A Random Sign On The Road
I think I have said it before and I will repeat it here again... I have been thinking a lot about cycling on this trip and especially in the comparison between the cycling I am seeing in Taiwan and what I happened to experience in Seattle and Palm Desert.
Component Pioneer, Phil Wood
Both places offer a wide gradient of cycling culture and share many similarities in execution, but there were also many structural differences that left me wondering.
I think many of the structural differences stem from a common source: Our history and relationship with the automobile. When the idea crossed my mind I was taken by the idea that the relationship with the auto, which is often viewed as the antithesis to the bicycle on the roads, may actually be one of the chief drivers behind how cycling culture developed and continues to evolve in both Taiwan and the United States. The Seattle cycling communities seemed to greatly differ by city, neighborhood and city block. The type of riders you would encounter might change from weekend triathlete to urban commuter in the space of a hill. In Taiwan both utility, recreational and competitive riders can be found clustered together in and around urban centers with bike shops serving at the... er... hub of the group. Although this is similar to what many American bike shops do, I think there are some important differences.
To keep from getting too long winded and at risk of over simplifying many of the dynamic forces, I feel a large part of the American cycling experience is built around the infrastructure and values that evolved around the U.S. Interstate Highway System, which was commissioned in 1956 under the Federal Aid Highway Act and with the support of the Eisenhower administration in promise and guise of "self defense". The "interstate" grew into the world's largest network of limited access roadways that could rapidly move goods and people from less densely populated areas to the highly concentrated urban centers. My grandfather was one of the chief architects of Washington State's Interstate network and believed freeways were the future of America.
What my grandfather could not envision was the extent of suburban sprawl that would eventually creep further and further away from the cities and encroach into ecologically sensitive areas and watersheds. The cities became less populous as residents moved into the suburbs to grab up more space to enjoy the lifestyles of leisure being promoted as the "American Dream". Urban environments in many American cities fell into decay and many districts were left to the poor or deserted, especially at night. Rent control was often the only thing keeping some urban blocks populated. Even many of the poor moved into some of the more dilapidated suburbs. Urban centers were becoming less dense with more Americans requiring more land and resources.
The focus of life in the suburban periphery became the automobile and the US transportation networks focused its sole purpose of providing infrastructure for the car. It was only in the past calendar year that this status quo has been challenged and changed to include bicycles and pedestrian traffic. With the challenge of the American romance with the automobile and lawmakers eager to snap up tax money to support the oil habit, cycling became a type of counter culture in opposition to car culture. Cycling was less convenient, less direct and impractical in a world where everything is a 10 min. drive away. Out of pet food? Hop in the car. Need to get stamps? Drive up the street to the post office. This is the world I grew up in.
As the suburbs have moved to the limits of a practical commute and traffic congestion continuing to worsen despite the ever expanding system of roads, federal, state and local governments have begun asking government officials, citizens and land developers to rethink the future. The ideal environment for sustainable living is one in which people can live in more densely populated centers where a person's employment and needs are within non-driving distance. Many metro-areas have already begun repopulating the cities and making urban centers more livable and affordable.
Seattle has begun investing in far reaching networks of bicycle routes, park & rides, bike-fiendly mass transit systems and other light infrastructure to better accommodate and integrate the bicycle into the new urban landscape. In an even bigger move, King County, the county in and around Seattle, has initiated a program to exchange sky for land, allowing developers to build higher downtown in exchange for buying and not developing green space. The counter culture of bicycle commuting is becoming a normal and integrated network with plenty of community support.
Taiwan experienced a different economic and industrial trajectory in which much of the industrial infrastructure was built up by the Japanese during Taiwan's 50 years as a Japanese colony. Much of Taiwan's development occurred parallel to development in many parts of the United States. By 1906 Taiwan's transportation system was complete and would remain largely intact and unchanged until the 1960's and by 1935 there were over 7000 factories employing 68,000 Taiwanese workers. This number jumped to 143,000 industrial workers by the height of WWII.
Despite the rise in industrial labor, Taiwan would not be counted as an industrialized nation until 1965 when the urban population reached 5 million. Taiwan experienced rapid economic growth as the United States supplanted Japan as Taiwan's chief market for export. Many Taiwanese families that could not leverage their ethnicity for government work, higher education used family capital to start small to medium sized industrial enterprises on land that had once been family rice field. 3.75 million urbanites over 12 years of age were gainfully employed.
With economic growth came growing affluence and one symbol of that affluence was the light 2 stroke scooter or motorcycle to replace the bicycle and pedal-cab. Automobiles were still largely considered out of reach for most families until the mid 80's. The scooter provided a quick, reliable and relatively cheap form of transportation that not only reduced reliance on other forms of transportation, but also allowed more Taiwanese to enter the workforce; especially women. The utility bicycle became representative of "the poor" and the scooter became a prestige item.
Bike Lane On Bridge
Taiwanese cities expanded and continue to expand, but remain densely populated with most people's needs within a short walk, bike or scooter ride away. In many general ways Taiwanese cities represent the modern American aspiration for the city. There was no need for suburban sprawl and Taiwanese live together in the urban setting despite socioeconomic class and many families only have one car, not one car for each member. The roads do not act as great dividers of populations as they do in America where the wealthy in Bellevue all live in a certain area and buy carbon TT bikes for a weekend with friends... or the poor urban dishwasher who rides an old steel beater to work. In Taiwan a Colnago might live next to a Jelum.
This very efficient urban lifestyle in Taiwan is in decline as bubbling housing prices and exaggerated property values that are prone to speculation have begun making the cities unaffordable and unlivable for all but the most affluent Taiwanese or potentially wealthy Chinese who are being courted to fill the bubble and make very few... very rich. The centers are becoming unlivable.
Taiwanese are being pushed further and further from their workplaces and the efficiency of urban living is in greater decline. More Taiwanese, especially in the North, are seeing their commutes stretch into the hours with little sign of respite. While the United States is busy courting a Taiwanese-like model for urban living, Taiwan is beginning to emulate the United States.
From what we have seen as of late, the central and local governments have placed a higher priority on recreational cycling over utility cycling with an expanded tourism infrastructure, but little development for the growing need for commute-friendly pathways, safe bike lockers and practical spaces for bicycles.
This is where Taiwan can learn from cities like Seattle and start seriously integrating the bicycle into the transportation infrastructure to make it easier for residents to avoid automobiles and scooters in their commutes and employ alternative forms of transportation like mass transit and park & rides that work in conjunctions with the bicycle for transport and not just recreation. I know this is a simple narrative, but it gives me a great deal of food for thought