I am enamored with Taiwan’s high-speed rail, the professionalism and efficiency of the whole operation and the courtesy of its employees toward a foreigner like me, who looks lost, even when I am not. I especially love the convenient direct connection between the terminal station in Taipei and the subway lines.
And, as regards Taipei’s subway, who — coming from New York City, like me — would not find it a positive dream, a marvel of perfection?
Americans could definitely learn a few things about advanced transportation systems if they came to Taiwan and had a look around. I do not travel around Taiwan that often; but when I do, I cannot get over the intelligence with which bus lines connect with rail lines, both link with the high-speed rail — and the airport fits seamlessly into all this.
The expressway system here astonishes me as well — especially when I drive along National Highway No. 6 high above the mountains on my way to Puli, where I work.
When it comes to transportation, there is so much that Taiwan gets right. However, the problem in the part of Taiwan where I live comes when one arrives at a destination and steps out of the car, off the bus, the train or the high-speed rail: There is no place to walk.
Do not get me wrong. There are sidewalks — if you know where to find them. However, they are not, by and large, along the streets in cities or towns.
The campus of Chi Nan University, where I work, is close to the town of Puli. I once made the mistake of setting out for a walk from Puli to the campus. I ended up on a four-lane highway, without even a hard shoulder where I could dodge the giant gravel trucks. This is an area of Taiwan toted as a tourist destination — and there are no provisions for pedestrians. It is absurd. It is the same everywhere in this part of Taiwan.
Yes, I have learned to get around by braving the open streets with their speeding motorbikes. However, I cannot help but wonder why such an intelligent a place as Taiwan has not yet figured out that the lack of sidewalks makes the urban landscape less interesting and less workable. Every restaurant or business wants what people in New York call “walk-ins,” customers who happen to be passing by on the sidewalk, discover the place of business and come in.
Without sidewalks, this does not happen so often. Has nobody in Taiwan heard of Jane Jacobs and her discoveries of what makes city neighborhoods work?
Does nobody in these cities and towns care to get that wonderful street life, throbbing with vitality, that makes the urban scene such an unending adventure?
You see things on foot that you cannot see when in a vehicle. The experience of a place is entirely different. The street comes alive and business establishments become more inviting.
Pedestrians are the lifeblood of a place. Walking is a joy. The sidewalk in New York is a marvelous ribbon that can carry you in a thousand different ways through the same system of streets, so that the journey is never the same, it is always different — and you are enriched each time in a new way.
A transportation system that ignores walking makes little sense — especially as scientists now know how essential walking is for good health. It it is unhealthy to sit in a vehicle and it places the population at risk of a wide variety of ailments.
The medical costs run up. Unlike vehicles, pedestrians do not pollute. They do not require parking spaces. They do not make noise. They do not jar the nerves. To achieve a truly world-class and outstanding transportation system, Taiwan’s next step should be to create sidewalks.
William R. Stimson is a writer based in Taiwan.