The Curse Of The Scooter

By cjohnson | January 11, 2006 9:49 pm

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.

scooter madnessNot 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?

scooter madnessOk, 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.

scooter madness

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.

scooter madnessSafety 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!

scooter madnessFrankly, 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.

scooter madnessWith 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.

Later.

-cvj

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Personal, Travel
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Scooters are cool you square – didn’t you see Quadrophenia? (:))

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Right….. one scooter is cool. Very cool… Vespas and all that…. Now imagine hundreds of them swirling about you. And the high-pitched buzzing noise and bad air. Not nice.

    Put another way: I love kittens. Kittens are cute and lovely… Now imagine hundreds of them swirling about you…… etc etc…

    Oh… isn’t it hip to be square ? ;-)

    -cvj

  • Maynard Handley

    Damn those poor people. They should just go find their own country somewhere and leave us decent folks alone.

    I’ve been in Taipei a few times and I consider this rant to be completely unjustified. Yes, there are scooters everywhere. But the additional claims you make about the noise, the fumes, the inability to walk safely, strike me as a gross exaggeration. The fact is that these people have no REALISTIC alternatives. Cars are too expensive, undesirable for the higher gasoline usage, and clearly unrealistic given Taipei streets and traffic. Bicycles are a nice dream that are also unrealistic given the distances involved, and you can’t practically expect to transport the whole groups of people (families or bf+gf) as you mentioned on bicycles.

    You may not like the scooters, but it’s not your country, and the bottom line is that the alternative is not some arcadia with streets so wide that they can encompass two lanes of traffic, parking, bike lines and wide sidewalks, it is muddy barely paved streets and oxcarts. That’s what being poor means, and Taipei has only been non-poor for a few years in the grand scheme of things.

    The bottom line is that this all returns to my constant point — too many people and life sucks. In the US phenomenal wealth hides most of this. In Taipei it shines through a little more clearly, in Bangkok more clearly still, and in South Africa you have to be freaking blind not to notice it.

    Yeah, yeah, now everyone else can jump in with the usual rebuttals about how my claims of overpopulation make no sense when everyone knows that we are now producing more food than ever and, BTW, there’s enough oil to last till at least 2300 because Lee Raymond said so.

  • David

    Clifford, in defense of the scooters:
    First of all, I don’t think there’s much of a coolness element with them; basically they are a car substitute for those who can’t afford cars, and are essential in the daily lives of many people here. Considering the traffic congestion that there is already (which is connected with Taiwan, or at least Taipei, having one of the highest population densities on the planet) I shudder to think what it would be like if all the scooter-riders were suddenly able buy cars…
    Housing in Taipei is expensive so less well-off people live further out and biking into the city isn’t feasible for them. The subway system is great and has helped a lot, but it still only covers a fairly limited region (although there are plans to expand it from what I’ve heard). As for the buses, I’m not sure exactly what the situation is with them but would imagine that taking a bus through Taipei traffic would be slow and an unattractive option for people rushing to get to work etc. So scooters are mainly a practical, less than ideal alternative for people who need a car but can’t afford one. As for the cases of whole families traveling together on a single scooter, that’s just people making do as best they can (although we can agree that no helmets for the kids is just irresponsible).

    In traffic the scooters seem to be a lot less dangerous than one would expect. You are spot on to point out that the riders are actually very skilled; they are expert at weaving in and out and avoiding objects. And car drivers aren’t terrified of them in general. The scooter drivers take evasive action around cars, knowing that they will come off second best in a collision, and the car drivers know and expect this. E.g. my step-daughter who recently got her driving license in Taipei is much more scared of other cars doing unpredictable crazy things than she is of scooters, and my Taiwanese wife who has been car-driving in Taipei for many years has only once had an accident with a scooter, a minor one at that, and it was her rather than the scooter driver that was at fault. As for pedestrians, it is actually not too bad once you realise that the “rules” are different: In practice, green light for pedestrians at a crossing doesn’t mean that the cars and scooters have to stop, they just have to avoid hitting the pedestrians who are crossing. Sure it’s unnerving to have scooters swerving around in front and behind you when you’re in the middle of the street, but I’ve never experienced or seen any accidents so far (touch wood).

