Showing posts with label public_transportation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label public_transportation. Show all posts

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Taichung City government is discriminating against foreign residents for no good reason

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It's time to complain again. I hate this as much as you do.


It was announced recently that the Taichung City government would be ending its program offering free public transportation for the first 10km of any ride to all passengers. Starting January 1st, the free transit is only available to some "Taichung residents". Of course, that doesn't mean all Taichung residents, only Taichung residents who are Taiwanese. 

Foreign residents of Taichung are out of luck. 

I'm not a Taichung resident, but if you are, you absolutely should complain. Here's a link to do exactly that. Pass it on. 


The policy will still include foreign spouses and students studying in Taichung, but foreigners without a local spouse will have to pay. 

Let's leave aside that Taichung public transportation is a bit of a joke (it's hard to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time and every time I go I'm stuck taking taxis everywhere as I don't drive in cities). This is a shame, as good transit makes good cities for residents and visitors alike. The benefits are innumerable and undeniable. I'll be interested to see if the new MRT line improves the situation. 

Let's focus instead on the biggest impact: foreign blue-collar workers, typically factory workers and caregivers/home health aides. 

For "us" (relatively comfortable members of the foreign community who aren't going to hurt from having to pay a small amount for public transit), the insult is more symbolic. For me, it's entirely symbolic: I don't live in Taichung so I'd have to pay regardless, and I'm fine with that. 

For foreign residents who are routinely underpaid, work long hours and are more likely to rely on public transportation on a tight budget, the difference between being able to use the system for free like any other Taichung resident and being asked to pay is likely to exacerbate real struggles. 

As with every city in Taiwan, Taichung needs these workers. They are part of the backbone of a city's workforce. Here in Taipei, I don't know how my local community, full of senior citizens, would function without the large number of caregivers. Taichung's industrial centers surely need them as well. They are residents too, and it's offensive to treat them as outsiders, asking them pay for a service that's free for other residents, all while paying them below-average wages. 

Most visitors will bring or rent their own transportation, or use taxis like me. That means the vast majority of people asked to pay will still be Taichung residents -- just not Taiwanese ones. 

It's not a bad idea to charge for public transit, but it is deeply unfair to ask only some residents to pay, especially when so many of those residents struggle more than their Taiwanese neighbors.

Even though for us privileged foreigners, the issue is the principle and not the actual money involved, it's still offensive. We've been through this before -- again, again, and again. At this point, it's clear that forgetting that foreigners reside in Taiwan too, and we depend on the services that our taxes help pay for too, is either deliberate or deliberately obtuse.

In short, I am extremely tired of the whole "we forgot you guys existed!" game. It's getting old and it's got to stop. Especially when you don't know when the exclusion is deliberate and when your communities are just...forgotten. 

Plus, it reeks of a localist mindset - the only residents of Taiwan who matter are Taiwanese, apparently - that won't help Taiwan in its efforts to reach out internationally. Taiwan not only needs its local workers, both the blue-collar workers that basically keep Taiwan running and the white-collar ones who at the very least pay taxes and are an integral part of the economy, but we're also a strong source of soft power abroad. Some (like me) are privileged and some are underprivileged (a situation which really must be dealt with), but along with locals, we are all residents and we should all be in this together, and be a force that is good for Taiwan together. If the truth is "Taiwan for Taiwanese only and foreigners are only welcome to a certain extent, for what they can give us, but we'll shortchange them at every opportunity"...well, that's just not good for the country. 

And there's no good reason for it. Why can't Taichung residency be determined by the address on your ARC? Why include students (meaning that you're willing to include people without a local household registration) but not foreigners who've lived here for longer? If it's because "students are usually on a budget", well, blue-collar foreign workers are too because they're so underpaid so that's not an excuse either. I could understand making it free for all residents but charging visitors, but this is just plain discrimination as it's not going to be free for all residents! 

Yet it may be free for some visitors -- if your household registration is in Taichung it won't matter if you live in a different city, you'll get the benefit while plenty of actual Taichung residents won't. This isn't a "help Taichungers" strategy. It's an anti-foreigner one.

In short, Taiwan is never going to reach out to the international community abroad effectively if it can't even reach out to the international community locally. If it still forgets -- or stubbornly insists -- that we don't matter, or we don't exist, or that double-standard treatment for different residents is acceptable, or that some residents are more "real" residents than others.

