Sustainable transport: planning and vision and required

traffic chaos -- just another normal day in Taiwan

There is an excellent editorial in today's Taiwan News about the need for better transport planning in Taiwan. The Taiwan News writes,

Although the huge annual pressure on our ground and air transportation networks is fully predictable and occurs during virtually all extended holidays, it appears that the government and the private sector remain unable to lift their eyes beyond these recurrent panics to engage in comprehensive reconsideration of our transportation policies and strategies.

Many people might think that traffic jams are an inevitable consequence of living in densely populated cities. It really doesn't have to be that way. The problem stems from the fact there is an over reliance on private cars and large highways. With the exception of the Taipei MRT, Taiwan's cities lack mass rapid transit or light rail systems that could move large numbers of people more safely and more efficiently. 

The Taiwan News hits the nail on the head saying: 

Taiwan's transportation system has become saturated with automobiles, thus fueling the expansion of roads, purchase of even more automobiles and insufficient investment and safer public mass transit systems, public buses and railways, which share the characteristics of being more energy and space efficient, environmentally friendly and far safer.

The failure to build a comprehensive network of passenger trains is now taking its toll in the wake of the epoch-making initiation of commercial operation of the Taiwan High-Speed Railway last month.

The opening of the high speed rail really highlights how poorly developed Taiwan's public transport infrastructure is outside Taipei. The HSR has the capacity to move large numbers of people between the major population centres on Taiwan's west coast. However, its efficiency is hampered by the time and inconvenience of travelling to the stations which are mostly located outside city centres and not yet connected via mass transit systems.  

Aside from issues of safety and convenience climate change makes it doubly important to adopt innovative solutions. Again, quoting the Taiwan News editorial:

Although not a signatory, as a substantial member of the world community, Taiwan cannot avoid its responsibility and should accelerate efforts to sharply improve energy efficiency and curb the rise of greenhouse gas emissions to get ahead of what could be called the "Kyoto Curve" and thus improve our environment and enhance our overall competitiveness.

Just as in the case of industry policy, the need to improve energy efficiency and reduce pollution must become the key drivers of a sustainable transportation policy, an imperative which will necessitate the shift of priority from individual to mass transit systems including the development of commuter or light rail systems and ancillary networks in which our new high-speed rail sytem can effectively act as a "trunk" for the North-South rail link.

The HSR provides an ideal building block for the expansion of rail-based transport systems. The government needs to give higher priority to developing new MRT systems. 

Another important decision the government must make in the near future is about the construction of the Suhua Freeway (蘇花高速公路) connecting Yilan and Hualian. The government really needs to consider not just the direct environmental impact of the freeway's construction. It also needs to think about alternative strategies, balancing the needs of people living on the east coast with the need to protect the environment. If the government can rethink the need for the freeway and offer some innovative alternatives it could set an example for the rest of Taiwan to follow.  

bicycles parked on the footpath near Jiangzicui MRT Station

Update: The Taipei Times has an editorial today questioning the need to build the Suhua Freeway. (added 10 February 2007)

11 thoughts on “Sustainable transport: planning and vision and required

  1. I am really glad the media is discussing this. I am amazed at how much traffic has been reduced in Taipei since the MRT started running. It used to be completely back up with buses, taxis, and private cars. There even seems to be less pollution today. I haven’t spent much time out of Taipei but if other cities are suffering a major traffic crisis it would do them well to follow Taipei’s example. It will probably hurt the business of buses and taxis but is an inevitable growing pain to build healthier cities.

    Now if we could only apply the same pressure to Los Angeles. The traffic and pollution problem there (and the fact everyone insists on driving their SUVs) make me sick!

  2. But let’s not forget- Taipei is public transit paradise compared to anywhere else in the country.

  3. I agree, the MRT saved Taipei. I tell that to everyone I meet. I just can’t get over the difference at how it has completely transformed the city from when I last lived here in 1993.

  4. My former major in college was Civil Engineering. Once on a course named Traffic Engineering, we had a discussion on the traffic system topic. The debate was: Why we apply the American traffic system into this tiny island but not the Japanese style? There\’re no clear answers but finally we had some conclusions (I\’d say possibilities instead):
    1. The trend: At the age building highways seemed to be a symbol of being civilized. In the other hand, more private vehicles on road represented a rich, advanced society. People didn\’t realize the impact of heavy traffic at that time.
    2. The knowledge main stream: In the period, most of the knowledge of traffic planning came from American experts and Taiwanese scholars (also decision makers) who educated in the States. Applying a highway system was undoubtedly natural then.

    The mass highway system today seems to be the last priority for rescuing our poor traffic by the conditions of lack of space and blooming population. The Japanese style (light rail system, mass rapid transit and high speed railway) is comparatively more suitable for our situation right now.