    As for scooters on the sidewalk, well, there’s typically a lot of other stuff on them as well – food stalls and the like. Often they are more market areas than sidewalks as we know them. And a peculiarity of the locals is that they seem to actually prefer walking in the street – even when there is ample room on the sidewalk! When I asked my wife about this she said something about the sidewalk being for “business” (stalls etc) and that walking in the street was “more comfortable”… (And unlike me she isn’t worried in the slightest about being hit by a scooter or car…)

    Finally, there’s a cultural aspect of the traffic chaos in Taiwan that I can’t resist mentioning, since it’s quite endearing imo. Based on observing my wife and others, it seems that many Taiwanese are in their element when zipping around in their cars and on scooters, and view it as a sport to get from A to B as quickly as possible, even when there’s no need to hurry. They are particularly proud after pulling off some audacious manouvre that lets them get ahead of the surrounding traffic. It can be harrowing for us westerners though – a typical car journey with my wife leaves me badly in need of a stiff drink.

    Well, that went on for a lot longer than intended; apologies for writing such a long comment.

    P.S. A suggestion to the CV folks: If possible, how about adding a spell-checking facility for comments? So that those of us who aren’t good at spelling can avoyd imbaresing ourselfs.

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    Ever been to Rome or Naples?

  • David

    For the record, my comment above isn’t in any way a follow-up to the preceding one (#3), which i in fact hadn’t seen at the time of posting. (The fact that there’s a 3 hour time difference between them just shows the ridiculous amount of time i spent writing it.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amara…Yes. Rome or Naples just do not compare to this. It is a fact that the number of scooters per capita is higher.

    Maynard Handley and David:- I think we have several points of disagreement. Several. I’m not one for randomly criticising stuff in other places without (a) talking to local people about it (b) thinking about it carefully first.

    Much of what I said is confirmed by local people I talked to. Local people that I talked to also don’t like having to play dodgems with the scooters whether on foot, or in their cars. THe old “they are poor, they have no alternative, you don’t understand as you’re a foreigner” is actually patronising to the people involved. Poor people are aware of issues like traffic and air quality and transport alternatives just like anyone else. They are not just automatons who just get on with their “lot in life”. The point is that things will never change anywhere (and they do want change…so don’t start) with that kind of argument. I’m not saying that people should just go out and buy a car (hell no!) and I am not saying that thye should go out and get a bike, or walk. I’m saying that there are things that can be done at the level of government……There is this thing I keep going on about called public transport…it has transformative power.

    Let me remind you of how Taipei has changed in less than eight years by the introduction of the subway system…and they are building more and more…. These are the sorts of things that can be done to change things….. rather than sitting back and saying “oh, they’re poor, they have no choice”. You can say the same unuseful thing about people who have to commute in lots of traffic in Los Angeles….. “oh, they are poor, they have no choice”….. You then don’t do anything about it….or you build a public transport system.

    Don’t tell me that the country can’t afford it. They think they can…they are doing it, and they are planning more…. And about the air quality not being bad… that’s laughable… you think everybody is wearing a mask because it looks cool? Everybody there says its bad. Am I being politically incorrect by pointing out somehting so obvious?

    What you say about sidewalk use is also inaccurate, or over simplified. There are different types of street arranged differently with regards market stalls. What I’m talking about are not streets with market stuff on the sidewalks. I’m talking about regular streets (ones just like we have in the western cities) that everybody local I have talked to tells you did not used to be cluttered with anything (scooters or otherwise) and people used to like to walk on them. Further…. the ones that did have vendors on the side now have scooteres as well…. nobody I spoke to their thinks that this is a wonderful thing. I actually walked for a long while with
    a local person and her little girl in a busy a street with scooters and other traffic looking over our shoulders every now and again to see what was coming. The sidewalks were full of scooters…we had no choice. Was she blissfully happy about it? No. She wanted to walk on the sidewalk just like anyone else would!

    The point is that the problems I’ve pointed out are problems that the local people have pointed out, and analysed well. I don’t go randomly making stuff up, or looking at things with the eyes of an outsider before talking to people…..

    And you knwo what? Unlike officials faced with similar problems in a much richer city like Los Angeles, they are not sitting back saying “oh those people are poor, and can’t do anything else”…they are actually doing something about it fast! I give you the example of Taipei.