It's not acceptable. It has to stop. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Youbike discriminates against foreigners

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It feels as though every time life in Taiwan for the foreign community gets better - websites improve, companies will take our resident visa numbers rather than saying they're "invalid" - it's inevitable that soon, it'll also get a little bit worse. Two steps forward, one step back.

Today, the issue is YouBike.

The Facebook group Taiwan Foreign Residents' Association confirmed just a few hours ago that YouBike, once open to registration by all residents, including foreigners who have made Taiwan their home, now does not allow foreigners to register their EasyCards for use with YouBike.

Apparently, the reason is that YouBike now offers personal injury insurance, and such insurance is not available to foreign residents, therefore, no new registrations will be allowed (they had been allowed previously).


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Of course, there is no reason why they can't offer foreign residents this insurance. We pay taxes and pay into NHI just as citizens do. Many of us - myself included - also pay into labor insurance. We pay our dues, and deserve equal treatment.

Suggestions from YouBike staff so far have been to recommend that we register with a local friend's information - you know, like we're criminals trying to hide - or have a friend rent a bike for us (because of course, we should all have Taiwanese friends with nothing to do willing to come out and meet us every time we want to rent a bike, and also be available to us at our destination when we return the bike. Yeah, right). The other workaround is to rent one on your bank card with a one-time registration and NT$2000 deposit.

Nevermind that NT$2000 - around US$60 - is a lot of money in the local economy for something as simple as a bike ride. You do get the money back, but imagine if you rented a YouBike every day. Your bank account would be a mess, with that $2000 deposit coming and going daily. Apparently it can take up to 15 days to be refunded, but if you ride YouBike every day, does that mean every 15 days you have to hand the government NT$30,000 in deposits? If you ride it twice a day - say, to and from work - that's NT$60,000, more than the average local salary.

How is someone supposed to stay on top of their finances that way? Do they expect that foreigners will only rent YouBikes occasionally? I know people who rent one every single day. 



The other suggestion, apparently, is to giggle at the person calling because there are no other options.

Let me be clear: this is discriminatory. It is unfair. We have made Taiwan our home. We live here, work here and pay taxes here. YouBike is a government project. It is simply not acceptable to withhold government services to foreigners as though we are second-class citizens. Unwanted, untrustworthy.

Is this the face Taiwan and YouBike want to present to the world? The famous hospitality and friendliness of Taiwan, oh, except you can never truly live here as a normal person, we'll always make life difficult for you for no reason at all?

If Taiwan wants to open up to the world, to be an international nation and Taipei and international city, it must do better. It cannot treat foreigners like undesirable scum. We are not criminals. We work and pay into the system like everyone else, and so we deserve the same transportation benefits as everyone else. Period.

Even tourist deserve better - part of the whole point of YouBike is to encourage tourism by helping people get out of the city. Taipei Magazine routinely suggests tourist itineraries that use YouBike - how do they expect tourists to use it if they can't even register with the EasyCards they're going to get? Do you really think they'll pay NT$20,000 for every YouBike rental on their visit, to be refunded long after they leave? It's ridiculous!

It shouldn't be hard for the time being to create a registration system that opts out all registrants without a National ID. Hopefully the law will be changed to allow residents to participate in the insurance scheme, but for now that would be a sensible workaround.

In fact, what happens if a friend does register for you, and there's a crash? Does the insurance apply? If not, can't you sue, as technically the insurance was activated upon registration? If that's the case, doesn't that just create more confusion? If current users can still access the system, what happens if they are in a crash? The workaround suggestion negates the rationale for the change.

Finally, aren't the format of ARC and APRC numbers supposed to change soon, to match national ID numbers? What happens then? The whole thing is a mess. It doesn't make sense, meaning the reason boils down not to regulatory issues, but idiotic, discriminatory, self-defeating and short-sighted decisions.


Do better, Taipei. Do better, Taiwan. And do better, YouBike. 


If you want to complain to YouBike, you cannot contact them from their website because that requires a national ID card number. ARC numbers are not accepted. But you can email or call them:

City Hotline: 1999, ext. 5855 / 02-89785511
service-taipei@youbike.com.tw

Or, you can send a complaint to the Taipei City government under the "simple petition system" here. You can leave the National ID section blank (unlike on the YouBike website).

