Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 8 News List

Returning Taipei to its early vision

By Bret Hinsch

This change would put the city’s priorities in line with other Asian metropolises. Even in Bangkok, which has a far less developed urban fabric, the sidewalks are not crammed with scooters. In other Asian cities, car drivers and scooter riders are expected to park in indoor garages. This custom makes perfect sense. Taipei should learn from the example of other major cities in the region, none of which caters to parked vehicles as much as Taipei.

Many people will defend the status quo by saying that they like getting around town by scooter because it is so convenient. However, scooters are only convenient because the government makes them so.

Of course if you misuse sidewalks by turning them into scooter parking lots, getting around by scooter is the best option. However, the price we all pay for catering to scooters is a badly degraded urban environment. The same is true for abusing the streets as automobile parking lots.

Convincing people to change ingrained habits for the sake of fuzzy ideals like quiet, beauty and order is an uphill battle.

However, there is a clear practical reason why Taipei should return to being a city centered on bicycles and pedestrians: money. Catering to bicycles happens to be the fastest and easiest way to stimulate an urban economy.

Last fall the New York City Department of Transportation released the results of a detailed study analyzing the economic impact of a bike path on Ninth Avenue between 23rd Street and 31st Street, one of the first protected bike lanes in Manhattan.

The study compared retail sales along the stretch of street before and after the bike lane was installed. The difference was dramatic. In the year after the protected lane opened, businesses along the route reported a 49 percent increase in sales, as opposed to a 3 percent increase for New York City as a whole.

Another research project compared spending by people who get around Manhattan’s East Greenwich Village by car versus bicycle. The results of this study were similar. Those who travel by car spent an average of US$111 per week in the neighborhood as opposed to US$168 spent by those on bikes.

If we stop to think about these figures, they make perfect sense. When a driver wants to buy something from a store in downtown Taipei, this usually involves parking illegally in front of other parked cars, a red line, fire hydrant or wheelchair ramp. A guilty conscience, not to mention the fear of being towed, discourages leisurely browsing.

Because shopping downtown is so inconvenient for drivers, they are more likely to patronize big box stores in the suburbs that offer plenty of parking. In consequence, downtown retail activity ends up diminished.

As the New York studies have shown, when roadside parking spaces are converted into protected bicycle paths, it becomes convenient for cyclists to stop, browse and buy in their own neighborhood.

Put simply, cars suck money out of downtown while bicycles keep money close to home. If parking places for cars and scooters are converted into protected bicycle lanes and pedestrian thoroughfares, this will not only foster far more pleasant surroundings but also produce a much more economically vibrant downtown.

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