    That’s an example we can learn from, rather than being complacent…

    -cvj

  • http://www.damtp.cam.ac.uk/user/gr/ damtp_dweller

    Maynard Handley said:

    “Bicycles are a nice dream that are also unrealistic given the distances involved, and you can’t practically expect to transport the whole groups of people (families or bf+gf) as you mentioned on bicycles.”

    I disagree. People seem to get around with bicycles quite comfortably in Amsterdam and here in Cambridge. In fact, it’s very common to see entire families cycling around the city in large convoys, the smallest members typically being towed along in a kind of buggy. Citing the large distances involved is a cop out; anything up to six miles is easily manageable on a bicycle.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    #6 David: – Same thing happened with our messages. So I probably should not have lumped your comment in with the other comment in my reply. (And I mean no disrespect to your wife’s opinions.) And you are definitely wise to distance yourself from the remarks in #3, from the first sentence, onwards.

    -cvj

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    Clifford, Taiwan cities have more, or Roma or Napoli have more? Compared to what I see typically in south Italy, your photos look like the same numbers but much more polite and orderly.

    One difficulty with public transportation here (Rome) is the quantity of archeological artifacts whenever the construction workers begin digging to put in new metro lines or roads. And bicycles are a difficult means of transportation for many people due to the terrain (seven hills).

    I would prefer to see electric motorinos instead of what I typically see, but they cost more, and the mentality of the culture here is not thinking enough of the environment. It will take a lot more time (and incentives) for their thinking to shift.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    If there is indeed a scooter problem then it has two trivial symbolic (much more important that realistic) solutions:

    1) OXYGENATES! The fuel must be loaded with methyl tert-butyl ether to satisfy Enviro-whiner cravings and Officially vanish air pollution. When all water supplies are contaminated with this EPA Priority Carcinogen, drivers will be switched to gasohol. This will support rice prices, support fuel prices, and keep mileage low. As all seals, hoses, and elastomeric couplings degrade from the polar solvents, they must be replaced. Gasohol causes massive corrosion of metal parts. An unstoppable economic boom will follow.

    2) Since everybody must buy a new compliant scooter as their old equipment crumbles, socialist solidarity will be validated by installing two-cycle Trabant engines. As lubricating oil is now in the fuel, threatened wetlands wll be Officially protected from oil slicks from crankcase discards. A small user fee appended to fuel prices will fund studies, followed by larger user fees and more studies, followed by dire warnings about 2100-2500 AD – and more user fees.

    What about electric scooters, liquefied natural gas scooters, biodiesel scooters, solar-powered scooters, wind-powered scooters, mass transit scooters with wheelchair ramps and bike racks… and scooters with carbon dioxide recovery units to prevent Global Warming?

    We can save the Earth – for our children! – but only if we care. Put an end to engineering. Salvation can only be faith-based.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amara: – I’ve read in several places that Taiwan has the most scooters per head than anywhere on the planet. I do not have numbers. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy. The scooter scene there looks a bit more tame in comparison actually, but I cannot be sure, not having travelled everywhere in either country. But this is not about one country out-scootering another…..

    I would love to see electric scooters take over. The noise and air quality issues would then fade in comparison to the fun aspect of having them on the streets. Ideally, it would be a mixture of electric scooters and bikes that would dominate…. in my fantasy world, at least.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://www.woodka.com donna

    I think the real point is you have to provide for the type of transportation being used, and also allow for better means of transportation in the future. We are skilled enough in the design of cities and living spaces now to be able to create communities that work with whatever transportation is available, if we want to. I like that Tapei is starting to provide more modern public transportation. That is almost light years ahead of some of what I see here in the US with the sprawl to the suburbs and cars, cars, cars. Scooter could work well if parking is provided for them and maybe scooter lanes where possible. I would love for my high school student to be able to ride a scooter to school, but it’s just not doable here since it isn’t safe. He does take the bus home in the afternoons.

    It would be great to have scooters here in SoCal instead of the damn Hummers and SUVs. I am so sick of them.

  • Maynard Handley

    I know I come across as abrasive, Clifford, but really, this post rubbed me up the wrong way.