I suggest you do all of those things. Let's make them feel this.

This is what I wrote:

Hi, 
I'm writing because it's becoming well-known in the foreign community in Taiwan that Youbike is no longer offering Easycard registrations for foreigners who live here, even if we are permanent residents or otherwise have a resident visa. 
This is unfair and discriminatory. We pay taxes and pay into National Health Insurance (so insurance issues should not be a reason to discriminate). I personally have lived here for over 13 years; to say that I cannot access the same services as other Taipei residents makes me feel like an unwanted, second-class citizen. Is this the face Taiwan and Youbike want to show the world? That they are unfriendly - even hostile - to foreigners? 
Having to put down an NT$2000 deposit is simply not fair for people who have built their lives in Taiwan. We are not tourists. We are *residents* and we live, work and pay taxes like *residents*. We deserve to be treated like *residents*, not "scary foreigners" who can't be trusted. We are not criminals! 
Taiwan must do better, and Youbike must do better.
I am sure that this story will hit the media soon, so I request kindly that the policy be changed as soon as possible to end all unfair discrimination against the foreign community here. 
Best regards, 
Jenna Cody


Sunday, March 3, 2019

No, those MRT station codes are not useful

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An article ran in CommonWealth Magazine recently about the usefulness of Taipei MRT's use of Hanyu Pinyin, and the letter/number coding system for the stations, pointing out that some visitors were "still getting lost" in Taipei, because they didn't speak Chinese and therefore didn't know how to pronounce station names like Da'an, Qilian, Xindian etc etc.

Now, in the past 5 years or so I've encountered exactly one lost person. It's not that hard, the maps are quite clear (the exits in relation to where one wants to go above-ground are less clear, however). But CommonWealth says it's a thing:


Donna is a Canadian studying Chinese in Taiwan. She chose to live near the Da’an MRT station for its convenient location. Yet the first time she met with her landlord, she was an hour late because she was unable to find Da’an Station on an English-language map, which indicated the station name as “Daan”. They way she pronounced the name, it sounded like the single character da (“big” or “great” in Mandarin), rather than the compound name Da’an (da + an), the standard Romanization rendering.


Yeah, okay, I get that it can be difficult to pronounce the station names if you are not familiar with Pinyin, and I'm sympathetic to non-Mandarin speaking visitors who get confused. But as some folks have pointed out:





I'm not defending it, but part of life in Taiwan is understanding that the competing and often incorrectly-applied Romanization systems are pure chaos, and there can be no order arising from them. This is most likely because there is a lot less agreement on the trajectory of Taiwanese culture, and it shows in battles over Romanization, which often act as symbolic battlegrounds for the minority in Taiwan who want the country to remain as close to China as possible (if not integrate completely), and the majority who don't. Contrast this to, say, Seoul, where my husband lived just as the old Romanization system for Korean was on its way out as a new one was implemented, and the transition went much more smoothly, with far less chaos and overall entropy.

It would be better if we could standardize. It would be great if we didn't spell 中和 as Zhonghe, Chungho, Jhonghe, Jhongho, Zeüngho, Zongh1983q, Jh0ñg0, Zheungheau, JZH*YFEJK¯\_(ツ)_/¯@)(jfh!!!  or whatever.

I don't even care how we do it anymore, though I have a personal preference for Pinyin despite it being from China (hey even a broken clock is right twice a day). I would prefer that whichever system we use be implemented correctly - for Pinyin, that means apostrophes and perhaps even tone markers. If we use the deeply annoying and old-timey looking Wade-Giles, then the apostrophes are necessary. Otherwise, how am I supposed to know whether, say, someone named Cheng Chi-chong pronounces their name Zheng Ji-chong, Cheng Chi-zhong, Zheng Zhi-chong, Cheng Zhi-zhong, Zheng Qi-zhong or whatever combination of these it might be?

But I also daresay that a part of "studying Chinese", especially in Taiwan, is understanding that tHeRe CaN bE nO oRdEr FrOm ChAoS. Welcome to Taiwan, m'loves. Get used to it?

The CommonWealth article then goes on to talk about the coding system:


As for the station coding system embarked on this month, TRTC relates that it is responsible only for adding codes on this project, and not for revisions to the Romanization of metro system names.

