On Thursday last week, Premier William Lai (賴清德) announced plans to cut air pollution, with a target of halving the annual number of air quality red alert days by 2019. This policy focuses almost entirely on vehicles, which are an everyday part of ordinary people’s lives.
The government plans to get rid of 1.5 million two-stroke motorcycles and scooters by 2019. It plans to replace all gasoline-powered motorcycles and scooters with electric ones by 2035 and do the same for cars by 2040. It does not rule out reinstating a license tax on motorcycles and scooters with engines of less than 150cc, which the Ministry of Transport estimates would generate annual revenue of NT$5 billion (US$166.84 million).
Whether such dramatic changes in the kinds of vehicles used could cut air pollution would depend on whether other business sectors join the effort. To see the real problems, we have to look at the market aspect.
A few years ago some local governments gave out electric scooters to village and borough wardens, but the program ran into various hitches, such as difficulty charging batteries, a lack of horsepower, expensive maintenance and repairs, and the fact that electric scooters were not fit to ride on steep mountain roads. It is not much use if a mail carrier cannot deliver the mail because post office vehicles are not up to the task.
There are more than 10 million scooters and motorbikes in Taiwan. What if they all need to have their batteries charged? Charging a battery is more trouble than filling a tank with gasoline.
Besides, there are other problems to be overcome, such as transforming filling stations into charging stations and establishing safety standards by 2035.
Another key issue is price. Even if Taiwan’s car and motorcycle makers can change over to making electric vehicles by the government’s deadlines, the first concern for the public and companies is the cost–performance ratio.
If technological breakthroughs lead to electric vehicles performing as well as gasoline-fueled ones, and if scooter shops all over Taiwan could offer reasonably priced and convenient maintenance and repair, then it might be feasible.
However, if this does not happen, it would cause a lot of trouble for people living in central and southern Taiwan and isolated rural areas, who mostly depend on scooters and motorcycles for transport. If the changes raise the cost of providing goods and services, those costs will be transferred to the customer.
There would be changes in the price of farm produce, e-commerce delivery charges, mail delivery costs, and bus and taxi fares. In turn, this would push up the prices of everyday commodities.
The planned changes could even mean that the powerful vehicles needed to transport equipment for public engineering works would not be available.
If all these problems coincide with continued low-wage economic conditions, they would lead to an indirect effect on prices. Are the government and public ready for these effects?
As for the transport ministry’s plan to reinstate the license tax on motorcycles and scooters with engines of less than 150cc, if it is done according to the “user pays” principle, then so be it, but there is bound to be a storm of accusations that the government is grabbing people’s money.
It is also far from certain that this measure could really get masses of scooter riders to switch to public transport.
The further south you go, the harder it would be for people to make such a change and when one considers that people in southern regions tend to have lower incomes, it would also lead to poor people getting fleeced.
Chang Hsun-ching is a writer.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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