    Your followup comment, 7, is quite reasonable in terms of saying “The citizens are aware these are real problems and are trying to improve the subway”, but that’s not what the post was about. The post was not a lament on the poor forward planning of the Taiwanese authorities, it was a complaint about the situation right now. And the situation right now is what it is because of what I said — poverty and too many people. To understand Taipei now, you have to consider Taipei say 30 yrs ago, and Taipei 30 yrs ago did not have money to build a beautiful subway system.
    The situation is no different if you consider a place like Yangon or any random Chinese city. It would be wonderful if the city planners could operate on 30yr time horizons, but human nature does not allow them to do that under the best of circumstances, and especially when people are poor what the city planners are going to work on is affordable housing (and for poor people that means ugly concrete blocks, still better than what they left on the farm and the alternative shacks of cardboard and plastic), running clean water, sewers and trash collection, electricity. While those are being put into place, people will simply have to do what they can for electricity. None of this is any easier if your city is doubling in size every twenty years.

    Of course once the city crosses a certain threshold of wealth they can (and do) start to worry about traffic, but it takes a long time to get to that threshold, and it takes a long time, once that threshold has been reached, for anything to change. And I REALLY take objection to your calling my comment patronizing. You are the one who is claiming that the locals made stupid choices in the past. Of COURSE they are not happy with the situation. But that’s not the point, the point is what the choices were. You go to Soweto right now and no-one’s going to tell you they are happy with the traffic situation there. But they will also tell you that they are also unhappy with the housing, water, sewerage and electricity situations, and that, thank you very much, they don’t need some rich westerner telling them that they need to put in place a subway system to improve the air quality and reduce traffic congestion. They are aware every day of painful choices that have to be made, and their choices are that for right now we’ll put up with poor air and crowded roads in return for concrete block housing and running water. OF COURSE in 15, 20, 30 years, when that infrastructure is in place, people will revist those choices, just like happens anywhere else. But you can’t get from here to there without the period in the middle where people make do as best they can.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Maynard Handley wrote:

    And I REALLY take objection to your calling my comment patronizing. You are the one who is claiming that the locals made stupid choices in the past.

    So would you mind pointing out to me where I said that locals made stupiid choices? Seems to me you might be overlaying your own spin on what I wrote. Go read it again before commenting further please.

    What I said was:

    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.

    I’m clearly not talking about any person in particular. I’m talking about the design and planning of the system. It is well known that several countries all around the world are rapidly adopting the technologies and practices that have been adopted elsewhere -including sometimes (but not always) the mistakes assoiated with them, concerning e.g., pollution, etc- It is not big news for me to point this out.

    You also wrote:

    they don’t need some rich westerner telling them that they need to put in place a subway system to improve the air quality and reduce traffic congestion.

    Of course they don’t and in fact I never said that they did. In fact, I observed in several places (in this post, the comments and in earlier posts) that they have already gone ahead and done it…they did not seek my advice…. if you read what I said in my post and the previous one which it continues, I am in fact using what happened (and is happening) in Taipei as a lesson to us rich Westerners! They are in fact ahead of us “rich Westerners”…..

    Seems to me that -again- you are putting your own spin on what I wrote.

    Here is what I said:

    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.

    And:

    That’s an example we can learn from, rather than being complacent…

    So once again: Read first carefully,…. then make your comment.

    Cheers!

    -cvj

  • Maynard Handley

    “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.

    I read this as comment on scooters that is not simply reportorial but editorial.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    I’ve no objection to that interpretation. That’s funny:- I don’t see anything in our “about” pages about refraining from expressing an opinion. This is a blog…..right? You’re in the wrong place if you don’t want to encounter opinion!!

    cheers,

    -cvj

  • http://www.gentoo.org FA

    I have to agree with Maynard Handley on this one. The original tone of the post was very patronising.

    In Asia, people are very sensitive about criticism by foreigners; severe criticism by one of their own is acceptable. They may not tell you at your face, even if they are very displeased.

    And really, why dwell on the negative? One could say similar things about ANY major American city? As an Asian, not from Taiwan, I found it quite offensive.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    FA: – I’m sorry you think that…..but if you read the post and the posts before, you will have seen that I am overall extremely positive about Taiwan. I love the place, as I have said over and over again. Please re-read my earlier post, for example.

