So, as I was saying….
I really love the cities I’ve visited in Taiwan on my walkabout. I’m particularly excited to see how Taipei has been transformed in so short a time by its wonderful new subway system, and I hope a similar transformation will happen here in LA, once the projects that have been put into motion come to fruition…If they do it all properly.
Not everything is wonderful about the cities in Taiwan. The horrible mistakes that have been made in the West concerning having your own convenient personal internal combustion engine which you use for everything have been made there, and continue. One major scourge is the scooter. In short, the bike began to fall out of favour a long time ago in Taiwan. Eventually, people began to think scooters were cool, and you can cover larger distances faster, so it is a cheap alternative to a car, but you buy into a car’s benefits. Taiwan was long known for its love affair with scooters, but it is really really out of control in recent times, on several fronts. And even in Taipei where the subway has made such a difference, it is still a mess, and smaller cities with less good public transport links, it is a nightmare.
First, recall your images of China (usually the other China…the big one) as having lots of bikes, everywhere…. dozens of them being cycled along together along main roads and narrow side streets, hundreds of them parked together in several lines looking rather picturesque, or higgledy-piggledy in a no less charming way (picture the bikes outside the railway station in Amsterdam for example, if you’ve not got a mental image from further East). Sort of a cvj’s paradise, right, given my yearning for more use of bikes and public transport?
Ok, scratch that image. In everything I just said replace nice clean, quiet bikes with noisy scooters with tiny engines belching exhaust fumes everywhere. You can’t park hundreds of them in a compact space (like you can with bikes), since they’re quite wide. They clog up the sides of the roads and so they are not allowed to park there. The cities were never designed for this volume of them. So guess where they park? Where pedestrians are supposed to walk: The sidewalk (or pavement, for those from elsewhere). And they are ridden there as well, when coming in and out of parking spaces. So in fact, on lots of sidewalks in smaller cities where the problem is even more acute (such as Hsinchu, which has no subway), there is actually only single-file space to walk on the formerly quite wide sidewalks, and you don’t just have to step aside to make room to other pedestrians, but scooters as well, looking for parking spots.
That’s just the beginning. There are so very many of them everywhere that there’s nowhere to hide, as a pedestrian. You have to be looking out for getting in the way of one. Furthermore, they are so erratic in traffic….streaming around cars on all sides at all speeds, that car drivers are often simply terrified of them. And they are often not very well maintained and so make a huge amount of noise, and all of them belch out exhaust fumes galore. It’s a disaster.
Safety is not paramount here at all with regards wearing appropriate equipment. So while there is a law about wearing a helmet, it seems to only apply to the driver of the thing, but there can be as many as four or five people hanging off one of those things, not wearing any protection. These would be small children, of course. So you’ll see a mother with a four year old between her and the handlebars, and two older children on the back!
Frankly, it is an awful mess. It gets worse when you consider the place of the pedestrian in all this. Basically pedestrians have no rights at all. In smaller city streets, you often can’t walk on the sidewalk any more because of the scooters parked on it, and so you have to walk along side them, in the road….. but then you’re worried about being hit by a scooter trying to beat the traffic by hugging the side of the road. Furthermore, although there are crosswalks and other pedestrian crossing aids, they’re there to lure you into the middle of the street where you’ll then be largely ignored by drivers and riders unless you face them down. Basically, the rules are all there, but they are not enforced. You have to learn to take matters into your own hands.
With all this chaos on the streets (and incredibly bad air quality as a result) I’m actually shocked by the fact that I saw no horrible accidents. It turns out that everybody is very skilled on those scooters, and after a while, you can see that there are several standard “rules of engagement” that have evolved among the scooter riders, and (to some extent) between them and the drivers. However, this is not just Dr. Foreigner coming from elsewhere and making random pronouncements. The locals I’ve spoken with about this regularly make the same complaints.
So in summary, you’re not going to believe this (because of all the cliched images people have in their minds), but you’re way better off being a pedestrian in Los Angeles. Also, the number of bikes on the street in (some parts of) LA is comparable to (or in some cases better than) what I saw in the three large cities in Taiwan that I visited. Basically, cyclists have been scared off the roads, and several cities have developed so rapidly in favour of making provision for other vehicles that they forgot to develop provisions for safe cycling.
(Actually, there is some good news on the cycling front here and there – on or near university campuses. I’ll talk about one project I did on this later.)
Enough of the negative from here onwards. I need to start telling you more in detail about what I was up to in Taiwan, and show and tell you about a few more of the parameters of my love of the place.