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Taipei is shaping a cycle-friendly city

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It was 3am when Helen Chen called it a night after hanging out with friends in downtown Taipei. The buses and trains had stopped running and Chen doesn’t own a car. Unperturbed, the 34-year-old strolled to a bike-share docking station two blocks away, grabbed a bike with a quick tap of her EasyCard (stored-value smartcard) on the automated kiosk, and pedalled the 5km distance home. She reached home safe and sound in barely 30 minutes and the bike rental cost her NTD10 (RM1.23).

“I ride YouBike (the bike-share’s name) everywhere. It’s convenient and cheap,” says Chen, a Taipei-based product designer who grew up in Sydney. Chen echoes the sentiments of over four million registered users of YouBike in Taipei today.

Launched in 2009 with a modest 11 stations and 500 bikes, YouBike now has 214 stations with 7,000 bicycles, strategically placed next to MRT stations, bus stops and tourist attractions. To date, the bike-share scheme has surpassed the 40-million rental mark, logs an average of 52,000 trips a day with a turnover rate of 8.06 trips per bicycle.

The city’s bike lane network totals 498.38km, including bike paths, dual-use sidewalks and river bikeways. Downtown Taipei boasts a 58.93km-network of cycling lanes.

Taipei City hosts the international cycling conference, Velo-City Global 2016.

Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul sent delegations to suss out Taipei’s bike-share programme and Singapore’s Land Transport Authority had planned a study visit this month.

When Taipei won its bid to become the first Asian city to host the premier cycling conference Velo-City Global 2016, YouBike’s success was credited as one of the main factors.

A 2014 report by European Cyclists’ Federation on Taipei’s cycling achievement noted that cycling mode share (percentage of total trips done by bicycle) in Taipei is up 30%. It now stands at 5.5%, a figure yet to be matched by many European capital cities (in cycling utopias like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, however, bikes account for more than 50% of trips in the cities). The usage figure for YouBike matches the world’s best, and women make up 50% of the cycling population – a gauge of the city’s cycle-friendliness.

Cities usually struggle to attract women cyclists due to lack of safe, segregated cycle networks, according to ECF, also the founder of Velo-city conference.

“YouBike helped us overcome our urban mobility issues like traffic congestion, air pollution and road safety,” says Anne Chung, the commissioner for Taipei City Government’s Department of Transportation (DOT).

“With an efficient Taipei Metro (MRT) and bus systems, we can leverage the use of public bikes for the last mile (of commuters’ journeys).”

Taipei plans to increase its YouBike fleet to 400 stations and 13,000 bicycles by 2018, Chung added. And the city wants to complete an additional 192.9km of bike lanes and facilities by 2019. Aside from Taipei, YouBike has also been implemented in New Taipei City, Taichung City and Changhua Country.

Public bike parking in front of National Taiwan University.

Across the globe, more than 700 cities in 50 countries have implemented bike-share systems (The Economist, Sept 5, 2015). Paris’s Vélib and Barcelona’s Bicing bike-share systems are de facto role models for aspiring bike-sharing cities although the world’s largest bike-sharing schemes (not necessarily the most successful) are in Chinese cities of Hangzhou and Wuhan. New York-based global non-profit Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) rates the success of bike-share systems based on criteria like station density – 10-16 stations for every square kilometre, bikes per resident, coverage area, quality bikes (practical and fit for use) and easy-to-use stations. From New York City to London and Rio de Janeiro, these cosmopolitan cities are looking for solutions for urban issues.

“A great bike-share system indicates that the city is thinking progressively about transit, the environment, and quality of life,” sums up ITDP’s Director of National Policy and Project Evaluation Colin Hughes.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

But like most Asian cities experiencing rapid, economic growth post 1970s, Taipei underwent a boom in construction of highways and roads. As income rises, cars and motorcycles became the preferred form of transport. To ease traffic congestion, a bus lane network was initiated in the early 1990s and the first Taipei Metro line opened in 1996.

Today, Taipei boasts a comprehensive bus network and an efficient MRT system with five lines and 117 stations covering 136.6km. Trains run frequently (every three minutes during peak hours), are punctual and rarely break down. And the EasyCard, a smartcard ticketing system, can be used on all public transport.

