Monday, September 1, 2014

Taipei - City of the Future, and the Great Walls of China

I found this article on China's urban planning mess courtesy of Alexander Synaptic's Facebook page, and felt that there was some relevance to Taiwan in here that I felt like writing about.

So while I have a couple of women's issues and hiking posts on the back burner, I'll tackle this first.

One reason I love living in Taipei (Taipei specifically, although the rest of Taiwan is not bad in this regard either) is that they have largely avoided the urban planning mistakes of much of the USA, which China is now falling prey to. It's the same reason why, when I was a resident of the country of my citizenship, I enjoyed living in Arlington, Virginia.

It's also a reason why I am not that interested in living in the major urban centers of China.

Basically, I have seen with my own eyes how Beijing was transformed, in a generation, from a city of interconnected, pedestrian-and-bike friendly hutongs connected by roads with bike lanes and dotted with historical sites and squares into a smoggy hellscape of massive ring roads, six-lane highways (downtown, even!) with unpleasant sidewalks if they existed at all and no more bike lanes. The old hutongs were either torn town for glass-and-steel monstrosities that soared into the gray-brown smog above, leaving little space for street-level development, or turned into ersatz up-market "hutongs" dotted with tourist shops replacing the erstwhile real deal.

Why would I want to live in that?

As one of my former coworkers put it, in Taipei, as ugly as some of the architecture is (and I don't think it's all ugly - only some of it - but there is charm to be found if you look closely), as you walk down the street there's a lot to see. Old stores jostling for space with new ones. Chefs from Hong Kong style restaurants smoking outside, backed by with ducks hanging behind glass. Red lanterns and carts full of barbecue, tempura, tofu, dumplings, buns, onion pancakes and more. Basically, you can walk down most streets and they practically shove the food in your face. But walk down a street in Beijing and you're likely to have four lanes of exhaust-spewing cars on one side, and on the other...a wall. Maybe they thought the one great wall was so damn great they needed to fill the whole city with them. Or maybe some horrible glass box - no shops, no lanterns, no food, not much street life at all really.

Why would I want to live in that?

And as this happens, more and more people are fleeing to the suburbs. Can you blame them? With a city center so uninviting to life-after-work, surrounded by not-so-great walls, it makes sense to flee.

But that's just what happened in the USA, and I don't want to live in the vast majority of places in the USA either, so why would I want to live in that?

Every time I go back to the USA, I end up being picked up at the airport. There's no other convenient way to do it. There are buses (and you have to make connections) but no Airport Express trains. It takes forever to get between cities because either you have to "beat the traffic" or take the (usually delayed) train. No bullet trains (the Acela emphatically does not count). Visiting either set of parents, we can't go anywhere without driving, and one has to drive to the nearest urban center. That's fine, if you're in the country - you have to do that in Taiwan, too - but once in that urban center, you also have to drive! There is no worse driving than that of a multi-lane open highway that empties out into a series of shopping centers interconnected in the most mind-bending ways.

Not a thought to building more public transit - there are buses, but you wouldn't want to rely on them. There aren't any subways or trams. The only subway system worth a damn is in New York, and that one is in desperate need of upgrades and maybe a nice bath. In DC, we'd head down to the Metro and find we had to wait 14 minutes - this in the early evening on a weekday, when it's fairly busy - for a train to go three stops, but the trip wasn't walkable. 14 minutes! To catch a train to go three stops! That's only like a 5 minute trip! In Taipei if you have to wait 6 minutes (which only happens at night or on the Xinyi Line, which I hope they fix soon) you're groaning. I couldn't possibly have been a freelancer in DC the way I am in Taipei - I'd need to own a car I couldn't have afforded. There would be no other way to get between my various jobs in any decent amount of time. Everything was so spread out.

It's a reason why I can't attend grad school in the USA: not only can I not afford it (I would seriously never be able to pay off that loan), but a lot of schools are in areas where you need a car to get around.

I can't stand American urban planning in America - it's one reason why I left (also: healthcare, and fear for my safety in a country of people packing heat where the streets are not always safe for women. Guns make me feel less safe, not safer) - so obviously I wouldn't want to deal with it in China.

Taipei, on the other hand, is like the city of the future.

In DC, when I arrived in 1998, they had been talking about the "silver line" to the airport for years already. This was when Taipei's metro was first getting started (that's the year the yellow line opened). In that time, the silver line hadn't even begun construction (no ground was broken while I was in college, nor did it begin when I lived there again from 2004-2006) whereas Taipei's metro grew from an infant into a fiercely competent adult.

To recap: Taipei built an entire metro system in the time it took for DC to argue about the silver line for years, and not do jack about it. Taipei's metro is still growing, whereas the silver line, after they finally broke ground, is only about halfway complete. You still can't ride it out to the airport. It took DC to build half a Metro line in the time it took Taipei to build, basically, an entire metro system.

(This is, incidentally, why I would consider living in Kaohsiung but I hate Taichung).

Living in a city where a new metro line opens every few years and changes the face of public transit for the better (I can now take the MRT to Taipei 101 directly!) feels like a city in progress. A city that's growing. Living in a city where I felt constricted in where I could go and how fast I could get there, if at all, felt like living in a city that was slowly crumbling. The Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

Taipei residents understand the importance of an interesting, multi-use, well-connected, safe urban core that is good for something other than financial centers in horrible glass boxes surrounded by houses and shopping complexes you have to drive to. There's a reason why, despite the pushiness of various real estate developers, that nobody really wants to live in Linkou despite all the new, cheap apartments being built out there. It's the choice you make if you want to buy, not rent, but can't afford Taipei. It's not like the USA where people chose to live far from the city in boring little subdivisions where sidewalks weren't even guaranteed to exist.