    So sorry, but I make no apology about pointing out (after saying so much positive stuff) something which I’ve actually stressed is a valuable lesson to the American cities since the Taiwanese are working on fixing the problem by aggressively investing in new infrastructure. (I’ve been very critical of similar things in LA, in fact, and it seems more progress is being made in Taiwan than here in LA.)

    It is very odd and confusing to me that what I wrote is being mined only for the negative stuff, and all the positive stuff (see e.g. here and posts to come) is being ignored. I will continue to say positive things, as I explicitly promised in the end of the post. If you and Maynard Handley only read the negative things I say and ignore the positive, then that is unfortunate, but I do not have any control over that.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • Ick of the East

    Bangkok also has a love affair with scooters, and it seems to me to be well justified.

    The new mass trasit lines are wonderful, but Bangkok covers a huge area and the MT lines will never reach every part.
    A scooter can carry a family of four (or five with a baby) and takes up much less space than a taxi or five bicycles would (assuming the baby could ride one).

    And in this climate, bicycles are really out of the question.

    In the past several years scooter taxis have BOOMED. They play a key role in ferrying people to the MT station and over short distances, taking up much less space than taxis or buses.

    And we don’t have the Taipei problem of scooters on the sidewalks because every shop has already expanded out onto the sidewalks leaving no room for pedestrians, let alone scooters!

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  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    Clifford, I thought the tone of your post was highly critical too, and yes, I read the parts where you described the aspects that you liked. Visitors to other countries must take extra care when they go to a place not their own and/or criticize a place not their own.

  • amanda

    As an Asian, I can tell you that 99% percent of Asians would not feel “patronized” by Clifford’s comments about scooters, which are obviously correct. Asians don’t have this culture of trying one’s best to be “Offended” by anything that any outsider says. That’s an American cult. Oops…that was probably very patronizing of me….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amara…. I completely agree that extra care must be taken, and it is the right and courteous thing to do. This is what I have done, in fact, and I have no doubt:

    (1) I think balance is the important thing, along with consultation of local opinion. I was not making my criticisms up out of whole cloth….. several people I talked to from there hasve the same opinion…..

    (2) furthermore, everything I said was in the context of having said wildly complimentary things about so many other aspects. See my other posts, and posts to come….

    So I took the care that I thought that was appropriate. How many times can I say I loved the place?

    If I’m just going to tell you all the sugar-coated stuff….there’s little point me blogging about it.

    Let’s just agree to disagree on this one.

    Thanks…..

    -cvj

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amanda:- Thanks.

    -cvj

  • Dissident

    FWIW, reading Clifford’s Taiwan pieces I was overcome by an almost irresistible urge to run out and buy a one way ticket for the next flight to Taipei. Too many scooters? A negligible third order correction.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Dissident: Keep your passport handy! Wait until I tell you about the food….the food, the food!!!!

    -cvj

  • Ken Muldrew

    “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 …”

    There’s still lots of bikes but the images that stay with you after a visit to China now are those of the near deaths of dozens of cyclists as cars run roughshod over them.

  • David

    Clifford,

    > And I mean no disrespect to your wife’s opinions
    >

    Thanks. And I mean no disrespect to the opinions of the locals you spoke to either. But probably we should both acknowledge that in a multifaceted society like Taiwan there will be large differences of opinions and viewpoints among the locals themselves. I’m guessing (and correct me if I’m wrong) that your local contacts were made through academic connections (which would also explain the fact that they were able to converse with you in (i presume) English), and might therefore have views close to the typical academics views, which includes a more than average enlightened view on environmental stuff, traffic etc. Probably (and again I’m speculating here) they never had the need to transport their families around on a scooter.

    Neither did my wife for that matter. But a number of the average joes and josephines that work for her do. Unfortunately I can’t get their views on things since they don’t speak English and I’ve yet to learn passable Taiwanese. So my description of the “local viewpoint(s)” come from my wife and her friends; they are mostly business people and their main concern is business and economic prosperity; concerns about the environment, traffic situation etc rank less highly with them on average. I have no problem acknowledging that their viewpoints are but one of many in Taiwanese society, and I hope you can do the same with regards your local contacts.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that the solution to Taipei’s traffic woes (and to a large extent pollution woes) is the development of efficient, extensive public transport, and like you I’m very glad about the progress they’ve been making on this already. But it will take time, and in the meantime many people will continue to rely on scooters for going about their daily lives. I dispute your implication that the extensive use of scooters is for “coolness” reasons. To me they seem to be, on the whole, simply a car substitute for people who need a car but can’t afford one. I think this is is an important point for understanding the scooter situation in Taiwan, and it was missing from your post.

