I can already hear the expat Internet erupting, “How dare you. We’re totally united in our self-righteous condescension of Taiwanese drivers, traffic, and road rules”. Yeah—no we’re not. “But how can you possibly take such a stance?” Well, here’s how…
I have a case of expaticus oldfartitis. My perspective is longer than most the whiners online. I arrived here almost three decades ago, and found myself driving a scooter, helmetless, as was the way, through Taipei traffic in my first days. [See: Surviving Taiwan’s Traffic]. That was pre-MRT, when the streets were logarithmically more densely packed than Taipei’s current gentrified roadways.
With the higher viscosity of 1990’s traffic came a greater frequency of poor driving decisions. More people making choices meant more errors. Endless traffic jams encouraged outside-the-box thinking in order to arrive at work on time. I rarely went a week without riding up on a serious accident, my brain didn’t even process all the minor ones. I come across a lot less accidents now, I can’t really remember the last serious one. Taipei’s road conditions have improved a lot.
I’m actually legitimately surprised by the fuss over Taipei traffic that gets kicked up periodically by expats online. I guess people are arriving from whatever bucolic pasture spit them out and can’t cope. “Well, this isn’t how we do it back in good ol’ Bumblefuck”. Of course not, You can’t compare Taipei to a place with 4 vehicles per 1,000 sq. acres, a pair of which are consistently stopped in the middle of the road chatting. Be fair. How does Taipei’s traffic and road safety compare with Hanoi, Tianjin, Seoul, Hong Kong, or Jakarta? Pretty favorably.
Part of the that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home attitude is a tendency to deprecate or disbelieve in any traffic law that doesn’t exist back home. Hence there’s a certain expat opposition to the two-stage left turn. For readers that don’t know, a two-stage left turn can be executed by scooters. If a scooter were to make a “normal” left turn, it would need to traverse multiple lanes of traffic, from the right lane (where scooters drive), to the left turning lane. Once stopped in mid-intersection, the high volume of oncoming traffic and the large number of scooters clumped there waiting to turn left, would insure a dangerous situation. With the two-stage left turn, scooters stay in the scooter lane (on the right), drive halfway through the intersection, and halt at the front of the traffic stopped at the red light, waiting to go in the direction the scooter would have went had it turned left. There is often a box painted on the road reserving stopping space for scooters making a two-stage left. When the light turns green, the scooter heads off in the desired direction. “Computer modelling has indicated that hook turns [two-stage left turns] have the potential to significantly reduce delays and congestion in most situations, especially where overall traffic flow is high.”* As a commuter, in my opinion, it works great. If it makes the traffic racists feel better, two-stage turns are a provision allowed cyclists in many bike-friendly Western cities.
The that’s-not-how-we-do-it-back-home crowd is also likely to complain about people driving on sidewalks. But, you do have to account for Taipei’s scooter density, the location of scooter parking (on the sidewalk), and cultural differences in proxemics. Taiwanese are more comfortable with less personal space, that extends to interactions with vehicles. The situation is similar to many Asian cities. You wanted to live in another culture, so suck it up Buttercup, and check both ways before crossing the sidewalk.
Taipei driving isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, there are some problems. On market day mornings every octogenarian in Taipei seems to hop on their bicycle and wobble unheedingly into traffic, but that’s not a Taiwanese problem—it’s an octogenarian problem. Admittedly Taiwanese 祖嬤們 do seem to have raised crotchety-and-oblivious to an art form, but it’s not a big deal, just calm down and go around. That’s the answer to most problems you might have with Taipei traffic. Driving back in the West is about order, but in Asia it’s about flow.
I think some newer expat’s horror over Taipei traffic reflects a generational shift. Millennials and a few GenZers have arrived. They were raised with different expectations of personal safety, generally believing in a social contract where society endeavors to protect them. I’m GenX and that has most definitely not been my experience. Examples abound: did you know there were more school shootings during GenX’s teen years than Millennial’s. It didn’t start with Columbine. It’s just society didn’t give a shit—presumably because it was GenX teens shooting GenX teens. More on point would be changes to transportation that happened in the 1980s as a direct result of society’s desire to protect Millennial children. Car seats became de rigeur and minivans were developed to ensure an appropriate place to buckle that precious cargo. Is it any wonder the bubble wrapped Babies-on-Board generation would have different expectations of personal safety than the generation that played tag in uncovered pickup truck beds while bouncing down grid roads at high speed.
Upset by the sight of children on scooters? When I arrived it didn’t occur to me to be mortified. What X’er child hasn’t sailed along—unhelmeted—clinging for dear life on the back of some motorized contraption? The assumption always was that if you fell off you’d bounce. Those were just the skinned knees and broken bones of childhood. If you didn’t bounce, well, “Don’t worry, we can always make another of you,” was the familiar parental refrain. At least now children in Taipei are helmeted, they didn’t use to be.
From my (GenX) perspective if something crazy happens when going 30-50 kmh on a scooter, while helmeted,… well, it’s just not that bad. Some expats have expressed confusion online as to why the death rate on Taipei’s roads isn’t higher. Of course, the death rate is too high, as it is in any city, but from a North American perspective it’s confusingly low on a per accident basis. The reason is speed—speed kills. Most accidents in Taipei happen at relatively low speeds. When it comes to survivability on the roads, speed is more of a factor than drivers that set your teeth on edge.
Next time you’re driving around Taipei and find yourself cursing the drivers or traffic, ask yourself is the anger really justified, or are you just suffering from a privileged sense of your own safety? Do you simply have a touch of millenialitis or the newer variant genz-eitgeist?
I’ve been dealing with health issues, along with a general lassitude that’s kept me from writing. Apologies if you’ve been a reader and wondered what happened. Some friends and acquaintances have pointed out I should start writing again since I’m in my 50s and these are my prime wisdom-giving years. I do hope under the snark, contrarianism, and sarcasm of my writings some of you find something of some value. I’ll try to overcome my general distaste for writing and publish a bit more regularly.
* Hounsell, Nicholas; Yap, Yok Hoe (14 August 2013). “Hook Turns as a Solution to the Right-Turning Traffic Problem”. Transportation Science. 49 (1): 1–12. [The article is written from the perspective of countries that drive on the left].