Professor Jason Chang

“Before we even talk of putting cycling into the equation, we need to talk about the whole public transport system,” says Dr SK Jason Chang, the director of Public Transport Research Center and Professor of Transport Systems at National Taiwan University.

In short, for bike-share systems to work and to encourage commuters to cycle the first or last mile of their journey, they need to be able to transfer seamlessly between the various modes of public transport.

A strong support from the central government and collaboration with the bicycle manufacturing industry are also vital ingredients for the scheme to work, Chang added. The city government forked out funding for the bike-share infrastructure and Giant Manufacturing Company designed and supplied the bicycles, and operates the scheme. Taiwan’s Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) subsidised the first 30-minute rental for the bikes.

“The trial project with the first 500 bikes was received poorly with a turnover rate of one bike per day or week,” admits Chang who researches on public transport, transport economics and advanced public transit.

Limited bikes and stations – only available in the Xinyi business district, and the complicated rental procedure (users need two valid IDs and credit card to register), led to the poor response.

“We asked Eric Britton (the sustainability activist and founder of World CarFree Day) for his advice on the bike-share project when he was in Taipei for CarFree Day in 2011, and his answer was: ‘expand, expand, expand!’ ” recalls Chang.

“So once registration was simplified – using EasyCard and mobile number, and the fleet was expanded to 4,545 bikes with 136 stations across the city, the number of users shot up,” explains Chang, who advocates people-centric cities. Apart from being advisor to the Taipei City Government for 22 years, Chang is one of the pioneers promoting green mobility in developing cities like China and India.

Car-Free Day has been an annual event in Taipei since 2001.

“Taipei residents get a feel of what it’s like to enjoy the streets, free from motorised traffic,” says Chang, listing the benefits of Car-Free Day.

“It’s also a good time for the city government to evaluate its progress in transforming into a people-centred environment, and an opportunity to announce its vision and future objectives.”

Lifts for bicycles at MRT stations. Folding bikes in bags are allowed to access to the MRT stations but full-sized bikes can only get on the trains on the weekends and public holidays.

Bike parking at an MRT station.

Since the late 1990s, Taiwan’s central and local government started promoting cycling tourism and recreational cycling. Millions of dollars have been poured into bicycle infrastructures for the construction of a nationwide bike network and river bikeways. Taiwan Tourism Bureau’s dogged efforts have put the country’s cycling tourism on the world map with events like the annual Taiwan Cycling Festival. Lonely Planet lists Taiwan on its “Best in Travel 2012” list, saying the country is “best seen on two wheels”.

Last December, Taiwan launched the 968km round-island bike network with 122 rest areas, dedicated cycling paths, shower facilities and multiple drop-off locations for rental bikes.

When President Mayor Ma Ying-jeou was elected into office in 2008, he announced a NTD30bil (RM3.7mil) funding for Energy Savings Emission Reduction Policy, which triggered a boom in green transportation and cycling became all the rage.

“All these combined factors made the bike-share programme take off,” says Chang.

However, grassroots cycling advocacy hasn’t really taken off in Taiwan until now. A group of passionate cycle-commuters is in the midst of registering an NGO to plug bicycle-commuting, road safety and city races.

To date, most of the advocacy work has been led by Cycling Lifestyle Foundation, a semi-commercial organisation funded by Giant – the world’s largest bike manufacturer by revenue. Based on Giant founder King Liu’s vision: “to promote cycling as part of our lifestyle,” the Foundation works closely with government and policy makers to promote cycling as a mode of recreation and sustainable transport.

Bike infrastructure-like ramps at the river bikeway.

Founded in 1989, the Foundation started out creating and running cycling events and island-wide cycling tours to get more people cycling. And when Taipei city and New Taipei City (the metropolitan areas of Taipei) constructed the river bikeways, Giant donated free bikes to help kick-start recreational cycling. Today, the Foundation operates 15 non-profit rental bike stations with over 4000 bikes along the bikeways in New Taipei City.

“The income from the rental service is used to maintain the bikes or buy new bikes when we retire the old ones,” says Vicky Yang, the CEO of Cycling Lifestyle and Liu’s daughter. “We just want city folks to experience the joy of cycling so it becomes a lifestyle.”