    As for the other points where we seem to be in disagreement:
    (i) I wrote that there is typically a lot of other stuff (stalls etc) on the sidewalk, besides scooters. “Typically” should be “often”. (And I’m not just refering to sidewalks in the designated market areas.) If you don’t agree with this I can only conclude that we’ve been frequenting different areas of Taipei.
    (ii) I wrote that a peculiarity of the locals is that they seem to prefer walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk. “Locals” should be changed to “some locals – a sizable fraction of them”. Here’s the details of (some of) my observations of this. Most evenings I have the job of parking my wife’s car for her. This invovles waiting in a double-parked position outside her pub until one of the nearby parking spaces becomes free. The typical waiting time is about 20 min. During this time, with nothing else to do I sit and watch the people passing by. The sidewalk of this street is completely free – no scooters, stalls or anything (there’s parking space for scooters as well as cars along the roadside). But to my never-ceasing amazement many of the passersby are walking in the street. I didn’t think to do a statistical analysis before, but roughly I estimate that for every 2-3 people using the sidewalk there’s one in the street. The street is reasonably broad but with a high volume of traffic, one lane in each direction. And the roadside is filled up with parked cars, so the streetwalkers are actually walking outside that. It gets even more bizarre: When the streetwalkers reach our car they have to choose between going in to the sidewalk to get past or going further out into the street – and every single time so far they have chosen the latter!Seriously, I’m not making this up. So unless my eyes have been deceiving me I have to report the “streetwalking” phenomenon as a fact.

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    Heh. As an Asian, getting your first scooter as a teenager is a rite of passage! FREEEEEDDDDOOOOOMMMMMMMM!!!!!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

    You said:

    I dispute your implication that the extensive use of scooters is for “coolness” reasons. To me they seem to be, on the whole, simply a car substitute for people who need a car but can’t afford one. I think this is is an important point for understanding the scooter situation in Taiwan, and it was missing from your post.

    Actually, I think that the coolness factor (in the sense I think you mean…see below) is not emphasized in the post as being a major component of the reasons for the scooter phenomenon. It is a component (ahem, see Eugene’s remark above!), but probably a relatively small one. Perhaps it was the humourous exchange in comments 1 and 2 that has stuck in your mind?

    What I said was:

    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.

    “cool” here is used to mean “the way to go” , or “the acceptable alternative”…. a common usuage that is different from the specific “fashion accessory” usage you have in mind (although I admit that there was intended to be some component of the latter). Note also my mentioning of the use of the scooter as the cheap alternative to a car with all of the benefits of a car. So I am confused as to why you say this is not mentioned in the post…..

    I don’t dispute anything else you say in your comment….these are all valid things. There are several different approaches to use of sidewalks in the cities….. I was simply stating it as a fact (see the second photograph as evidence) that there are a lot of scooters on the sidewalk, and that some people don’t like it… This is a fact. That some sidewalks are used for other things too is also a fact. But it does not invalidate the other fact.

    Further (and this is not entirely to your comment, but to several others), let’s please get away from interpreting everything I am saying as loaded with value judgement. I don’t hate scooters. I don’t hate cars. I don’t hate the poeple who ride/drive them. I never said that. I own a car too. I would own a scooter too if I lived in Taiwan, probably!

    I don’t think -and never said- that all those individual choices made by the riders of the scooters out of economic neccessity are wrong at that individual level. I never said that. Those interpretions are coming from elsewhere, and not from me.

    What I described is the situation as it is. I am then further speculating about global things that can be done (or in some cases were not done, due to the pace of development) that can alleviate the problem. This is a problem shared by all major cities all around the world. We can learn from each other’s solutions and so it is useful for us all to be aware of the different problems and their location.

    I don’t see how my pointing it out in cities in Taiwan has become interpreted as an attack on Asia or Asians, or “the poor”, as it seems to have been turned into.

