Friday, October 28, 2011

The Public Transit Conundrum

This editorial on public transit in Taiwan is something I really agree with. It's quite timely for me, having just returned from the USA, to talk briefly about public transit in Taipei. Taishun Street has a number of articulate posts on the topic, so take a look over there if you want another pro-public-transit perspective.

When we lived in the Washington, DC area, and when we returned in our early Taiwan years to DC to visit friends and some of my extended family, we relied heavily on public transit there. This trip was different: now almost all of our friends own cars and since we are mainly in town to see them, they're usually kind enough to give us rides - and when we go "sightseeing" (more like revisiting old favorite places, seeing new monuments) we no longer take Metro or Metrobus: one person drives - usually our friend M who is a bold city driver and has great luck with street parking - and we all pile in.

I used to think that public transit in DC was great - after all it's widely believed to be the best public transit system in the USA. I would contest that: it beats out the L, the T, BART and whatever Philadelphia has. Sure, unlike New York it's air-conditioned, trains are generally clean and it doesn't smell like urine and homeless people. That said, it's not nearly as extensive as it needs to be (only New York can claim that mantle, of all American transit systems), the waiting time for trains is really unacceptable, especially on the outer ends of the lines that double up in the city, the stations are dark and creepy (one book calls them "attractive and well-lit". I want to know what that guy is smoking!) and the buses are unreliable and inconvenient to use on the outskirts of the Metro area.

In Taipei we regularly use public transit to get to trailheads for hiking or go on day trips. You can go far on the MRT, bus network and buses leaving Taipei, although once you leave the area around Taipei City, you may have to fill in the gaps with taxis - fortunately, taxis are cheap. The DC equivalent would be using public transit to take day trips to Baltimore, Ocean City, Annapolis or Richmond, hike the Billy Goat Trail, go down to Shenandoah or up to Harper's Ferry. Well, you can't do any of those things. Technically you can take a bus to Baltimore or Richmond but once there you can't really go anywhere, and you can take a train to Harper's Ferry but due to departure/arrival times, you can't do it in a day trip. You're looking at at least a full day and two nights.

So yeah, now that I live in Taipei, I've long since stopped thinking that public transit in DC is great, or even good. In fact, now I think it kind of sucks. It has its defenders, but I say: its defenders haven't been to Taipei where the stations are clean and bright, the escalators always work, there are restrooms (and they're generally quite good!), trains come an average of every five minutes and signs will tell you down to five seconds when the next one is coming. Come to Taipei, take a few day trips or flit around the city on public transit, and then go back to DC and tell me if it's any good. You can throw me an e-mail from your bus stop after your bus arrives 20 minutes late if at all, or while you're waiting 14 minutes for a train, or the Red Line is on fire (again), or you're huffing and puffing up a long, out-of-service escalator.

Anyway, back to Taiwan. Taipei has excellent public transit - and it'll be even better once the MRT reaches its planned network size, but let's be honest: the rest of the country doesn't. From what I hear, it used to: buses would travel far more extensive networks and depart more often and you could get to a lot of places that you now need a car to reach. Only Kaohsiung and the High Speed Rail have been improvements (my only complaints about the HSR is that it doesn't go down to Kending and that the stations are too far from city centers. Otherwise, I love it and use it often for work: of course, since it's mostly for work I don't have to pay for it).

I agree with 鄧志忠's editorial in this case: Taipei has done an excellent job of building a fantastic MRT from scratch in an astoundingly short time, but the rest of Taiwan is really lacking good public transit - if anything, it's gotten worse.
This is a huge problem: Taiwan shouldn't be going in the direction of postwar America, where suburbs created a greater need for cars (encouraged, of course, by auto manufacturers and oil companies), public transit in many urban centers was dismantled or never built at all, and when it was built it wasn't nearly extensive enough. Only New York, which was ahead of the curve, managed to build something useful - because it did so mostly pre-war. If it had waited to start building subways, it too would be woefully inadequate. So what did Americans do? They all bought cars, they spewed and continue to spew pollution into the atmosphere, and they've all convinced themselves that they need, need, need their Earth-killing, congestion-inducing cars - so when public transit is introduced, nobody takes it ("but I need my car! Waaaaah!"). Do we really want that in Taiwan? I don't think so, but that's the direction we're headed in. Convince people that they need cars and they'll, well, they'll need cars. Show people how great life can be if a public transit network is extensive enough to suit their needs, and they'll take public transit.

Instead of building more highways - although that needs to be done to some degree, as well - there should be more investment in buses on rural routes, especially mountain routes where people unused to mountain driving would probably be better off not nervously swinging around high-altitude switchbacks for hours on end. Taichung really, truly needs a public transit system that doesn't suck: a lot of people say that Taichung is a fine place to live. Some go so far as to say that it's the best city to settle in for expats. I disagree: it will never be good enough without public transit. If you need to buy a scooter to get around, it's not ideal. This is one way in which I believe Taipei is really the better place to live, even if the weather sucks and I disagree with its political bent. Build an MRT and I'll consider Taichung as a place worth living in.