    Personally, I strongly felt uncomfortable on the plan of building Suhua Freeway! Who will benefit from the four-lane road most? Crazy truck drivers or urban racers? Definitely not the local people and tourists. Who wish to travel without seeing the beautiful coast line during the trip just for saving a couple of hours? See the scar on Lan-Yang Plain. Try closer to the houses standing in the shadow nearby the overpass No.5 Highway, you\’ll see how horribly the human artifact cut through the last unpolluted paradise on the island. Hsuehshan Tunnel may be amazing, it indeed brings convenience but that\’s enough. Personally I\’d like them end the great construction till the exit of the tunnel, drop the \”highway rules\” thoughts away! I know Hsuehshan Tunnel brings convenience, and heavy traffic as well! But 100 alternative paths (normal roads I mean) are much much better than a highway viaduct to our environment!

  5. kyc, thanks for your informative comments.

    I totally agree that the Suhua Freeway is the last thing Taiwan needs. The drive to build it is no doubt politically motivated. Hualian and Taidong voters tend to support the KMT. The DPP is keen to woo them with a big project. And of course there are likely to be significant kickbacks involved in such a large project.

    Surely with a bit of thinking some new and innovative developments that are not as environmentally destructive could be planned for the east coast. If the government can find billions of dollars to build a freeway then surely it could also find similar amounts of money for other projects.

    NOT building the freeway could also make the start of a new trend. Taiwan could finally say that there will be no more major road construction projects and future investment will be in more sustainable forms of transport.

  6. It is good to see this topic being discussed. I wish more people would discuss the economics and environmental aspects of transportation. In countries where the standard of living is high or rising, I think people are going to have to embrace the idea of urban living and mass transportation.

    Speaking of Japan, while I feel Japan has one of the best systems in Asia, I think Japan has a long way to go. Rather than building infrastructure in areas that could use mass transportation, the city of Tokyo just keeps digging deeper to make new lines. They build new exits and transfer points to an area that does not need it. How many more entrances to the metro does the Minato-ward really need? You hardly need to walk at all in that part of the city! Instead, Tokyo should be working with the neighboring prefectures and private rail companies to build a more extensive network for commuters. The famous crowded trains in Tokyo are not the lines running inside of Tokyo, but the commuter lines coming in from the neighboring prefectures and outskirts of Tokyo.

    Japan was doing things right in the past, but then again that was when the government owned the rail company and subsidized it all. Now that the rails are primarily operated by private companies , well, it is quite easy to see that the population is quickly outgrowing and overflowing the current transportation system.

    Another thing in Japan I’d like to see is a push by the government to encourage bicycle transportation. In the major areas of Tokyo there is no where to park one’s bicycle. Even in the outskirts of Tokyo one has to pay high parking fees just to park one’s bicycle near a train station or near a shopping area. You can park two bicycles with baskets in the space it takes to part one scooter, so if they are going to charge for parking I wish they’d raise the price on scooters, or elimate the cost for bicycles.

  7. It’s not an issue of planning; a google search will reveal that almost every major city has plans for either light or heavy rail lines. The problem is with its implementation. Unlike Taipei, places such as Taoyuan don’t have the tax base to support the construction, never mind the real possiblity of having to subsidize its operation. Taipei has been able to run the mrt at a profit in part because it’s been successful at moving a million bus passengers over to the trains. Once again, other than Kaohsiung, many other cites don’t have a large capitive bus market to tap. They will have try to promote the train as an alternative to the scooter. So the question must be asked – how many mrt lines do you need til people few the coverage is adequate enough to make the switch? Considering most smaller ciites don’t have a major hub of employment, I just don’t see this happening. Now, if the Taiwanese were willing to fill the government coffers by paying the same in taxes as developed nations the economic equation might change, but how likely is that.

  8. Huang, you make a good point. There is not a culture of using public transport in many places in Taiwan. Ideally governments would put in place policies that encourage the shift from scooters and cars to public transport, but you need to have the public transport infrastructure in place first. Also I think the policies to encourage public transport need to include both carrot and stick.

  9. Bryan, thanks for your comment. It is nice to have a perspective from Japan. I am sure Taiwan could learn a lot from other countries in the region like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.

    As far as promoting bicycle use goes some European cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen have very high rates of bicycle usage. There are lots of little things the government could do to encourage bicycle use that would cost a fraction of building new road or rail infrastructure. It is ironic that Taiwan is the world leader in bicycle manufacturing, but very few people here ride bikes.

  10. As a follow up to my previous post, I think it should be noted that the government is supporting the construction of some important TRA/THSR connections. These projects include the TPE – Jhongli MRT, Hsinchu Lioujia Line, and the Tainan Salun Line. Unfortunately, in order for construction to proceed the MTOC budget must be approved by the opposition controlled legislature.

  11. Taiwan is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Good public transportation may have high up-front costs, but it just plain makes sense in the long run.

    I cannot imagine living in Taipei without the MRT. I refuse to get on a scooter and I’d imagine that I’m putting my life and lungs in jeopardy every time I brave the traffic with my bicycle.

Comments are closed.