Another week, another major road traffic incident making news in Taiwan. This time, a ten car pile-up following Korean pop group Blackpink’s concert was the source of the headlines, where in December there had been a tragic bus crash. It begs the question: What if … Taiwan stopped being road traffic hell?
At this point Taiwan’s road deaths have become a source of international embarrassment. In the first 10 months of 2022, 2,560 road fatalities occurred, “up 6.2 percent year-on-year and the highest level in nine years,” according to a Ministry of Transportation and Communications press conference in January. That’s 12.6 traffic fatalities per 100,000 individuals or, four times higher than Japan and Denmark, countries Taiwan might like to see itself as similar to, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency.
Some of the experiences behind those numbers are the catalyst for a viral Facebook page called “Taiwan is a living hell for pedestrians.” With 13,000 members, it says it’s set up specifically in order to fight for pedestrians to be prioritized. However, international coverage has also placed steady pressure on the Taiwanese government over the wider issue. CNN published an article on the issue in December, while a Taiwanese lawmaker noted recently that Switzerland’s foreign ministry had highlighted “unpredictable and often aggressive behavior” can “create a significant risk of accidents.” It’s not alone. “Motorcycles and scooter drivers don’t respect traffic laws. They are extremely reckless,” Canadian government travel guidance notes among many others.
This is a problem for Taiwan on two levels, then. First and foremost, the deaths and injuries are tragic. But in addition to that, there’s also the idea that Taiwan is fighting for positive international recognition, and this is unhelpful baggage. It looks like bad governance.
Prescriptions for counter measures vary. But there are a lot to choose from should they be considered politically possible or desirable.
“The focus should be on designing better road infrastructure and enhancing drivers’ education,” Charles Lin, the executive vice president of Taiwan Traffic Safety Association told CNN.
Roundabouts are known to be safer than traffic lights at intersections but have not been introduced in many places, writes Michael Turton in the Taipei Times, who also adds that pedestrianization plans are not on the political agenda.
Meanwhile, on a similar note, the “Taiwan is a living hell for pedestrians” Facebook page’s latest post celebrates the “Basic concepts of humanistic urbanism,” in which “Roads serve cars, and streets serve people” and “the main body of the city’s skeleton is ‘streets’ rather than ‘roads.’” (給台灣社會的人本城市學基本概念： 道路（Roads）為汽車而服務，街道（Streets）為人而服務；建構城市骨架的主體——是「街道」而不是「道路」)
Of course, these measures might not eradicate highway crashes like the one after the Blackpink concert. And some efforts have been made to improve some areas of road safety, in particular for pedestrians. In response to the aforementioned CNN report, for instance, Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications (中華民國交通部) said attempts to improve road infrastructure and make the country more pedestrian-friendly have been underway for many years, noting that around 1 billion New Taiwan dollars ($32.5 million) has been given over to building sidewalks and consistent walkways in the last 13 years, alongside tidying up walkways blocked by scooters.
But while that isn’t nothing, both improving pedestrian safety and road safety on the whole still have obstacles blocking their path.
In his aforementioned Taipei Times piece, Turton pointed out that the atmosphere in which infrastructure decisions are being taken is one in which no-one wants to cut into developers’ profits. That means traffic lights are more likely than roundabouts because they take up less space, for instance.
Separately, in the battle of priorities between vehicles and pedestrians, it’s extremely easy to find examples where the former come first (and second and third). We measured the maximum waiting period for pedestrians at one crossing in Taipei’s Songshan District next to a particularly accident-heavy intersection. It was three minutes. That means if a car drove at the default Taipei speed limit of 50 kilometers per hour (humor us), they could theoretically come from 2.5 kilometers away and still cross the crossing before the pedestrian.
Regardless of your proposed solution, the limited ambition in terms of what’s considered possible is also striking. At the Taipei Expo event earlier this year, a time lapse video was shown in which a highway was removed to create a nicer looking environment next to the North Gate in Taipei. But conversely the actual effect of the video was to emphasize what hadn’t changed: The dominance of cars and motorbikes was still an ever-present in both the “before” and “after” segments of the video. The real contrast was to be found with the far grander pedestrianization schemes in places like Barcelona.
So, clearly, different people have different solutions in mind to Taiwan’s traffic problems, and that’s fine. But it’s hardly controversial to say that change is needed. And Taiwan needs good PR more than almost anywhere else.