FEATURE: Taipei’s transportation system bridges barriers

EXTRA WHEELS::Taipei residents, including those with physical challenges, no longer endure endless waiting or major doubts when taking a city bus

By Lee Hsin-yin  /  CNA, with staff writer

Sat, Dec 18, 2010 - Page 2

On a hot summer day 13 years ago, Huang Chun-nan hoped to take his son to the Taipei Zoo by bus. For most city residents it would have been a straightforward task, but for Huang, who has been wheelchair-bound since childhood, the outing turned into a nightmare.

He was hoping to catch the small No. 277 wheelchair bus that ran only twice a day to his destination, and when he saw the bus approaching, he put his son on his lap to get ready to get on.

“But apparently the bus didn’t see us and rushed past. I pushed my wheelchair really hard to try to catch it, because it was our only hope to get to the zoo,” Huang said.

“But we failed, and I was so disappointed and frustrated by the incident that it still lingers in my mind today,” a distraught Huang said. “I didn’t want my son to suffer from my disability because he deserved to have a happy childhood like other children.”

The incident left Huang scarred, but for him and many others in the country who have fought similar obstacles, their constant struggles may soon be a thing of the past, especially in Taipei.

The city’s government is gradually building a more barrier-free transportation system with “smart” features that have not only greatly improved the quality of life for people with disabilities, but also shortened the distance between people.

One of its most important initiatives, launched in 2001, was the introduction of low-floor buses, equipped with ramps and extra space inside to accommodate wheelchairs.

A total of 600 of these buses will be in service in Taipei by the end of this year, and that number will rise to 1,000, or one-quarter of all buses running in the city, by the end of next year, said an engineer with the Taipei City Department of Transportation who is surnamed Liu (劉).

More importantly to many wheelchair users, 26 city bus routes will exclusively operate low-floor buses by the end of this year, providing a degree of predictability that has never existed before.

“We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback,” Liu said. “The Ministry of Transportation and Communications decided to provide another NT$170 million [US$5.6 million] in November to rehabilitate 100 older low-floor buses.”

Huang said the buses have provided welcome relief. No longer feeling rushed when a bus driver pulls over, he said he has made friends with many people during his travels because everyone wants to offer help.

“I remember one time when a man volunteered to help me with the driver and all of a sudden the kids from Nangang Vocational High School on the bus began clapping for us,” Huang said.

The city also has a fleet of wheelchair vans providing door-to-door service for 32,000 passengers a month, which has grown to 152 vehicles today from 130 at the beginning of the year.

Pao Wei-yao, who has driven a wheelchair van for eight years, said he has been inspired by the passion for life shown by some of his passengers.

“A regular customer of mine who suffers from cerebral palsy always brings me an extra breakfast and reminds me to watch my health and eat on time,” Pao said.

The city also has a fleet of 3,000 taxis dedicated to serving senior citizens and the physically and mentally challenged that has handled 680,000 passenger trips since the program was launched last year.

Aside from its emphasis on barrier-free vehicles, the city has introduced what it calls an “advanced traveler information system” (ATIS), featuring “smart” technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS), which have been installed throughout the transportation network.

Lu Hung-wen, who is visually challenged, said his world has been made better by the GIS-assisted audible system on city buses.

“Back when there was no automatic announcement saying where the bus was as it moved, I had to count off each stop silently to figure out when to get off,” Lu said.

To alert visually impaired travelers waiting at a stop that their bus is arriving, 193 buses have been equipped with speaker systems broadcasting drivers’ announcements that they’re pulling in.

Similar smart devices have also been extended to regular crosswalks in the city, with signaling systems emitting sounds that tell the visually impaired whether it is safe to cross the street or not.

The magic of ATIS, according to Liu, is that people with disabilities are now able to determine and control their journey.

“Everyone can check the whereabouts of our buses online, anywhere at anytime,” the engineer said. “Taking a bus no longer means endless waiting, major doubts or trying one’s luck.”

The Web site is www.-taipeibus.taipei.gov.tw, which can be more easily accessed by entering “5284” when using Internet search engines. The number sounds like “I love bus” in Chinese.

Huang said that Taipei City residents have risen to the challenge, and he said the transportation network’s continuing emphasis on accessibility has connected him to others in a way that has brought down some of the social barriers thath he and other people with disabilities have faced.

“I’ve gotten to know people whom I never would have had the chance to know otherwise, and I believe it’s the same for them,” Huang said.