’s makeover.

However, in spite of all the recent improvements, Taipei still has a long way to go to realize the city’s full potential. Residents must look toward the future and ponder the next stage of urban metamorphosis.

Anyone comparing Taipei to Tokyo, Hong Kong or Seoul will immediately be struck by one glaring idiosyncrasy that mars the city. Unlike people in other major East Asian metropolises, Taipei’s residents use streets and sidewalks as parking lots. Wandering down an alley in Tokyo, one is struck by a sense of both deja vu and novelty.

A typical Japanese alley feels very similar to an equivalent space in Taipei, albeit with one major difference. Unlike Japan (or any other premier city in the region), Taipei’s alleys are inevitably clogged with cars and scooters, marring the urban landscape with a dense vehicular mess. The plague of parked vehicles also afflicts large streets and sidewalks.

In the Japanese colonial era, cars and scooters were a rarity in Taipei. Because Japanese planners designed the city as a place for pedestrians and bicycles, the layout of Taipei is ideal for making it a low-carbon city. However, since the 1950s, the Taipei City Government has repudiated the city’s original vision and given priority to motor vehicles. Although previous generations thought that turning Taipei over to the automobile was progress, it turns out to have been a colossal blunder. As the number of cars and scooters has grown, Taipei’s narrow streets have devolved into a tangled knot of traffic jams and tightly parked vehicles.

To improve Taipei’s thoroughfares, we should start by asking a fundamental question: What are streets and sidewalks for?

Prior to the 1950s, the sidewalks were intended for people and the streets for bicycles. However, in recent decades, sidewalks have become scooter parking lots while the adjacent streets are now lined with parked cars. The price of Taipei’s embrace of the internal combustion engine has been high. Many parts of the city are now unpleasantly loud, congested, polluted and unsightly.

The best way to solve these problems is not by doing something new, but by reviving the city’s original plan.

To solve today’s problems, Taipei should reclaim its urban DNA by turning away from cars and scooters and using urban spaces as they were originally intended. However, if Taipei is to resurrect bicycle transit, cyclists will need a safe place to ride. Most people will not dare to cycle on busy streets unless they have protected bike lanes. However, where will the city put them?

Fortunately, there is already plenty of space for cyclists and pedestrians. If the city prohibits on-street parking for cars, an extra lane will be opened up for bicycles on both sides of every road. And clearing parked scooters from the sidewalks will encourage people to navigate the city by foot. Simply put, Taipei should stop being a warehouse for parked vehicles and instead become a more dynamic place dedicated to people in motion.

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