Returning Taipei to its early vision

By Bret Hinsch  / 

Tue, May 28, 2013 - Page 8

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.

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.

Taipei’s original city planners had a workable vision for this city. Our challenge now is mustering the will to live up to it.

Public enthusiasm for the YouBike rental system shows that Taipei’s residents love getting around by bicycle. We should make the most of this zeal. Turning street and sidewalk parking into paths for bicycles and pedestrians will transform long stretches of urban dead space into a valuable economic asset.

Bret Hinsch is a professor of history at Fo Guang University.