    Very odd to me indeed, these readings of my post.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • Ick of the East

    As for this walking in the street rather than on the sidewalks….

    In certain areas of Hong Kong I was often warned by friends in to do just that. The reason was that directly above the sidewalk were the windows of apartments from which could issue any number of things: snotty tissues, batteries, bottles, used condoms, or the occasional student who has succumed to the pressure of exams.

    The streets, being further out from the buildings, were considered much safer.

    I’ve never been to Taipei, but I assume that the reasons may be similar.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Hmmmm. Ick or the East:- …..In Taipei or any other city there, I have to say thatI never saw any of the “snotty tissues, batteries, bottles, used condoms, or the occasional student who has succumed to the pressure of exams” lying on the sidewalk!

    Before I also get accused of claiming that these things are on the ground in Taiwan, I’d like to say that I found the streets and sidewalks of the cities I visited remarkably clean actually. It was quite notable in fact.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • Ick of the East

    You are probably right cvj; Even in Hong Kong the streets in those areas are quite clean.

    But in HK there were a long-running public service spots on TV showing people being injured or killed by batteries, bottles, and even an old TV.
    These were probably launched in response to some extremely rare incidents. And with those images in your mind you might choose the street yourself. I certainly did.

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    #24 Clifford:
    >1) I think balance is the important thing, along with consultation of
    >local opinion. I was not making my criticisms up out of whole cloth…..
    >several people I talked to from there hasve the same opinion…..

    In a post like this where you use a lot of strong negative words (“scourge” etc.), the local opinion to support what you say doesn’t matter very much because, in the expression, these words came from an “outsider” (_you_). It might seem like only a tiny difference but it is not. In many cultures, the difference if you are a local person criticizing something that everyone recognizes, and an outsider criticizing the same thing is “heard” by that culture in very different ways for obvious reasons. That’s what I mean by needing to take extra care.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Amara:- Thanks, I do understand what you mean, but as I already said above “Let’s just agree to disagree on this one”. I believe that in the context of all of the postivive that I have said, ad keep saying, the appropriate balance was struck…as I said already.

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • Dissident

    Amara, have you perchance had a bad experience or two with Romans turning glacial after you said something negative about that “Caput Mundi” of theirs? They tend to be downright pathological about it… but fortunately most people around the world aren’t stuck in their second millennium of imperial loss denial.

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    Dissident, No not on that topic, but yes, glacial, on another topic (*), it was not an easy mistake for me to make, either, since I always take extra care to the cultures where I live and visit, living in Europe now eight years as a foreigner. Romans are much more sensitive about their city than other Italians towards their towns, I learned. At least I’ve lived here long enough and paid enough taxes to have the “right” (in the local’s view of me) to state hard observations of the present government, but unfortunately, because I am not a naturalized citizen (must live here ten years), I cannot state my opinion politically by voting. For me, that is a big pain.

    (*) my comment was my mild surprise at the good organization of the city resources when the pope died.

  • Dissident

    Oh dear, you really pushed the wrong button with that one (combining implied criticism of Rome with the “disorganized/chaotic Italian” stereotype). Being from Milano, Berlusconi is a pretty safe target around your new hunting grounds, but watch out should the city’s prodigal son Rutelli land in a government role after the next elections!

  • http://www.amara.com Amara

    The general disorganization in Rome (and continuing south) is no stereotype, we (everyone who lives here) lose a great deal of time in daily life due to that. If a person cannot accept it, then they shouldn’t live here (it’s that basic). And regarding Berlusconi, I feel he is fair game since his party’s immigration policies have made a mess out of my legal status and I pay proportionally more Italian taxes than most people I know, but there is a general sensitivity in the country about him too. A kind of embarrassment that such a clown was legally elected. I think outsiders should be aware about that too.

  • Steve

    Some personal Taipei observations and experiences -

    Scooters are the first thing one notices after exiting the highways (No two wheel vehicles allowed, with minor exceptions, I am told).

    Everyone I met (all engineers) who owned a scooter, one day wanted a car. At the moment, a car purchase was beyond their budget.

