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Monday, April 11, 2016

Let Them Ride Bikes! : Toy For The Wealthy Makes Cycling Safer


Vox has recently published some very good articles on how bike share programs are faring in the United States and elsewhere with some interesting findings and it provides an opportunity to reflect and consider how Taiwan's bike share systems differ from those elsewhere, and how many of those differences are structural, political and cultural.

This blogger has been, as usual, critical of Taiwan's bike share programs and trails for being either dangerous, ineffective, wasteful, ill-considered or cynically shortsighted for political stature. While they occasionally get things right, there are still few places where the bicycle is treated like traffic. Taipei has even gone out of its way to encourage sidewalk riding in conflict with pedestrians. In Taichung, where I live, within 30km of Giant, the major player in Taiwan's bike share schemes, there is almost no space allotted for the bicycles on roadways. Still, with more bikes on offer, more riders are taking to the streets. Meanwhile, Seattle, a city with a mature cycling culture, is looking at a budget shortfall for its Pronto bikeshare program.

Vox points to the disparity of income and race in the use of American bikeshare programs.
Bike share users skew significantly whiter, wealthier, and more likely to be college-educated than the overall populations of the cities they live in. That's despite the fact that nationwide, the people who bike regularly are actually disproportionately low-income and nonwhite.
It is in this light that some critics feel taxpayer money could be better spent on other needs beyond a perpetually niche toy for the wealthy. As one critic pointed out in the TiC comment section:
But this is reality, and I make do with 150cc "Grand King" motorbike. And the reality is surely that for the majority of people in Taipei and elsewhere, bicycles are toys (and often very expensive ones) rather than a serious means of transportation. And so it is hard to see why should the Taipei city government spend vast sums of taxpayer's money altering public infrastructure for the benefit of a relatively well-off minority who already have alternatives available to them.
The great thing about Taiwan, is that its urban areas are still tightly nucleated clusters with high population densities spreading upward rather than outward. There is still a little bit of the egalitarian sense of space in urban areas where neighbors at different ends of the income scale can live in relatively close quarters without the income apartheid experienced in other countries. Daily needs are still within walking distance or a short distance from home. Of course, the housing bubble compounded by income stagnation is rapidly changing this... and not for the better and younger members of the workforce are pushed further and further from their places of employment. It is far more possible to realistically integrate cycling into the urban environment if there is the political will to do so.

Currently, through my own empirical observations, the majority of You Bike/Ubike users are students skipping the bus and still too young to legally drive scooters. These systems are cheap and efficient. There are stations mounted near libraries and shopping centers and places students use.We know that fossil fuels are limited and polluting, we know in Taiwan we regularly experience weeks on end of unhealthy air pollution from stagnant air held against the high mountains, so what is keeping the rest of the population tied to their cars and scooters? Are bike lanes really just a wasteful bone throw to the wealthy boys and their toys? Does any little bit to help count?

I am inclined to believe not. Remember that automobiles were once the domain of the wealthy and now look at the networks we have provided for them. If you build and enforce lanes for bikes in the cities and integrate them into other forms of transportation, like busses, trains and other forms of mass transit, it removes the obstacles that prevent a potential user from hitting the road. Currently, it is too easy for a user to find excuses for not riding. There is no space, it is inconvenient, the MRT station is too far, there is too much traffic, there are no places to park the bike. If those obstacles are removed, it clears the way for more bicycle use. The other thing it could do, is intentionally allow less space for the automobile, providing an incentive to non-polluting transportation or mass transit and a punitive for personal engine traffic. If the roads are packed and the bike lanes are clear, the bike lanes are bound to fill up. But that would take either environmental disaster or strong political will to implement.

In another article posted by Vox, the conclusion abroad is that bike share is safer than when users commute on their personal equipment.
Bike sharing has seen explosive growth since 2007, with systems in at least 94 citiesand more than 35 million trips taken. There have been some serious injuries, yes. But — knock on wood — we've seen zero US deaths from bike sharing so far1. Contrast this with the overall estimated cycling fatality rate of 21 deaths per 100 million trips.
On Facebook several commenters were scoffing at this figure as applied to Taiwan and Taiwan's notoriously reckless or clueless drivers. Unfortunately, for statistics sake, because the bicycle is not regarded as transportation, the figures on bicycle injury and deaths on Taiwan's roads are not recorded. This may also be a defensive strategy to avoid the political ramifications of constructing bicycle space in urban areas.

Currently, Giant is being asked to build or consult on several more bicycle programs in other countries.

Ralph Jennings has been posting a lot on this issue and reports in Forbes:
In other cities with share programs, company founder King Liu tells Forbes in an interview, “riders have no feeling for their bikes. They’re old or they break down a lot. The air pressure is too low, the chain falls off or the bell doesn’t ring. But bike sharing is a trend in global cities. Traffic in the cities is increasingly bad.”
The Taipei program just breaks even and the company acknowledges it must think hard to perfect rental systems in other cities. It’s got four others in Taiwan at the moment. But whether or not it makes money, operation of a quality bike sharing program excites riders about cycling, says the company’s Chief Executive Officer Tony Lo. As a case in point, sales of Giant’s recreational bikes in Taipei have risen along with the popularity of the Taiwanese capital’s YouBike sharing program since 2012. Giant’s 6 million bikes produced last year for sales were largely for sports and leisure rather than just getting around town.
That brings me back to the trouble with Pronto.

Could it be that with such a wide-spread cycling plan and space for cyclists (3ft), enough people have their own equipment and don't need to borrow?

1 comment:

  1. "Currently, it is too easy for a user to find excuses for not riding. There is no space, it is inconvenient, the MRT station is too far, there is too much traffic, there are no places to park the bike. If those obstacles are removed, it clears the way for more bicycle use."


    Yet the focus on altering roads to better accommodate bicycles and discourage the use of cars overlooks another set of problems with the bicycle as transport which will still exist even if the roads are altered successfully.

    That set of problems relate to comfort and personal presentation. Not many people who work in service industries can get away with turning up to work pouring with sweat and their work shirts stuck to their soaking wet chests. Nor can they turn up to work looking like a lycra-clad strawberry flavored condom. And that is when the weather is fine; as you know Taiwan has the additional problems of high humidity and torrential rainfall which just exacerbate the comfort problem. At the minimum, altered roads would have to be supplemented by showers in the workplace - which is an additional cost and major inconvenience to employers who don't already have such facilities. Whilst a few men in certain occupations may be able to get away with it (myself included), this problem is going to be even more salient for women given the existing cultural expectations on them to wear make up and to wear dresses and other delicate, tight-fitting clothes. That's probably half the population already excluded right there, barring a few brave exceptions.

    I am sympathetic to cycling as transport, but only if the infrastructure aspect is envisaged in non zero-sum terms. Self-righteous squabbling over who should get to use the roads isn't going to end well. The best option is to create a separate superstructure of cycling tubes suspended above the city streets; the tubes could have windows, air conditioning and tiny electromagnetic catapults to propel users up the entry ramps. It wouldn't necessarily be any more expensive than existing MRT systems and would solve a number of problems (including both the comfort problem and the mixed-traffic safety problem) at a stroke. In addition such a system would virtually guarantee Taiwan the international attention the Taiwanese so crave. The key difficulties are going to be the usual problems of land procurement common to all new infrastructure wherein affected neighbours are going to complain about the "impact" on their neighbourhood, and that's why centralized planning systems are more likely to be a hindrance to its development rather than a facilitator.