When then Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin wanted to initiate the pilot bike-share programme in Taipei, the Foundation sent an entourage of Giant bike technicians and Yang to Paris to learn about the Vélib bike-share scheme in 2008. Over the years, the Foundation has invited government officers on all-expense paid study trips abroad to check out best cycling practices.

“Now that recreational cycling is well established, we are promoting cycling commuting to complete the last piece of the puzzle,” says Yang who has the ear of the city and central governments. “We need more bicycle paths in the city so more people will be willing to commute by bicycle. More cyclists mean safer streets and less traffic accidents.”

Room for improvement

The conflict between cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and motorcyclists is the perennial issue dogging cycling-commute within the city. Bike lanes are placed on shared sidewalks or traffic slow lanes, and many of the lanes, including the river bikeway, lacks connectivity.

Cyclists and pedestrian have to watch out for cars and scooters turning at intersections although they have the right of way.

In a recent survey by the DOT on cycling safety, nearly 40% of pedestrians complained about cyclists who ride on arcades (five foot way) or sidewalks, and 20% of respondents abhor cyclists who weave in and out of traffic or ride outside of designated cycling lanes.

“Our population is dense, we just don’t have enough room to accommodate infrastructures for different modes of transport. People have to learn to respect and live harmoniously with each other,” admits Commissioner Chung. Taipei has 2.7million people living within a 271.79sqkm space, with a population density of 9,944 residents per sqkm (Kuala Lumpur’s population density is 6,890 people per sqkm).

“We will continue to run campaigns to educate people about respecting each other’s right of way and road safety.”

One of the city’s main priorities is to reduce the number of cars and motorcycles on the road, Chung said.

“Our vision for Taipei city is zero traffic death,” adds Chung, whose preferred mode of transport is YouBike and she doesn’t own a car or motorcycle.

In Taipei and the metropolitan areas, motorcycles outnumber cars (about 3.1million motorcycles versus 1.5million cars by the end of 2014) and account for 54.1% of total traffic fatality within Taipei city. Over the years, the city has reduced parking spaces for motorcycles, eradicated free parking for cars and widened the sidewalks for pedestrians and bike lanes.

Motorcycle ownership in Taipei has dropped 13% in the last eight years. However, there is no study yet to show the correlation between the success of Taipei’s bike-share scheme and the decrease of cars and motorcycles in Taipei (from 2011 and 2014).

Restroom facilities for cyclists at the riverbikeway.

For YouBike commuters like Chen, the usual gripes are shortage of bicycles for rent and shortage of docks to return the bikes to (due to high volume usage). But smartphone users can download a free app that maps out YouBike station locations across the city and the availability of bikes. Theft and vandalism are a non-issue due to the bike’s clever designs.

But in April last year, the city removed the subsidy for the first 30-minute free YouBike rental. Users have to pay NTD5 (RM0.60) for the first 30 minutes and NTD10 per 30 minutes within the first four hours and the rate increases with longer usage. The pricing structure is designed to encourage short trips and help maximize the turnover of the bicycles.

“After implementing the charges, we save an average of NTD10.37mil (RM1.29mil) per month in subsidies,” says Chung. The average subsidy covered by the city from April to September 2015 was NTD7.46mil (RM934,000) per month.

“We strive to make YouBike financially independent by 2019.”

However, Chang feels that the city should create incentives to entice more cycling commuters.

“The city should thank you for riding a bicycle during peak hours because you are helping to reduce congestion and pollution,” says Chang, an avid cyclist and owner of four bicycles. “Of course, we need a sustainable financial scheme for YouBike because someone has to pay for it. But we also need to encourage more people to commute with their own bicycles.”

Forty-eight percent of Taipei’s population now uses public transport and in the Taipei metropolitan areas, the number is lower at 30%.

“The ideal figure should be 60%,” says Chang.

A global conference like Velo-city is a good opportunity for Taipei and Taiwan to explore the challenges of transforming a “motorcycle city” into a green mobility city, Chang added.

“We can identify how to deal with the challenges. And with the help of local and international experts, come up with a clear vision to make it happen.

“It boils down to strong political will, very good design, infrastructure, management, financial scheme and integration.”

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