I like that people here understand the life-enhancing importance of convenience, and how sometimes it's worth it to trade space for that convenience. Between having a yard and needing a car to drive to Buy 'N Large, or being able to walk less than a minute to the nearest supermarket and convenience store and restaurant and massage parlor and hardware store, I'll take the latter, and for the most part Taipei residents agree with me. In terms of urban planning, I've found My People.

Although we could have better sidewalks, urban thoroughfares netted together with quiet lanes, many planted with trees, parks dotting the landscape, street-level commerce of all types, a comprehensive public transit system and the ease of the new bike sharing program (which has been a stunning success, although we could sure use more real bike lanes with bike lane rules enforced), Taipei residents just get it. This was the urban planning of the past - the type of planning that makes towns like downtown Bangor, ME and New Paltz, NY so pleasant to walk around - and it is the urban planning of the future.

Why wouldn't I want to live here?

Another note on Taipei as City of the Future: I've become so accustomed to convenience here that the idea that I'd have to spend more than five minutes to get any given basic thing I needed has become alien to me. The idea that I'd have to hop in a car to do anything other than go hiking (and in Taipei you don't even have to do that - you can take the bus to most good hikes, and the MRT to some, too) is just ludicrous to me. I now feel that if I can't get breakfast in one minute, that city sucks. I liked Shanghai alright (wouldn't live there, though), but I had to walk 7 minutes just to find a Cafe 85 to get some coffee and baked goods for breakfast. No other options. This on Nanjing Road. That city sucks. It doesn't get a second chance. One minute to breakfast, or you're out.

I'm so used to being able to go to 7-11 for everything: buying books I've ordered, picking up a spare pair of socks, lunch, coffee (and pretty good coffee at that, at least as far as convenience stores go), copies, printing, bill paying, rental contracts, high speed rail tickets, concert tickets and more - and having two of those within sight of my building - it's like The Future, but the future is here.

No great walls. No faceless glass boxes. No six-lane highways downtown. No open-access highways to South Maple Falls Shopping Center far from your home, where it takes 30 minutes to drive to the store, get what you need and come home. None of that.

Even traffic isn't that bad: I mean, it's bad, but it's not like...it's not like 66 in the DC area where you are basically parked at rush hour. You can hop in a cab at rush hour and still get to where you need to go in the city without banging your head on the back of the seat in frustration. You can catch a bus at 6pm and buses are frequent enough that you might even get a seat, and you'll get home in a reasonable amount of time. And you live near where you work - Taipei residents understand the importance of a short commute. A commute of over 30 minutes is basically a human rights violation to most of us.

And yes, we have to give up a little space, but there's something to be said for owning less stuff and inhabiting less space - good for the environment too. Surprisingly, dense urban cores that lack massive sprawl are also more environmentally friendly than over-manicured suburbs and snaking, gridlocked highways - and being home soon after you finish work. And for thinking "I want...whatever" and being able to walk or bike to whatever it is you want.

Is that guest bedroom and extra half bath really worth the hour-long commute and the 20 minute drive along the worst kind of road to the nearest supermarket? Not to me. I've found my people, and we are the future.

4 comments:

Taipeixifu said...

Ain't that the truth! I am so sick of strip malls and shopping centers. That's literally where we do all of our shopping here in Vancouver, WA (not the the "cool Vancouver," which is of course further north in Canada).

On the bright side, we're just a hop, skip and a jump away from the happening city of Portland, Oregon- land of my alma mater, one of the biggest used bookstores (if not the biggest) in the country- Powell's, quirky-artsy (formerly hippie, but increasingly hipster/high brow) folks.

I almost forgot to mention: bike lanes galore and maybe the best public transit system in the country are also to be found in Portlandia. I couldn't find a decent job here or I would have stayed. But then I would have never met my husband and things would have worked out a lot differently for me. And I love Taipei, too. Can't wait to be back home!

terryble T said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenna Cody said...

I almost didn't publish the above, but decided that, although I strongly disagree with it, it's still a viewpoint so I'll let it be (though I'm not convinced it's not a troll: "the transportation system in the US was once phenomenal and largely still is"? Are you on crack? The transportation system in America is only so-so for people with cars - roads haven't been renovated to account for modern traffic needs and many are in dire need of repair - and for people without cars it's a fucking joke. You are basically dead wrong there. Objectively wrong. Like, infrastructure planners, urban planners and traffic engineers will tell you you're wrong. NEXT.)

I also find your comments about Taiwanese offensive and racist. I might delete your comment just for that.

You also clearly don't know much about Taipei architecture if you think there are only two kinds of buildings. Have you even been to the areas around Bopiliao and Dihua Street? I LOL at your comment.

Unknown said...

I'm from VA Beach and have lived in some US cities. I was glad to see someone from a similar place to see the amazing urban planning of Taipei (I can't say the same for the other cities).

Somehow, Taiwan's human settlements (village, town, city) are all dense, and they seem to inhabit spaces in quite a magical way with small houses, few belongings, and small independent shops (and convenient stores).

I find the old neighborhoods, despite lacking a yard and sidewalks the greatest place I've lived in, especially if there is a small neighborhood park nearby with old people doing odd exercises and taichi. :)

Anyway, just glad to read. I was thinking about checking Taizhong (sounds like terrible planning but good people and weather), and debating the east coast vs Taipei. I think I'm too much of a city person, and perhaps living closer to the south to have access to hiking is indeed the best of both.