Because, really, public transit is good for everyone: it relieves road congestion and chaos for those who must or should drive (couriers, salespeople who make several daily client calls, people giving elderly relatives a ride etc.), it's more environmentally friendly, it reduces smog and pollution and it encourages more walking and reduces isolation. It's also good for people who: hate driving; who can drive but hate city, open highway and mountain driving (me); are legally blind or otherwise can't drive (a friend of mine as well as a friend of my mother's fall into this category); the elderly who are too infirm or blind to drive; and those who are simply bad drivers. Having to drive to get anywhere is extremely limiting for those people. 

So, in the end, we want to be going in the opposite direction of the USA. Taiwan should be encouraging public transit, not opposing it and definitely not shrinking it - which is a real concern, as bus routes are, in fact, shrinking island-wide. Taichung, Hualien, Taidong, Taoyuan, Yilan, Luodong and Hsinchu all need improved networks (even if it's just buses - though Taichung is big enough to warrant an actual MRT). We need to encourage the public to use public transit, reminding them that no, you don't need a car. Of course, first, we need to build networks extensive enough to serve people's needs so they're not actually right when they say they need a car. 


J said...

Also worth pointing out that not only is the MRT better in every way than any American system (though it lacks NYC's extensiveness), it's also profitable. In other words it offers much better service for far less money.
The problem in Taiwan isn't just that there's no good public transit, it's that the government does too much to make driving convenient. My guess is that that's the problem in Kaohsiung, and will be a problem in Taichung. For public transit to succeed- and to curb driving- the government has to remove driving subsidies like free parking and free roads (ie roads not paid for via gas taxes or other fees), start charging drivers for the damage they cause to society as a whole via pollution and causing accidents, and start taking pedestrian safety seriously.

John S said...

As for "needing" a personal car, many Taiwanese have told me that there is often an issue of "face" involved. It is fine for college students and maybe even the hands-on engineers at a company to ride scooters or even take a bus or the MRT to the office.

But if they get promoted to any kind of supervisory or managerial position, then it's not OK anymore. They are expected to buy a car that reflects their new position (and income), and to drive it to work, even if they have to pay lots of money for a parking space five blocks away. I guess the next promotion means they need to buy a set of golf clubs.

I know hard-working engineers at OEM tech companies in Taipei County that told me they would actually rather ride their scooter to work because it is just faster and more convenient, but their superiors made it known that that "looked bad" now that they had been promoted to team-leader or project manager. I guess it would also look bad if they rode the MRT or the bus to the office.

That "need" may be more for men than women. A male manager should drive a car to work, but I know female project managers who take a bus or ride a scooter to the office, and perhaps that doesn't look as bad for the company.

Jenna Cody said...

John - that's true for some companies, sure, but not nearly all (I have a wide enough base of students, all of whom work in business, to really say something about this - to the point that my student base in Taipei could be a real sample size).

Sure, I can name a company where sales reps are expected to have a car - not a scooter, even though you can make sales calls as easily if not more easily on a scooter - but the company reimburses for gas money used at work (I think they give a set amount based on sales volume, the idea being that a higher sales volume means you probably used more gas driving to clients). I can name others where they all do have cars, even though they don't necessarily need them. I do have not only students but also friends who feel that owning a car is important just because they like being able to drive around the island without having to rent - these people generally have kids and won't pay HSR fees - and a scooter can't hold the kids, the MRT doesn't extend to their parents' homes in Miaoli, and they don't like getting rained on on a scooter anyhow.

On the other hand, I can also name one huge tech company in Hsinchu where everyone has cars, because everyone can afford them - but students have said that a lot of people drive scooters to work in good weather and only take cars when it's nasty out. I have students who are at the managerial or even senior managerial level who take the MRT because they prefer it, and nobody chastises them. I have one student who, while this may not be great for the environment it's still an improvement over a car that takes up parking space, doesn't like to drive and takes a taxi to work daily because she sees it as essential to her comfort. You can imagine that she makes very good money (I take taxis almost every day too, but I get reimbursed for them).

One company I've taught at (and will likely be going back to soon) is in Wugu (out past Sanchong). The class consisted of four men, one of whom was more senior than all the others - he actually headed the department. I took the MRT and a taxi there, and a student drove me back to the MRT after class. The student who drove me wasn't the department head, because he didn't have a car - he rode a scooter to work. Another student did it (this student had a rickety old car that he only drove to work and to Yilan on the weekends).

And, you know, I do have students who work at high levels in their company who take the MRT, and plenty others who have one car in their household and the two spouses carpool.

So I wouldn't say that it's an across the board thing at all.