This post rounds up some of my experiences from a week in Taipei and it gives me the chance to bring together the thoughts of people I met and my own observations. I wrote about this a bit last year but this time there are three key differences.
Most importantly I rode a bike myself – the basis for the “Not despairing in…” series of posts on this blog. I also know that the experience of combining walking, writing and talking to activists in 12 countries in 12 months has improved my cycling observation. It is much like when I used to benchmark factories in my previous career, if you do it often enough you develop a more finely tuned sense about what is happening and you have much better references to use for judgements. The third element is that I got to do a lot more talking to people in the cycling industry and advocacy this time which gave my views better balance, on my first visit I was almost a tourist by comparison.
I was formally in Taiwan to attend the Taipei Cycle Show and to speak at the International Bicycle Design Forum which gave itself the title “Forging Taiwan to be a Bicycling Island”. (News report here.)
After hearing the words from the conference and having my discussions with the cycling community my personal observations reinforce what the cycling world here is saying. The underlying commitment to cycling here is huge. It already had a massively successful and world leading bike industry which has been strategically planned as a key national economic interest for years.
However this was largely built on the back of a static or declining local cycling market.
The first stage of trying to address that has been largely leisure and tourism focussed. This approach that would be widely recognised in the English speaking world – something you do in your sporty clothes at the weekend or in your spare time.
This has been improving vigorously with the influence of the industry and the support of academics in tourism and economic development like Associate Professor Hsin-Wen Chang who is working in association with eight counties on their cycle tourism product.
I really must try to get out and try some of their rural routes another time because Lonely Planet and CNN have listed Taiwanese experiences in their top ten in the world and I saw some stunning pictures. Cycle tourism holidays are growing and there are lots of “round the island” promotions and charity rides which are being used to try and build cycling lifestyles. I sampled this ambition just by trying some of the extensive and well-engineered riverside cycle tracks in Taipei which now reach over 100km virtually traffic free. I was really delighted to be invited on the “Social ride” promoted by the local staff and friends of Korean folding bike specialists Tern who took a big group of us along the paths after dark. That was great fun as social rides usually are and it was complemented by the fact that the routes through the parks and the river bridges are brilliantly well lit at night.
So leisure is going in the right direction. That leaves transport.
The relative affluence and successful economy of Taiwan means that they have high levels of car use and recent massive investment in motorways and road capacity sitting alongside successful high speed rail and a mass rapid transit (MRT) in Taipei.
Most of the writes and bloggers online agree with the people I met. (Example here by Carlton Reid) Transport cycling in Taipei has been neglected, there is a lack of cycling infrastructure except cycling on the pavements and there is almost universal concern about the swarming buzzing scooters anywhere on the island. They are about 30% of traffic in Taipei, a huge proportion. The main perceived threat to cyclists is that they fly around in swarms at what seem very high speeds, all across the roads and swerving around the cars, a combined deterrence of speed and noise. The cars themselves are very scooter aware but that doesn’t stop the average driver from getting the foot to the floor on all the roads around the city, and from what I could see out in Hsin Chu and Taoyuan they are just as fast.
And this is where the contradictions start.
These road conditions and driver speed easily put Taipei on a level with somewhere like Kiev as a really cycling unfriendly city. The Invisible Visible Man did an excellent recent post about his discovery of Staten Island in New York describing similar challenges and the lack of cyclists as a result.
Therefore I would expect to see almost no cyclists whatsoever on the roads and last year I didn’t. However this year I felt I saw more riders, perhaps because I was out a bit more in daylight but I think there is a change going on.
This was confirmed by King Liu, founder of Giant and his daughter Vicky Yang who is CEO of advocacy and promotional NGO the Cycling Lifestyle Foundation.
I can confidently say that if the driving conditions were like this in any European city I cannot imagine seeing any but the fiercest cyclists out on the streets, the fore-runners, the fixies, the messengers. However as I have already posted the
cyclists I kept seeing out on the highways were women of all ages, from the young and trendy to the “mature”. (here and here) Yes there were men but
as often as not they were often the ones on the pavements.This was an unexpected result and I think it hints that there is a supressed cycling culture just waiting to burst out. King Liu said that the ambitious Youbike bicycle rental scheme had recorded a record 25,000 trips on a single day the previous week, even before they had expanded the scheme from its current base of 2,000 bikes up to the expected 5,000. Vicky confirmed my observation that a big proportion of the users were young professional women who are seeing cycling and Youbike as a lifestyle choice.
Taipei has the space to copy New York and start taking space on the streets for segregated cycle lanes and I have no doubt that this is the big political choice now facing the city. They are putting in lanes on the pavements on some streets but I cannot imagine it will be enough if the demand really takes off and it is a political soft option, not a proper solution. I said as much in my presentation, highlighting the need for a proper joined up network that is accessible to all. The quality of the riverside routes shows that the engineering knowledge is there. Giant and the China Lifestyle Foundation are equally confident that Youbike is meeting a suppressed demand that will enable Taipei to follow Paris and London by getting cycling numbers up in the urban heart while the battles for urban space continue with the city authorities.
In my comments to the press I focussed on speed because I felt so uncomfortable with my own experience on the roads and because it is a “right now” opportunity which will complement Youbike. However in my speech to the Forum I emphasised that the city could and should see cycle lanes move from the pavements to the streets if the city and the country really wanted to forge a cycling island.
I think it will happen, cycling is too important to be neglected here and the right people are probably in position to make a difference. You can add the names of Tony Lo, Chief Executive of Giant and Robert Wu, Chairman of KMC to the mix of key players involved in the Forum. With that sort of influence from big companies working with the academics and advocates governments tend to listen. It won’t become the Netherlands overnight, no other country has even got close in forty years but there will be significant strides if they can get true political will.
I expect this will become an annual series of posts, I am quite excited about observing the changes, not least because the Taiwanese I met are such open and welcoming hosts who could talk cycling forever. What finer praise can there be for a nation?
Some personal highlights:
Riverside cycle paths by day and by night.
With thanks to Tern for the night ride and the very nice bike!
Photo Credit Tern
What I call a Grimshaw bridge. Any high quality cycling bridge I see anywhere around the world I subconsciously attribute to John for his passion about cycling bridges and design.
The cyclists of Taipei: their Youbikes and bikes