With a sizable sum of NT$30 million having been spent on the project, domestic traveler Ms. Kuo remarked that the addition of station codes has absolutely no impact on her, except perhaps for making everything a little more complicated.

However, in the effort to gain more overseas visitors, rather than spending a lot of money to codify the metro system, the money would be better spent on an overall rectification of MRT station names, Hanyu Pinyin, and signage, as helping visitors understand and spell the words properly is the most user-friendly international practice.



On this I agree. The coding system is completely useless.


The reason why? Nobody local uses them, nobody local knows them, and that's probably not going to change.

So if you need to ask directions, you'll probably be asking someone local, and they won't know because they don't know the codes. They're not helpful at all for getting information from others. And if you are just trying to read a map, you don't need to know how a station's name is pronounced, you just need to match the letters of the station name on the LED scroll on the train or on the platform to the one on the map you are using.

With that in mind, let me tell you about that one lost person I met. I was with a friend (who happens to be Taiwanese and speaks excellent English, having gotten her PhD in the US) entering Da'an station, and a lost looking foreign woman approached my friend while I was adding money to my card. She asked my friend - who, again, is local - whether the station we were at was "R2".

My friend looked at her blankly, like, "huh?"

"R2? Is this R2? I was supposed to get off at R2 which is the terminus, but the train stopped here but this doesn't seem right. Is it R2? I think the map says it's R5? I'm so confused!"

My friend: "R....2? R...5?"

I walked up to them to see what the deal was just as my friend figured out what on earth she was talking about. We all walked over to a map and showed her that she'd boarded a train terminating at Da'an, not her destination of Xiangshan, so she needed to get back on the red line train in the same direction.

She kind of rushed off as I tried to advise her not to use the codes to ask directions, because nobody local knows them so they actually create confusion when trying to ask directions.

I really hope she figured it out on her own.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Taiwan has made me more skeptical of free market solutions

It is really hard to love Taiwan sometimes.

From The News Lens, which really hits it out of the park when they want to, Taiwan's bus drivers face atrocious conditions, and it impacts public safety:


If the driver is at fault for a major accident they will have a strike against their name, and if they accumulate three major strikes then they will be dismissed; the drivers who have accumulated two major strikes will usually spend their days off making up for their “accidents.” This is seen as a "voluntary service" so their names will not show up on the work schedule, but of course they only have time for this when they are not working.


The result is that even though they have a day off, they end up working every day of the week, and the day after volunteering, they have to drive the bus, but as they are still tired, they will probably cause another accident, receive another strike against their name and will therefore have to volunteer again… completing the vicious cycle.

and

If the driver causes an accident, the Public Transportation Office (PTO) will check their work hours within the last three days, but the company will have the legal team tamper with the shift records, so that it says the driver only ever worked a maximum of 10 hours a day, even if they have worked more....

This meant that each person in the law team shouldered the responsibility of forging documents, something we could not hide as the documents have our seals stamped on them. If the company was charged with fraud, then whichever team member was on duty that particular day would have to bear all legal responsibilities, and would be seen as an accomplice....

If the records were not changed, the company forced that team member to bear the financial burden of the fine, either upfront or from their salary. I have also witnessed the company force the rest of the legal team to pay for a fine, after the original team member had resigned. It was the most ridiculous situation ever and really emphasized how unjust the company was.

...and so much more, but go read the article. 

All of this could be avoided, and service remain the same, if they just hired more people.

But they won't, because there is no mechanism in the market that incentivizes them to not be two rungs above slavers (I'm being generous - they get two rungs!) and politically, everyone knows about these endemic problems, everyone knows companies skirt the law, and yet enforcement remains lax. It can't be anything other than intentional.


This is also why I'm skeptical of total free market solutions to problems: free market solutions generally hinge on consumers having the power to create change, but I see no way to do that here. Many people must ride the bus - some for economic or location reasons, others because they have reasons why they can't drive (I'm not willing to drive in cities, for instance, and it would be compromising another value of mine to buy a vehicle.) They can't refuse to board until conditions get better for drivers or the buses are safer to ride. They might prefer happy, rested, fairly compensated drivers, but they will have to get on that bus whether it happens or not, so companies have no market-based incentive to change their exploitative behavior.

