Traffic congestion is always a problem over the Lunar New Year holiday. The Ministry of Transportation and Communications has announced how it intends to address this, but there are few changes, for the highways at least, from last year. There will be toll-free travel from midnight until 7am, as well as incentives rewarding carpooling during this period. To reduce traffic through the Hsuehshan Tunnel, which comprises a section of Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Freeway (Freeway No. 5), the National Freeway Bureau has said anyone taking the alternative Taipei-Yilan route (Provincial Highway No. 9) has a chance to win an iPad.
The government lacks a comprehensive, consistent and uniformly applied public transportation policy, and public modes of transportation account for only 20 to 30 percent of intercity travel. Even between major urban areas and peripheral regions, such as between Taipei and Taoyuan, or Greater Taichung and Changhua, fewer than one in five people travel by public transport. It’s the same even in metropolitan areas with mass rapid transport systems. In the greater Taipei area, less than one-third of people commute by public transport, despite the MRT system.
These numbers fall far short of the targets in other developed countries, which aim for at least 60 percent utilization. Given their emphasis on green issues and environmental protection, these countries have prioritized the development of an effective public transport policy. Japan and Hong Kong managed this many years ago and now boast usage rates of 80 percent and more. In South Korea, the figure is 65 percent.
To achieve this, the ministry and the governments of all five special municipalities need to work together to create quality public transportation — convenient to use, but also green. By “quality,” I mean one in which spatial and temporal uncertainties of the journeys are reduced to a minimum, based around some form of main line, such as an MRT or a tram or bus network. It is important that this core system be seamless and reliable, with good connections to other branch lines, organized in an intuitive way. The system has to be quick, with frequent services, enabling passengers to control the time a given journey takes.
A passenger-centered, green transportation policy requires rewarding the use of public transport and controlling the use of private vehicles.
Given that we cannot reduce the number of people traveling on the Chiang Wei-shui Memorial Freeway, the intercity link between Taipei and Yilan, over the holiday, we need to reduce the amount of vehicles on the roads. The government could increase the cost of using private cars, while providing more public transportation and reducing ticket prices, as well as providing free shuttle buses and transfer services, to make it quite evident that public transportation has clear advantages. This is the only way it can entice people to start using public transport, albeit gradually.
For this Lunar New Year, the government should announce that only vehicles whose registration plate numbers end in an odd number will be allowed on the road on odd-numbered days, while those ending in an even number will be allowed on even-numbered days. This will encourage people to plan their journeys in advance and cut the amount of traffic during rush hour. In future Lunar New Year holidays and long weekends, the government should consider abolishing nighttime toll exemptions and implement disincentives for using private cars during peak times, like increasing toll charges during these hours. Any resultant increase in revenue can be put into a fund earmarked for improvements to public transport.
The toll-free period implemented in recent years was initiated to improve traffic flow during the lunar holiday. However, it will invariably end up causing congestion anyway, as the road widens on the approach to the toll stations before narrowing again, causing a traffic bottleneck.
Another problem is that drivers, already pushed for time during the New Year break, try to take advantage of the toll-free period and drive through the night. Tired, and perhaps not as cautious as they should be, the likelihood of accidents increases.
Next, there is the question of transport within major metropolitan areas, such as Taipei and New Taipei City (新北市). The greater Taipei area has an MRT system, a well-serviced, highly concentrated bus network and a widely used system of e-tickets. There is a lot of space around MRT and major bus stations provided for parking. Why not reserve these spaces for drivers intending to transfer to the MRT or a bus and waive the parking fee, or even offer a 50 percent bus ticket discount for drivers who park there and transfer to the bus?
The government could also increase the fees for other parking spaces and strictly enforce its policy of towing away illegally parked vehicles. This would dissuade people from using their cars for long-distance journeys and encourage the use of public transport. Around suburban MRT stations, people could share taxicabs, enjoying lower cab fares, coupled with other incentives for transferring to public transport.
Tourist sites also tend to be inundated on long weekends. Why doesn’t the government provide an integrated online booking system through which people could arrange their entire journey, including carpooling and public transport? It could include being picked up from home and taken to the main station in time for the connecting service, having a reserved seat, with another pre-arranged connecting service at the other end to take the passenger to the tourist site. This means they would have total control over the journey.
Such measures could be coupled with raising the parking fees for private vehicles around tourist sites and increasing highway toll charges. The net effect would be a large reduction in the number of private vehicles used.
Last year, the ministry earmarked a budget of NT$15 billion (US$517 million) over three years for improvements to public transportation. Unfortunately, this only went to subsidizing bus companies to purchase new buses, without offering guidance on how to implement any complementary measures. This is something that we, the government and academia will have to address in the future.
Lee Ke-tsung is an associate professor in the department of traffic and transportation engineering and management at Feng Chia University.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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