Years ago I was tinkled by a cyclist on the sidewalk outside the student dorms at Shida. In response, I engaged in my version of what soccer goalies call “making yourself big” — deliberately positioning my body to obstruct passage. Why? Well, for one thing I am just awkward, but also because Taipei is such a horrible city for pedestrians that I cannot abide people encroaching on what limited space we have.
This incident occurred shortly after I had done my 50cc scooter license test. In Taiwan that is 100 percent written. In addition to learning that poorly dressed motorists sully national pride and that it is poor form to splash pedestrians on rainy days, I confirmed that bicycles were not allowed on sidewalks.
By an extraordinary and extraordinarily satisfying coincidence, I had a printout from the Department of Transportation Web site in my backpack to corroborate this when the tinkler argued to the contrary. Flabbergasted, as I brandished the document, he latched on to the Asahi tallboy in my other hand. “You’re not allowed to drink beer in the street in the US,” he retorted with magnificent irrelevance.
The effort to turn Taipei into a cycle city has borne fruit.
The Guardian ran a piece called “Return of the Bicycle Kingdom? How pavement cycling is transforming Taipei” on Tuesday last week that focuses on the initiatives that have shot bicycle usage figures for the city way past those of New York and London. The author of the article, Nick Mead, who was in town for this year’s Velo-city Global Conference, heaped deserved praise on the YouBike system and the riverside cycling paths.
He also referenced a threefold increase in cycle lanes within three years, though the caveat that this extra space would be on the sidewalk and, thus, taken from pedestrians was telling. Another interesting figure was the 386.24km of sidewalk that is now apparently open in its entirety to cyclists.
Rereading the piece at a cafe, I smelled something dodgy, and it was not the flaccid scrambled egg. The author’s description of a short jaunt around Taipei gave the impression that sidewalk cycling is legitimate pretty much anywhere. This raised questions.
First, considering most cyclists — and certainly most YouBikers — stick to the sidewalk as it is, giving official sanction to the practice seems redundant. Also, why bother creating more separate lanes on the sidewalk if swathes of it are already available to cyclists?
I called the Taipei City Government to find out.
“I don’t know,” I was told after sustained prevarication. “You can ask the police.”
By the time I had impressed on her how unimpressed I was with this answer, demanded something better, then been subjected to several loops of mandopop Muzak, my 10 minutes was up — this being the maximum time allotted for each inquiry. I went to the local police station for some communal recrimination.
As far as the police were concerned, riding on the pavements is illegal anywhere in Taipei, though they were not prepared to be quoted on that.
“Who knows,” the junior officer said. “The city government will probably blame us for their mistakes.”
The following day I happened to be close to City Hall and decided to pin someone down on this.
After some false starts, I found the Department of Transportation office on the sixth floor of the northwest wing. After some preliminaries, I was directed to the subdivison chief Ryan Lin (林俊源).
“Nick?” he asked as we sat down at a desk in a corner of the cramped office.
“Erm, no, James.”
Suddenly I twigged: Mead, the author of the Guardian article. It turned out Lin had met him during the Velo-city event.
It took a minute to confirm that, aside from signposted dual-purpose pedestrian areas and clearly demarcated sidewalk bicycle lanes, cycling is not permitted on sidewalks in Taipei.
Relating my hitherto fruitless investigations, I observed that considerable confusion over the regulations remained.
“Thanks for clarifying,” he said.
Someone obviously gave Mead the 386.24km figure, though I have yet to have anyone confirm this.
As far as the Taipei authorities are concerned, there has been no change in the regulations governing riding on the sidewalk.
On the face of it, this is welcome news. I certainly found the claim disconcerting, which is one of the reasons I decided to find out.
However, laws continue to be flouted, and in all my time in Taipei, I have yet to see a police officer taking a transgressor to task.
When I asked police if they ever took action, they shrugged. Sidewalk cycling is unofficially and tacitly accepted.
Little wonder Mead might have come off with the impression that it was fair game citywide, a notion of which none of his local guides seems to have attempted to disabuse him.
After all, why confuse our foreign guest with legal technicalities, especially when they might tarnish the image of Taipei as a city where everything proceeds with the utmost smoothness and harmony?
Although he admits that there is “potential for conflict,” Mead writes that he did not encounter any during his short visit.
“Riding on the pavement feels 100 percent safe,” he wrote, though he did addend the telling proviso “for the cyclists at least.”
Within this seemingly innocuous disclaimer lurks the kernel of the issue. I can well believe that Mead did not see any antagonism. Taiwanese are, in general, incredibly easygoing and nonconfrontational. However, a lack of remonstration by pedestrians should not be taken as indicating an open-armed embrace of sidewalk cycling.
In fact, a Department of Transportation survey from last year suggests at best, a grudging acquiescence: Well over a third of non-cyclists cite sidewalk riding as the most annoying “misbehavior” by cyclists.
When failure to stick to designated paths is factored in, the figure rises to more than 58 percent.
Of course, the survey hinges on a presupposition that respondents are indeed irked by some aspect of cyclists’ behavior. Still, it is obvious that more than a few people have their reservations.
I am one of them. Contrary to Mead’s depiction, there are parts of town where people whiz along the pavement with absolutely no concern for others. Stepping out from the arcade areas in Taipei, where the pillars of the overhang render a pedestrian blind, can be a risky undertaking.
As was pointed out in these pages by Lolita Hu in 2013, “might makes right” has long been the guiding mantra for motorists in Taipei. That this extends all the way down to the bullying of pedestrians by cyclists is ever more apparent.
Widening sidewalks to add bicycle lanes to them is one thing, but permitting — legally or otherwise — Taipei’s sidewalks to become a free-for-all is simply dodging the problem.
The dangers of Taipei’s roads are often raised in mitigation by sidewalk cyclists, many of whom have no such quandary about flying around the city’s clogged thoroughfares on scooters. Yet, is there any real difference between these two unprotected vehicles in the event of a broadsiding?
As a cyclist, I respect Taipei’s effort to get people onto bicycles. As a pedestrian I am dismayed that appropriating pedestrian space is considered a viable variable in the equation.
Trumpeting an increase in cycling space that is predicated on fleecing pedestrians is analogous to abducting babies from abroad then heralding a boost to domestic birthrates.
Rather than trying to fudge the figures, Taipei should be working harder to get cars off the road, cracking down on the idiotic driving that plagues the city and encouraging assertive, confident cycling on roads.
James Baron is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.
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