Neither is there a solution in which people just don't take those jobs, forcing companies to offer better conditions to get new hires in the door: they just plod on, understaffed.

I simply do not see a solution here that does not involve some enforcement of government regulations. 

Yet, not solving these sorts of issues is not acceptable.

The government has sure fallen down on this one too, but unlike corporate overlords (whom we have no power to wrest from their cushy jobs), we do have some power to insist on elected officials who take labor violations seriously and are willing to fight the rot they know is in the system. Even the proposed solution in the article: to note the driver, time, place, license plate and route number - involves engaging the government, not using the miniscule droplet of power the market affords you.

I don't hold out much hope that a political or governmental solution would do much good either - not yet, anyway. Taiwan just hasn't developed a labor movement the way some other democratic have, most likely because they left Martial Law (and the rampant exploitation that could not be escaped under that system) not long ago. There hasn't been a lot of time to evolve.

While there may be some slight cultural factors, generally I believe people are people. They all know what overwork means. They all know what it is to be exploited. There's no "Confucian" ideals here keeping rotten work conditions and low pay in place. It's not passivity either: have you been to the major protests, the ones that have changed the country? Taiwan may pose as a passive country on its face, but when it gets down to tacks, it's not.

Y'all pirates. And that's great. I just want to see Taiwan take that "let's protest this shit 'till their on their knees" attitude they have toward political problems and apply it to businesses and labor issues too. And really do it. Like, occupations and hundreds of thousands, strikes across the country. 


You've burned it down before - you forced the KMT to allow democratization. That was you, not benevolent leaders kindly giving you freedom.

Now it's time to burn it down when it comes to labor. Don't wait for bosses and CEOs to do better - they won't. It is only by great force of will that I am not overtly calling them "scum". Bring them to their goddamn knees. Force them.

You've done it before, and you can do it again. 


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why I Like Taxis in Taiwan

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Mr. Lin's Kung Fu Action Movie Pimp Taxi!

So, all I tend to hear from other expats is - the fact that taxis in Taiwan (at least in the cities) are cheap by Western standards, convenient and ubiquitous notwithstanding - mocking of taxi drivers, or a litany of complaints detailing why they dislike them. They play annoying music, they take routes that cost more money, they are terrible or unsafe drivers, they smell. Lucy even shot one for not speaking English!

From Taiwanese, I often just hear that a.) taxi drivers are often ex-convicts who couldn't get another job, or b.) you shouldn't trust them, especially if you're a lone woman, especially late at night. Or I hear from both that they are unsafe drivers.

Okay. They can be very unsafe drivers and sometimes the taxis have a bit of an unwashed-body twang to them. I'll give you that.

But I like them. I really do. Urban Taiwan is Urban Taiwan in part because of the taxis, which I use as a stopgap between not owning (and not wanting to own) my own transportation, and public transportation. If I need to go somewhere that would be far easier to get to in a car, I take a taxi. I treat it like my own on-call Zipcar-with-driver service.

