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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Taipei Times Letter: Blowing Smoke Against Better Bike Policies

Today's Taipei Times has a juicy letter from one Cilliers Landman that dips into several topics, not the least of which is government spending for bicycle infrastructure.

Landman writes:

In your editorial of April 17, you chose a valid topic to comment about. More people should ride bicycles, not only for recreation, but also to work. Unfortunately, you couldn’t help yourself and had to blame somebody for that not happening. So you went after the Taipei City Government. It’s all their fault.
Don’t you realize that Taiwan will never be Holland or Denmark? People here will never ride their bicycles to work en masse. Should the city government spend money on things like bike lanes and other bicycle-friendly facilities that few, if any, would use, you would be too happy to criticize such spending as a waste of money.
And isn’t it interesting that during the DPP administration, when their policies were ruining Taiwan economically and the president and his wife were stealing millions of dollars from the public, you were right there supporting them?

Mr. Landman is blowing lots of smoke and seems to hardly have the facts or the context of Taiwan's economic or political history at hand to form much of an educated opinion that reaches beyond the screen of partisan talking points.

The bulk of Landman's letter deals primarily with Ma's recent decision to partially revoke the oil subsidies that have artificially capped oil prices at an unsustainable level in the hopes of fueling economic growth. This is a policy that had remained steadily in place since the days of single party authoritarian rule, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) could more easily transfer and inject cash into its various industrial monopolies without the hassle of democratic oversight. Landman somehow pins these long-standing policies on the Chen Shui-bian administration, which was characterized as a weak executive branch facing an overwhelming opposition majority in the legislature.

Landman also erroneously believes the Chen administration stole public funds and ruined the economy. Chen was not jailed for misappropriating any public funds and despite a global economic crisis, Taiwan  experienced sustained economic growth from 2002 until 2008, when Taiwan's economy stagnated and even shrunk. Ah... but I digress.

What I really want to point out here is that the local and central governments do play a significant role in how bicycles are integrated into the transportation grid. For decades Taiwanese commuted to work on bicycles and pedicabs. It is not an alien concept to adopt. Whether Taiwanese will ride bicycles to work en masse can be greatly aided by a government that takes cycling seriously rather than an elitist pastime of leisure. The Dunhua Rd. bike lane debacle is ripe for criticism as it was a disastrous waste of NT$60 million of public money (I pay taxes too) on a project that was hastily designed and completed with the aim of blatant political grandstanding and spreading largesse to the valuable constituency of construction contractors without the consultation of cyclists.

Projects like Dunhua Rd. and other ill conceived bike lane projects that consume public funds to benefit only a small minority of recreational riders in the name of "tourism" only serve to sour the public appetite for real, functional bike lanes that provide returns for everyone in the form of a cleaner, less congested environment. This practice should really be characterized as a scandalous misappropriation of public funds that voters and people like Mr. Landman should be concerned about.

These policies fall right in the lap of the Ma administration, which enjoys the benefits of controlling both the executive and legislative... and probably even the judicial branches in government.  Even KMT politicians see that towing the party line may not be in our or their best interests.