Taiwan’s public transport – a model for all?

Like me when you hear Taiwan, you probably think HTC, semi-conductors, and traffic and air pollution rivalling China’s smoggy cities. Not mountains, sub-tropical rainforest, all easily accessible by cheap fast public transport, and relatively clean air and blue skies!

On the surface it looks as if this country is doing a pretty good job of enabling people to commute and travel whilst protecting the environment. The Green Dragon appears to live on.

We travel on a quickly pre-booked fast train from Taoyuoshan, a new city, near the airport to Taipei Main Station about 40km away. The train is on time and we even get a seat reservation 15mins in advance. We are in the centre of Tapei in about 20mins for under £4. For a Mumbai commuter, even a Londoner, this is to die for. The train doesn’t however go to airport – to be contrasted with projects in India like the Bangalore high speed line that will begin with an airport link. Primacy isn’t given to the most polluting means of travel.

The city of Taipei itself has a self-financing state of the art mass rapid transport system connecting a huge part of northern Taiwan called New Taipei, used by 2.1mill people a day. A recent study conducted by researchers at UC Merced found that it led to significant reductions in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide levels, rather than just increasing commuter trips.

None of this happened quickly or painlessly. The original proposal came from the Minister of Transportation and Communications Sun Yun-suan in 1968. Works began in 1986 leading initially to the Dark Age of Taipei Traffic. The original budget was US$ 13.4bn but as usual there were costs over-runs. The system opened in part in 1996, and was completed by 2013.

Other than those hiccups Taipei MRT is a success, the no 1 in the world in fact. It has 100% disability access. It is clean, has some good views, and cable cars thrown in too. It pays for itself through the large numbers using the system.

We have a great time of it happily travelling over a holiday weekend from the centre of Taipei, to the end of the line to Wulai up in the mountains in around an hour (and into the hot springs not long after). In terms of the system as a whole, the buses too are good. We travel by bus from Taipei Main Station into Yanmingshan National Park – mountains, clouds, hot springs and hikes in 45mins. There are bikes to hire in Taipei and one can cycle around wide tree-lined boulevards, though I do wonder as we walk in the heat whether Hausmann style boulevards were ever the right thing for the East.

Enough of the commercial for the tourism department – its not all plain sailing! The southern city of Kaoshiung has also built a mass transport system but in this case it’s under-used. Residents seem to prefer scooters and cars. There is still plenty of parking and petrol is cheap – that may explain it. More generally, there remain large numbers of private cars in Taiwan and public transport use is not nearly as high as in neighbouring Hong Kong.

So its not that straightforward – all the chips must be in place to have a self-financing metro. But the Taiwanese have made this largely a success and been bold in taking the lead on mass transport systems. They seem to have designed systems for the people and not just for the car owners and aspiring car owners. Perhaps the transport system reflects the higher level of equality in Taiwan than in some other parts of the world.

Can we get a delegation of Taiwanese transport planners to advise on Nairobi, Goa, and perhaps even the north west of England!

Notes:

With a country of 23.4mill people on a land area of 36,000km2 you’d be forgiven for thinking the landscape has long been taken over by urban sprawl, congested highways and factories. But in fact the country remains a pretty pristine mix of the urban and the wild.
It is highly urbanised and with a relatively high standard of living, average income $38,200 a year, ranked 29th in the world for its GDP, about 4 countries richer than the UK.
According to the CIA, Taiwan’s ration of top 20% to bottom 20% is 6.1 much more equal than the UK on 13.6, India on 8.6 and Kenya on 18.6.

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