    Car and scooter drivers are indeed excellent in their driving skills, generally speaking. I drive a high performance German car and motorcycle. I have been known to fly airplanes. Knowing ones personal limitations and the limitations of the vehicle is the prime requisite for driving. Expect the unexpected. In Taipei all drivers appeared to be focused on their driving vs. yelling at the kids in the back seats, gulping lattes, applying makeup, reading bibles (seen at times driving between vehicles on my motorcycle in CA) etc. [Sorry for the slight rant.]

    Have been in cars that have swirved on to shoulders on the highway and then much later returned to the designated road. My questions on the legaiity of this manuever were politely waved off.

    I questioned scooters going down a one way street against oncoming cars and again was politely told not to worry. Seems to work for them.

    Like Manhatten in NYC, I found it best as a pedestrian to cross streets in large groups of people or against the red light. In this case, you know where you stand, so to speak. (Be very afraid of taxis in Manhatten.)

    While accustomed to sidewalks in disrepair in some American large cities, I had a hard time adapting to this in Taipei, while also looking out for scooters driving on the sidewalks. Locals did not have this problem.

    At two airlines I visited for business, they were amazed I did not take a nap during lunch time. Lights are turned out. Light soothing music was played on the PA system. Most engineers take a nap at their desk.

    The food is fantastic. This even includes food purchased for me from street market vendors. Ok, my local friends did try to push my limits on what I would eat. I did pass on one item, but only one after being given a description.

    Great people and a wonderful city.

    May all the Chinese readers have a healthy and prosperous Chinese New Year.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Steve, thanks! I also think it is a wonderful city and a wonderful people. I’ll be doing several posts on food and other things I loved over the coming period). Also, I’m glad that you felt free to observe and comment on several aspects of the traffic, etc, over there without fear of being accused of being insensitive, patronising, or elitist. One of the reasons I think the place is wonderful is that mix of serndipity, improvisation, modern, ancient, fast and frantic, slow and thoughtful…. all wonderfully mixed together.

    Oh… if you loved the food, take some time out next trip and go to visit Tainan. I am told that it is even better than Taipei….. I sepnt 48 hours there eating….. more later!

    Cheers,

    -cvj

  • David

    Hi Clifford,

    Re. #31: Thanks.

    > “cool” here is used to mean “the way to go” , or “the
    > acceptable alternative”…. a common usuage that is
    > different from the specific “fashion accessory” usage
    > you have in mind (although I admit that there was
    > intended to be some component of the latter). Note
    > also my mentioning of the use of the scooter as the
    > cheap alternative to a car with all of the benefits of
    > a car. So I am confused as to why you say this is not
    > mentioned in the post…..

    Actually my interpretation of what you meant by “cool” was pretty much as you have described it here. But (to me at any rate) it gives the impression that people have made a choice from a variety of options. My point is that for many people the scooter is their *only* practical transportation option at present (as far as I’m aware). For understanding the scooter situation I think it’s important to mention the lack of alternatives for many people at present, and this is what I had in mind as the “missing part” of your post.

    > Further (and this is not entirely to your comment, but
    > to several others), let’s please get away from
    > interpreting everything I am saying as loaded with
    > value judgement.

    Please. Nothing of what I wrote was intended to imply this. I’m sorry if you got this impression but it was really not my intention. All I wanted to do was point out that (imo at least) there is more to the scooter situation than what you wrote in you post. There’s no accusation of value judgements.

    I’m glad we seem to be in agreement about the other stuff. Looking forward to your posts on the positive aspects of Taiwan, where I’m sure we’ll have lots to agree on.

    Cheers,
    David

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    David,

    Thanks…. never in my post did I make the claim that it was suppsoed to be an exhaustive analysis of the situation…. I simply was giving some impressions of how things currently appear in order to illustrate how they are in fact similar to situations we have in our cities and how things can be changed and are being changed with further investment in public transport. Something we can learn from. One last remark (before I get accused of being presumptuous in using the word “changed”): If the locals did not think that there was a problem with at least some aspects of the traffic, how come their government spent so much (and are spending so much) on a new subway system, and how come so many people are using it, and how come everyone I talked to says that the subway has improved things in Taipei?

    Last last remark: These are not Taiwanese cultural things I am commenting on -and yes, being negative about- they are universal global problems brought on by our global technology. As such, it is interesting and instructive to see its effects all over the world. I would not make critical remarks about things that are truly aspects of local culture.

    Best,

    -cvj

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