At 12.6 traffic fatalities per 100,000 individuals, four times higher than Japan and Denmark, Taiwan has an obvious, objective problem on its roads. Those numbers mean that, every day, residents can walk outside and see examples of dangerous driving, dangerous road infrastructure or, worse, road accidents. The grim situation, though, has now generated a significant pro-pedestrian movement to push in the opposite direction — and it operates as a compelling, ongoing case study into how Taiwan’s civil society is developing.
“I have a Facebook page called Walkable Taiwan … and it started from me being frustrated about Taiwan’s road environment,” says Yixian Zhang (張苡絃), one of the organizers behind the much-discussed Vision Zero Taiwan protest march this Sunday in Taipei, whose story of network-building works as a microcosm for the broader movement.
After struggling to navigate Taiwan as a pedestrian, Zhang started out “venting” online, but then began speaking to others who saw the same problems. Through talking to motorcyclist safety groups already involved in their own campaigns, others running similar social media pages, and foreigners who brought insights from elsewhere, she began to build an understanding of the “systemic violence” taking place on Taiwan’s roads. “The road environment in Taiwan is designed for cars, not for anybody else,” as she summarizes most succinctly.
Particularly over the last three or four years, discussions like those have multiplied out — occasionally boosted by commentary from the foreign press — and they have eventually solidified into the coalitions that have produced both Vision Zero’s protest march this Sunday (August 20) and its accompanying set of demands. They’re calling for things like physically narrower car lanes, physical sidewalks, improvements to education (such as more testing in realistic conditions), legal frameworks that are consistent across different layers of government, an end to motorbike lanes and, ultimately, zero pedestrian deaths by 2040.
“Maybe between 60 and 100 people have been involved [in compiling the demands and organizing Sunday’s protest] if you add up cumulatively all the people that have made some sort of contribution,” says Jonathan Knowles, another Vision Zero organizer. Originally from the U.K., and cautious about critiquing Taiwan even after over a decade in the country, he describes moving to the southern city of Tainan and seeing “on a regular basis serious injuries on the road,” followed by an underwhelming experience with the extremely limited Taiwanese driving test in 2012 (only slightly improved since), as his own Taiwan road traffic origin story. He says that previously people have felt “powerless,” but that has changed in recent years as groups of interested people have “organically” pulled together.
Speaking to both organizers via video call, this all sounds like the epitome of a healthy civil society response: A visceral problem is identified, and this steadily turns into a more systematic critique; then individual engagement turns to collective, and online work transforms into real world action, concrete proposals and politicians promising to join the movement. You couldn’t get more textbook.
However, of course, democratic currents from below don’t guarantee responsive government policy or changes to the material conditions. There remain obstacles. And this is why this is very much an ongoing case study.
For one thing, not everyone in the population agrees. Knowles notes that one example of those who can be known to oppose road reforms is shop owners. “A lot of shop owners are under the mistaken belief that building sidewalks will reduce the amount of business that [they] get,” he says, because people are so used to the concept of driving directly to a shop. Another issue he mentions is that across society there has perhaps been a tendency to individualize accidents, so that either the victim or the individual driver might be blamed, rather than systems.
Zhang, meanwhile, notes that certain borough wardens (里長) have been known to object to sidewalk building, for a variety of reasons, with many people valuing the idea of car-led “convenience” highly.
Though other nearby polities, like Singapore and Japan, provide positive examples of traffic safety measures that have proved successful in a number of ways, there are no guaranteed answers for how to change these people’s minds on any of these points. But both Knowles and Zhang believe that if people in Taiwan can be shown concrete examples of road reforms in place elsewhere in Taiwan, it’s possible. “Maybe the only way to break the deadlock is to find some places willing to do it first,” Knowles says. “I think people need to experience things to know it’s better,” Zhang adds later, along the same lines.
Should more people be convinced — Knowles talks about reaching a “critical mass” of people, and some social science suggests when 25% of people commit to a cause it can become a tipping point for the rest of the population to follow — the other obvious layer in the way of reform is flawed government structures.
“Fragmented responsibility” across different government bodies — local and central — sees, for example, sidewalk standards not being legally mandated, resulting in inconsistencies across different areas, Zhang said. She produces a mix-and-match chart of all the different government departments in charge of different elements of road management as convincing evidence. On top of this, elsewhere, there has been the wrong kind of consistency, with civil servants winning “jobs for life,” resulting in them becoming too close to developers. Their power has previously been used to explain a lack of progress by writers like Michael Turton in the Taipei Times.
To these sticky structural issues, there is another answer proposed, though. And that’s the role of NGOs becoming their own kind of road infrastructure.
“Taiwan is a young democracy … and people are realizing slowly that the government isn’t infinite in its power, and actually the government might not have all of the necessary expertise to solve all of the problems, even if they wish to,” Knowles says. Within this lies an opportunity for citizens to set the agenda. “Citizens that band together, develop expertise, [and] become more professional, actually have a great chance to shape the direction of policy making … [because] regardless of how badly the government does, if you have strong citizen-led organizations … they can actually be a resource for the government,” he explains, “and their expertise can survive one government disappearing and another reappearing.”
Of course, Zhang jokes that this is all on the proviso that those citizens can themselves “survive the road environment in Taiwan.” But the point is that there does look to be an opportunity here. And those involved in Sunday’s protest are working toward taking it.
“Collective wisdom and collective knowledge” has been built up through discussion, Zhang says, and “cross-pollination of ideas,” Knowles adds. On top of individual activists using their own time to become highly informed, motorcycle safety groups involved have previous experience in dealing with the government, scholars of urban planning have been consulted, too, and it all clearly adds up. The aforementioned demands are notably specific things like “Institut[ing] a speed limit of 30 km/h or less in school districts, residential areas, and areas with many elderly people [and reducing] lane width to no more than 2.8 meters,” or “Repeal[ing] the provisions of Article 58 of the Road Traffic Safety Regulations so that more driver training happens on real roads with other drivers.”
These are not vague calls for improvement. They’re highly informed ideas.
And right now, the signs look good for getting results. Days before the protest, the Executive Yuan outlined a four-year plan to address traffic safety. What’s more, all of the presidential candidates for next year’s election, Lai Ching-te (賴清德), Hou You-yi (侯友宜) and Ke Wen-je (柯文哲), have committed to attend, according to Zhang and Knowles. Plus the president of FoxConn, who is widely suspected to be planning to announce his candidature for the presidency, Terry Gou (郭台銘), as well as Minister for Transport Wang Kwo-tsai (王國材). Given how difficult it has been for any actual policy issue to break through into this election campaign so far, these are extremely promising signs for a growing, grassroots movement.
Anyone interested in the state of Taiwan’s democracy should keep watching to see how well these promises turn into real implementation.