Exploding fireworks, a horde of humanity on two wheels, children’s bicycles weaving from side to side and a complete lack of trail etiquette.
These are some of the dangers and frustrations facing a cyclist who ventures onto the relatively new — and expanding — network of bicycle trails on the island nation of Taiwan.
“Just a few years ago, when cycling was largely the preserve of schoolchildren, the elderly and foreign laborers, it took vision for governments to invest in the planning and realization of what, within a year or two at most, will be an interconnected system of paths circling the island,” noted The China Post, Taiwan’s English-language daily, in a March 1 editorial.
“It must have been hard to predict the passion with which Taiwanese would embrace ‘self-powered vehicles.'”
And embrace them they have.
On any given evening or weekend, The China Post said, “one can now barely move for two-wheelers” on the thousands of kilometers of interconnected trails circling the island. It’s evidence, the newspaper said, of “another quiet Taiwan miracle.”
I’m reminded of Yogi Berra’s observation about a St. Louis restaurant called Ruggeri’s: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
One of my sons lives in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, and sometimes commutes by bike to the school where he teaches. He also sometimes rides the bike trail along the Danshui River, but tends to avoid it during the weekends because, like Ruggeri’s, it’s too crowded.
I’ve visited Taipei twice and experienced, on foot, the city’s chaotic traffic. Swarms of motor scooters — a favored means of motorized transport — bear down on intersections like angry killer bees. Sometimes, the scooter pilots use the sidewalks if the street is too congested. Pedestrians, beware!
That lack of discipline in vehicle handling also infects the bike trails.
So I asked my son to write some notes on cycling in Taiwan. Here is his report, with some of his photos of bikes in Taipei:
The biking craze started a couple of years ago. Before that only kids, students and poor people rode bikes. Now having a fancy bike and all the clothing to go with it is seen as a sign of being well-off.
Lots of small bike shops have popped up to meet the demand. The main brands I see are Giant, Fuji, Dahon folding bikes and Merida. In virtually all bike shops, you aren’t allowed to test-ride the bike that you’re looking to buy. If the shop is more professional, you might be allowed to ride the bike in the store by mounting it on some sort of bike mount so you can pedal and shift the gears.
The bike trails are quite nicely laid out and most run along the rivers in riverside parks. In some sections, they’re illuminated at night. They’re well-paved and are quite pleasant to ride on. However, on the weekends they are to be avoided as everyone is out riding bikes. Also, in the evenings after work it can get quite crowded.
I’d guess that about 90 percent of bike riders here don’t wear helmets. However, about 90 percent of people do use bike lights when riding at night.
Trail etiquette is virtually nonexistent, especially when the hordes are out. People stop in the middle of the trail to chat, fix something on the bike, look at something by the trail, etc. Lots of people fail to stay on the correct side and weave around without paying attention to what’s coming up behind them.
During the Chinese New Year holiday last month there were lots of people along the trails and in the parks setting off fireworks as cyclists rode by. It seemed quite dangerous and dumb.
Also, when two trails merge, most people don’t look or pay attention to the merging traffic. Yielding is almost never done. This mirrors the way that most people drive cars and scooters on the roads.
Cyclists are permitted to take their bikes on the MRT (subway), which is great. The first and last cars of the trains have fewer seats and are designated for bikes.
You see all sorts of people riding on the trails: professional-looking riders on fast road bikes, toddlers on little bikes with training wheels, kids on mountain bikes that are too big for them, grown men on children’s bikes.
I once saw a man riding a little girl’s pink Hello Kitty bike.
In fact, lots of adults ride children’s bikes here — perhaps because they’re smaller and can be stored more easily, maybe because they’re not likely to be stolen, or because they’re cheap.
The China Post editorial took note of the chaos on Taiwan’s streets and trails and called for “a revolution in attitude, a newly found respect for cyclists by other road users, and, of course, similarly by cyclists for pedestrians.”
“The most common reason people give for not cycling is lack of safety, by which they do not mean colliding with other bicycles or falling off, but being hit by careless or aggressive motorists,” the Post said. “This change in mindset is something that no government can legislate, but must come about from the people’s own volition.”