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Monday, July 9, 2012

Taiwan Tourism Goes On The Offensive in the Washington Times

Dili Village, Taiwan

  The Washington Times recently published an article focusing on Taiwan's bicycle boom. The writer, Jonathan Heflin does an impressive job in sewing together incongruous snippets of the Tourism Bureau agenda to form a semi-coherent article on the state of Taiwan's state sponsored cycling programs. 

Maybe I am a skeptic at heart, but there are plenty of other cycling cheerleaders out there to give anything related to cycling a knee-jerk round of cheers. This blogger and experienced Taiwan watcher has some reservations when it comes to how and why Taiwan and Taiwanese cycling is promoted in the media. 

I have been around the block enough times to understand that the Washington Times is a frequent and reliable source for Taiwan's government to promote its policies and agenda through a seemingly third party source. Often, ROC government editorials, letters and favorable stories are released through the WT. With that in mind, and the obvious lengths the Tourism Bureau and the Government Information Office have gone to alter reality in the foreign press through CNN-GO, I have my reservations as some of the same incongruous themes and talking points appear in report after report. 

The WT article states: 
In recent years, this southeastern Asian island nation has felt the strain on air quality due to a growing number of automobiles. To combat this issue, promote a healthy lifestyle,  and create meaningful tourism opportunities the country has focused its efforts on molding a cycling culture - reintroducing this very basic form of transportation to its people. Finding the perfect combination of ingredients for such a complex recipe, however, isn't always so easy.
For this long-time expat, the issue is a confluence of factors. As Taiwan's economy has shifted and the ideals of democracy have become entrenched in the twenty-five years after nearly a century of both Japanese and Chinese Nationalist authoritarian colonialism, Taiwanese have come to demand more from their government. Gone are the days when the government could simply strong-arm both metropoles and localities into accepting destructive and harmful environmental policies that benefit a few (though it still happens to some extent). People are better educated and do not feel obliged to being poisoned for the sake of economic or diplomatic graces. 

The highlighted section alludes to incorporating the bicycle into the transportation grid. Regular readers of this blog will understand my skepticism as so much infrastructure spending is lavished on leisure cycling and the transportation aspect is sorely underdeveloped or totally neglected by central and local governments. 
Home to one of the world's biggest bike manufacturers, Giant, Taiwan quickly gained an advocate willing to join the fight in bringing cycling to center stage in the country.  Giant has been a key player in efforts to make the island more cycle friendly. One important push was to create the U-Bike bike rental program in the capital city of Taipei, which uses Giant brand bikes.
Giant has done a great job in promoting cycling activities, but as a manufacturer, retailer and advisor to the president, there is an obvious conflict of interest between what is good for Giant and what is good for Taiwan. Giant is in the position to help mold cycling infrastructure to benefit Giant and limit consumer choice. Are we being steered to embrace leisure cycling at the expense of utility cycling because that is where the dollars are?  
Building dedicated bike paths and adding bike lanes to the existing streets has been another key ingredient in the success of Taiwan's cycling culture. Bike paths in major cities have provided a place for recreational cyclists to ride. The idea of biking for recreation can be a foreign idea to many in a society which has historically used them mainly for transportation and delivery of goods. Seeing one's peers take to the bike paths for fun has helped broaden the idea of what cycling can be.
Ah! So here we see the discussion oscillate back to leisure cycling. The urban lanes have been deemed useless due to misuse by non-bicycle traffic and an unwillingness on the part of the authorities to enforce space for cyclists. 

Moreover, the pike paths were built in response to demand. It was not simply about the government building infrastructure and people responding. The Dunhua Rd. bike lane mess was the result of the Taipei government trying to capitalize on the cycling craze during an election year. 

The highlighted section in red emphasizes a retreat from cycling as anything more than a leisure activity. The bias is clear. 
By easing the public into cycling through improved infrastructure, with user friendly rental programs such as U-Bike, and by promoting bike tourism, Taiwan has created a recipe for success that has worked particularly well there. The island has been rewarded for its focused execution with a cycling culture which is growing steadily and thriving in a region more used to the modern travel modes of the 21st century.
This piece attempts to validate the government's efforts in generating cycling success rather than showing how the government has responded (or failed to respond) to the needs of the cycling public.

 I can't help but wonder how instrumental Taiwan's government has been in crafting foreign perceptions of our cycling culture. If we only focus on what is right and embellish the perceptions of our cycling aspirations as if they were real in today's world... we stand to avoid making the changes that need to be made for these cycling dreams to become reality. 

From monitoring English language media on Taiwan cycling, I would be inclined to believe that:

a) Taiwan is a cycling paradise in every regard; an Asian Copenhagen. 
b) Taiwan's government and Giant are the grand architects of Taiwan's cycling culture. 
c) You can easily ride and park your bike in every major city.
d) Taiwan's bike trails actually lead to important places. 
e) Taipei's recreational bike paths connect seamlessly to Taiwan's Rift Valley between Hualien and Taidong. 

Taiwan Links:

The UCI and IOC will allow brand logos on the bikes used by Olympians in 2012. This is good news for Taiwanese companies that produce many of the frames and components being used by the competitors. 

Judge uses Google Maps to finger culprit in bike accident. 

Other Links: 

Bike Messenger Madness. The art of the U-Lock window smash

The Lovely Bicycle recommends some salty lemonade for summer cycling. I prefer a popsicle and a Fin at the convenience store. 

If the Australian cycling boom is a myth, it may also be untrue elsewhere. 

Tour de France:

The rider of the year award would have to go to the Slovak, Peter Sagan. The 22yo. rider for Liquigas-Cannondale has lit up the 2012 cycling calendar with an early points win in the Tour of Oman, as well as taking an incredible five stage wins in the eight stage Tour of California. In his prelude to the Tour de France, Sagan took four stages and the points win in the Tour de Suisse. Then, on the biggest stage of them all, Sagan claimed three stage wins in the opening week of the Tour de France. His youthful exuberance at the finish line is enough to get any casual cyclist to tune in to one of the broadcasts on Steephill. 

Bradley Wiggins slams critics over doping. Claims his success is rooted in British pub culture. 

Lance Armstrong vs. The World. It appears even his best friends will throw him under the bus. Still, what is the point. You'd have to investigate everyone from that era to uncover the "true" winner of those races. He passed the doping controls set up by the race organizer. Whether he did that by hook or by crook is irrelevant. I hope every rider in the peloton is clean and scared to death of doping controls. Prosecuting LA several years after the fact just seems selective. 

The hope of Canada withdraws from Tour. Hesjedal (I spelled that right on the first try) goes home injured.