Tainan Traffic

Taiwan on Two Wheels

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By Devon Banks


Imagine New York City during rush hour during the peak of summer. The air is heavy and humid and you are covered in a film of gritty sweat.

Thankfully, you’ve got air-conditioning. The cars, like cattle, race quickly to try and beat the red lights. Bike messengers swerve in and out of traffic. Pedestrians, frustrated from the heat and hot sun, try to cross whenever they can.

The noise from the construction beats through the windows and the glaring sun shines in your eyes. This is a nightmare commute.

Driving in NYC rush hour isn’t even close to the nightmare I face daily. Trust me. I drive in one of Taiwan’s largest cities, Tainan, every day. The driving here is what nightmares are made of.

Picture this: change every NYC car into a scooter, a two wheeled motorized vehicle that is capable of speeds up to 80km/h where the driver sits down on a comfy seat and controls brakes and acceleration with their hands.

Continue to envision some scooters are brand new, complete with digital displays, bright colors and rhinestone accents. If that isn’t flashy enough for you some, even have purple lights accenting their sleek curves and screaming engine.

The less fortunate, including myself, drive ones held together with cable ties and duct tape puffing along surrounded by a black cloud of exhaust. Similar to Frankenstein, they are assembled from corpse pieces of scooters well past their days of glory. We are lucky to have rear view mirrors and working speedometers, even luckier to be able to go above 35km/h.

The same goes for bicycles. Some are brand new fixed gears while others were made before the dawn of modern time. The entire bicycle is covered in rust, including the seat. Usually, they are ridden precariously by an ancient Taiwanese man or woman who looks like they could topple over at any minute as they weave in and out of traffic and across busy roads carrying their grandchildren in little wooden backseats.

Exchange those clearly marked streets and sidewalks of NYC with vegetable markets sprawled onto the road, stinky tofu stalls blocking crosswalks, and sidewalks so uneven that if you take your eyes off it for even a second, you risk the chance of eating concrete for lunch (which is probably better than the stinky tofu anyway!).

Oh, and you know traffic lights and stop signs…

Those are called suggestions and “pretty red signs with letters”.

Since most people drive scooters, they have to adapt those scooters to carry whatever it is they need to carry. And people here carry everything from sacs of groceries to live chickens, to ladders, to full queen size mattresses.

For some people, that means placing small wooden chairs on the ground to put their babies (in addition to the other two or three kids already sharing the seat), metal racks on the back to strap on 3 or 4 propane tanks with bungee cords or attaching giant plastic bags over all possible surfaces to carry recycling around the city. Not only do I have to maneuver around these giant scooters, I have to pray their goods don’t fall on me as I try to pass.

Yesterday, I saw a Typical Taiwanese guy in his thirties driving a Frankenstein scooter down Dongning Rd, one of the busier roads in Tainan. His lips and teeth stained red with beetle nut, his shaved head covered by a $3 plastic helmet, his feet covered by the $1 plastic sandals and his scooter laden down with a heavy load.

What was this tough guy carrying? An old milk crate strapped to the front of an old scooter filled with four of the cutest, small dash hounds!

Let’s not forget my personal favorite. My friends and I call them the foot draggers. These are the old ladies who drive at a turtle’s pace, their speedometers never hitting greater than 15km/h. with their feet dragging along the side. Their fresh fruit just purchased from the market purchases, hangs out of the basket.

They also never wear a helmet, as it would ruin their salon styled roller set. These ladies are stylish. There is no way they are going to allow a helmet to flatten their sexy grey curls.

I’m sure at this point you would choose NYC rush hour over Tainan traffic any day. But you wait, there is still more to this Taiwan experience.

Are you wondering where can you drive a scooter in Taiwan? Everywhere! Parks, bike paths, alleys, right side, left side, grass, alleys, one-ways and of course the road. And remember how red lights are a suggestion?

Well, it a suggestion that is rarely followed, especially by those old ladies and propane cylinder lugging mad men. That’s right, men carrying two or three flammable, explosive propane cylinders are the most likely to run red lights.

My city, Tainan, has one stop sign, let’s just say, I’ve been here seven years and I’ve never seen it, it must be a legend.

I forgot to tell you about the cars. The scooters make up about 60 percent of the traffic in this chaotic urban jungle. There are still lots of cars. Some drive fast, some slow. Some drive on the left, some on the right. Some turn right from the far left lane and it’s a guarantee that they will race to turn left on green before the oncoming cars get going.

A three point turn in Taiwan becomes a thirty point turn. Would you like to do a U-turn? Anywhere you like is acceptable.

How about change lanes? Just cut someone off. It’s ok, they’re expecting it. Did I mention the busses?

Why even bother, they act just like the cars. Just really big, scary, smoky cars.

The miracle of Taiwan is that nobody honks, no one gets road rage. Drivers wait patiently while someone blocks the road for ten minutes to parallel park.

Almost killed by someone cutting in front of you and slamming on their brakes? Happens every day, just laugh it off.

Get in an accident? Don’t call the insurance company. Just pony up some cash and let’s get on with your day. It’s an economic model of supply and demand that seems to work most of the time.)

So, who wants to go for a ride? I can’t guarantee your safety but I can guarantee it will get your heart racing.

A Note About The Author

Devon Banks, in the words of Robert Frost, is taking the road less traveled  She left the hospitality industry in 2006 to pursue her dream of living in Asia. She has spent more than 15 months over the last 7 years exploring new places.
She has eaten everything from crickets to stinky tofu to dog,  tried every liquor known to man, pet tigers, climbed volcanoes and swam with sharks. All this while learning Spanish, Chinese and getting her MBA. She is in the middle of writing a book about her experiences.
Would you like to know more? She is currently looking for new adventures in marketing or hospitality. Check out her LinkedIn profile at http://www.linkedin.com/in/devonbanks.