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Taipei Lessons: Be Adaptive

December 10, 2012
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Taipei, infrastructure, adaptable, application, local transportation, design, planning

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After spending a week in Taipei it was evident that the city was well run, easy to move around, and successfully promoting both corporate partnerships as well as small businesses and retail. It is a city that has been ignored in many discussions of urbanism even though it has long led southeast Asia in environmental sensitivity, land use and city planning, transit, and resident happiness. We looked at what ideas, designs, and lessons could be translated to design in the US, and specifically in the burgeoning Tysons to make a city that works. One obvious lesson, adaptability.

Taipei is a city constantly improving, growing, and changing. This is no more evident than in the city’s infrastructure. While other regions demand only one solution, Taipei never traps itself in a corner and remains a limber and evolving network. For instance, the city’s MRT. To a transportation engineer it is glaringly obvious that the cities rail system actually consists of two separate gauges of track and train cars… something that cities like, oh DC for instance, has a very tough time considering. The truth is that the average user has no idea what they are riding on, all they care about is ease of use and getting to where they need to. In Taipei the two separate train track systems are integrated in the same station at the Taipei Exhibition Center Stop, allowing seamless integration between the two different but kindred networks.

Instead of demanding the lowest common denominator of only similar systems, the city saw the ability to provide the same services in varying ways, each with their own advantages and disadvantages that work to balance each other.

The road system is no different. What transportation planners don’t want you to know is providing multi-modal solutions isn’t a matter of cost, it’s a matter of priorities. The only way they will consider any alternative transportation options is in addition to existing roadway conditions, or in many cases only in combination with widening projects. Re-striping road lanes within the same right of way is a negligible cost, but even a 1 second detriment to commuter traffic is viewed as a compromise to the system that can never be allowed.

In Taipei? The car has no legacy or monarchical dominance over all other forms of transportation. Each mode is viewed independently for their ability to address the city’s needs. There are no inalienable road rights over pedestrian facilities, or bike lanes for example. When a corridor is congested, instead of widening the road, the city provides alternative modes which take less space and move more residents more efficiently (cars being the largest space usage per capita of any transportation mode).

How about systems that take into account the forms of vehicles being used? One of the many excuses for not reducing road lanes in the US in certain urban environments is that trucks will have less space within those lanes… this even though the percentage of truck owners in the US continues to slide down and the percentage of compact sedans continues to rise. By taking the average 4-lane divided road, and converting the designed 12′ lanes to 10′ lanes, you can extract two 4′ bike lanes within the existing paved area.

In Taipei they don’t just stop at bike lanes, they realize that many of the vehicles on the road are mo-peds. Parking around the city takes this into account and provides the most efficient space usage by planning for these types of vehicles separate from the “worst case scenario” of a high end truck user. Another neat innovation in Taipei is the mo-ped box at stop lights. It is a region in which mo-peds are to remain prior to the green light. To avoid interferences from mo-peds cutting across the roadway to turn left they have a strict enforcement requiring the mo-peds to go straight to the box, turn, then on the next green go straight. These are concepts and rules that don’t require funds, just innovative leaders willing to take a stance.

In general one thing that stood out about Taipei was the willingness to address problems in the cities by whatever means necessary. It isn’t about an ideology, it is about providing the best solution to the end users. There are still plenty of good facilities for car drivers in Taipei, and there are plenty of areas of the city that are dangerous to walk or bike in where buses or cars remain the only safe option. Instead of saying only cars are good, or only rail is good, or only biking is good, Taipei is side stepping the argument and showing how all of the above are good and needed for a city to be great.

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