To wit:
  • A part of why I like them is that it's one more way in which Taipei has freed me from having to drive, which I don't enjoy. I don't mind it in rural areas or on quiet suburban roads, but city driving, or even built-up suburb driving, drives me up a wall (pun intended). Open-access highways are the worst, but narrow city streets, many of which are one-way, with difficult-to-navigate "turn only" or "no it's the next turn, but now you're in this lane so you have to turn" roads, are only narrowly the second-worst, and massive highways full of passing cars and "quick get over a lane, our exit is coming" or "the on-ramp lane is about to end - merge! merge!" highways are just as bad. Basically if it involves driving around other drivers, I hate it. So taxis are automatically better than Zipcars because in one, I don't have to drive. So having my own on-call taxi service, that is, one I can actually afford (ever taken a taxi even in an urban area in the USA? There's a reason why locals generally don't and it involves their wallet) is one of the best things about Taipei life. 
  • They tend to be chatty, and I'm chatty. With a little effort you can get them off the usual "how long have you been in Taiwan? You speak such good Chinese. Where are you from?" track and onto more interesting topics. They tend to be pretty open with their opinions, too, so it's not hard generally to hear their opinions on sensitive issues, including political issues. They tend to lean a certain way politically so their opinions are not varied, but they are usually very entertainingly given. It's great for learning new ways to insult Ma Ying-jiu. I have had some fascinating conversations in taxis, and gotten good recommendations to boot.
  • You get some very interesting decorations. Taxi Chic that I love includes dashboards that have been turned into, basically, little temples with swinging amulets and idols and bronze Buddhas and occasionally actual incense, or the Pimp Taxi as above, or Nightclub Taxi with the purple LEDs along the floor, or Macrame Taxi with the wooden bead seat covers. And the best one of all - the time I took a taxi where the guy had covered the entire inside - I don't just mean the dashboard or something, I mean the inside doors, the backs of seats, the ceiling, everything - in the semi-transparent plastic tops from soft drink takeaway cups, which were layered over LEDs connected to a self-rigged power source (which couldn't have been safe...) that blinked in random patterns. The windows and other glass surfaces, except for ones he needed to see out of -  were decorated with carefully layered brown duct tape and clear packing tape in Mondrian-reminsicent geometrical art shapes. It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  • I can't speak for safety statistics overall, but I have never felt in danger from a taxi driver in Taiwan. Once, I left my purse (which had my passport in it as well as my wallet and other important items) in a taxi. Someone helped me call the broadcast station that would reach taxi drivers. By the next day, my purse was turned in to the police, and I could go down to the central station and pick it up. Everything was there, including the cash. Another time, Brendan left his phone in a taxi, the day before we were to leave for Shanghai and then the USA. We called him and he eventually was able to get back to us. Through a friend's help (as we were out of the country), the phone returned before we did. 
  • It is probably true that a high proportion of taxi drivers are ex-cons or other people who've been shafted by society. But, hey, they're working a job to earn money rather than resorting (or re-resorting) to petty crime to get by. Whatever they did before, what they are doing now is legit and they don't deserve to get made fun of for that.
  • I actually kind of like schmaltzy Taiwanese language pop from the mid-twentieth century. I don't listen to it at home or for fun (although 流浪到淡水 is on my playlist - I'm trying to learn it for KTV) but I enjoy it when it's around. I don't get a lot of exposure to Taiwanese - a language I am trying through slow osmosis to pick up, to some degree - in Taipei. So I'm grateful for what I do get.
So, come on, although I won't deny that they disobey traffic laws and their cars are fairly likely to smell (I've heard a lot are actually homeless and sleep in their taxis at night the way a lot of rickshaw drivers do in other countries), let's give Taiwanese taxi drivers a break. 

Anyway, I like 'em. 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hukou Old Street: A Photo Essay

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To get my mind off of the tragedy that is the Taipei MRT stabbing, and the less-surprising-yet-still-saddening Santa Barbara shooting (hey, let's make it legal for misogynist assholes to legally buy guns! Nothing could possibly go wrong there!), I decided to post some photos from a recent day trip to Hukou Old Street.

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The good things about Hukou Old Street: the train station for it is on the local line (not far from Hsinchu) from Taipei, meaning it's easy to get to the town. It is not quite as 'discovered' yet, with far more people inviting you into their traditional homes-cum-shops to peruse antiques than stores selling soap, camphor balm, brown sugar cake and plastic children's toys (they still have those things, but they are far smaller in number). The street never gets fully crowded even on a kinda-sunny Sunday. The buildings and their decorations are remarkably well-preserved. The area has a lot of down-at-heel local color and friendly folks.

The annoying things about Hukou Old Street: first, it's not that close to anything else. Second, while it's easy to take a taxi there from Hukou train station, it is not within easy walking distance and the bus between the two comes rarely. There are not taxis lining up to take you back to the train station or wherever. If you don't have your own transportation, I suggest getting the phone number of whichever taxi took you so you aren't calling taxi companies from a Hi Life when you're ready to go back, hoping one will have a car they can send your way. Because, uhh, I wouldn't know anything about that, no sir.

This is one drawback of living in Taiwan: it's a developed country and as such has an urban metro system, in Taipei and (slowly but surely) in Kaohsiung, worthy of the first world. And yet, much of Taiwan remains rural: it's not "poor" enough that there needs to be public transportation for a populace that can't afford cars, but not "rich" enough that it has the excellent public transit infrastructure of, say, Japan.

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But once there, the old street and surrounding town is a great way to spend some time - I recommend, to the best of your ability, tacking it onto something else - not sure what, as it's not near anything, but something. Including time spent eating you could spend a morning or an afternoon here, but not a whole day.

Which may be why it's not packed to the gills with tourist junk and the tourists who buy it like other old streets, so perhaps that's a blessing in disguise.

(Don't get me wrong, I like some of the tourist junk. I use the camphor balm and love brown sugar cake, it's just...I've seen it all. I'm happy to see that Dihua Street is going more traditional+upscale galleries and Hukou is maintaining its traditional flavor).

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At one end of the street there's a church - worth a quick look. At the other, a temple (beyond the temple there are some rural farmhousey-type areas you could walk around in, although beware unfriendly local dogs).

One woman invited us to enjoy some tea in the loft/top floor of her house - the first floor was full of antiques - most for sale. The seating area and tea set:

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Not bad, eh?

She doesn't invite everyone up, so don't push her...but you may be pleasantly surprised!

Another friendly old fellow with a clip-on mic and megaphone invited everyone in to see his collection of...things, which seems to have taken a Hoarders level of dedication to amass. For example, this thing is not creepy at all:

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This guy had a huge obsession with the KMT, wearing a fake KMT politician vest (he was not a politician) and collecting various Party bric-a-brac which was interspersed with photos of him shaking hands with KMT dignitaries, Hello Kitty piggy banks, Three Wise Men on camels, Ronald McDonald figurines and horrifying light-up faces in faux tree trunks. Also, clowns.


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All in all, it was pretty enjoyable, even if we really stretched out our mealtimes to make the trip all the way out to Hukou worth it.

If you're into old streets and Japanese-era architecture - and I am - and you're willing to go out of the way for a bit more authenticity, Hukou's a good choice.

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I mean, it doesn't get more authentic than that, does it?



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Loved the decorations on the traditional buildings.

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Another nice family invited us to the back of the house to see their antique brass bed.

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The temple is a pretty basic temple, nothing you can't see elsewhere, but it has a nice atmosphere...very peaceful, no scaffolding or corrugated tin roofs. And a few nice surprises like this little elephant hiding in the ceiling beams:

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And this gorgeous black-and-white tiger painting:

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There are a few restaurants, the most famous of which is in the old theater (the food is pretty good - not life-changing, but good enough), and plenty of snacks. We also got ginger tofu pudding (薑汁豆花) - honestly, not as good as what you can get in Sanxia at the much busier Old Street.

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But, of course, a visit to an Old Street is incomplete without a piece of plastic junk. I thought this happy green poop-shaped container holding Smartee-like poop candies was a good choice. He sits on my desk now.

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From there, we weren't hungry enough to head out to Miaoli for a good Hakka dinner. It wasn't exactly convenient to get to Hsinchu or Zhubei, although we considered stopping in Zhubei for Titty Tea's tasty brownies and good beer before heading back to Taipei from there (I know a place in Hsinchu city that does shabu shabu with congee broth, but we weren't hungry enough to eat that soon and I didn't have their information readily available). In the end we just went back to Taipei (after *cough* waiting at a Hi Life for a taxi to finally come get us) and had dinner there - we got back in plenty of time.

Just to show you how friendly and open people can be in Taiwan, I mentioned the taxi kerfuffle to some Hsinchu Science Park students and two of them were all "you should have called me! I would have given you guys a ride, no problem!" (Hukou is about a 20-minute highway trip from Zhubei). Awww.

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. 



Friday, March 11, 2011

Reason #11 to Love Taiwan

Decent public infrastructure.

We were walking through MRT Jingmei and one escalator was out of service. Reasonable predictions based on experience could be made that it would remain out of service for one day, two at most while being visibly repaired.

"If we were in DC," Brendan said, "and this were the Metro, that escalator would be in that condition for several months."

"No," I replied, "it would look like that, but have more random stairs missing for no reason, with nobody working on it, and it would emit a creepy smell."

"We're talking about the USA as though it's a Third World country."

"Yeah, well, for the most prosperous nation on Earth, I sometimes look at the infrastructure, especially for public transit, and I think 'Really. Really? Is that the best you can do?'"

Of course Taiwan doesn't get off scot-free. Taipei has awesome public transit (sorry, Taizhong) but its sidewalks leave me scratching my head.