Notes from Taiwan, Getting Around in a Busy Place with Trains, Cars, and Scooters

In the area around Jhongli and Taipei that I have explored, I have been paying attention to the way folks get around here.

To get between Jhongli and Taipei, Y and I use the “stand up for yourself and be strong” express train (this Chiang Kai Shek-type expression loses its power with a literal translation) and the slower commuter train service. Within Taipei, we transfer to the subway system to reach major points from which we can walk or take a taxi cab.

Y’s sister Yoshan move about Taipei with her slick scooter. It is important to note that the Taiwanese consider any motorized bike above 50cc to be a motorcycle. They do not have different names for moped, scooter, or motorcycle as we do in the United States. I wonder: Does anyone ride mopeds any more? If so, where?

Y’s parents drive a car or compact work van to get about their town or the whole island. Y’s friends also primarily drive cars having already cut their teeth on scooters when they were younger. Y’s parents own a Toyota Camry for family errands, and her father uses a Mitsubishi delivery van for his printing business. Her friends also tend to drive Toyotas–especially Corollas or the new Corolla Altis. However, Y’s friends do not all own their own cars. Instead, many of them live at home and the family shares the car. According to Ba, the Corolla is the best selling car in Taiwan. I can see why, because its small size affords easy maneuverability in narrow and busy streets and its price is relatively low.

I should note here that Y’s family parks their Camry in the front room of their house. The traditional front door of a Taiwanese house is sectional, so it collapses to either side (or just one side) like an airplane hanger door. This allows them to park the Camry right behind where I am sitting typing this message. They lock the front doors and park the delivery van in front of the doors. When they want to get the Camry out, they do have to play musical chairs with the cars. However, I believe this gives them some additional safety for the cars and the house.

Cars are great, but scooters seem to be the primary mode of transportation in Taiwan. They fill the streets and many scooter drivers zip between cars, sometimes on the wrong side of the street or on the sidewalk, as they make their way to where they are going. There are many different styles of scooters here, but the majority of makes seem to be from Yamaha, Sym, and Kymco. I enjoyed driving Yoshan’s scooter, and I would like to get one when I get back to the States. However, I do want to get one that I can work on and that doesn’t cost as much as a Vespa (these are very expensive compared to a standard motorcycle say by Honda, and Vespa isn’t even a contender on the scooter market in Taiwan, too).

Trucks, like their car cousins, are generally smaller here in Taiwan. Most work trucks are painted blue and they can be easily reconfigured for different tasks: covered storage, refrigeration, flat bed, standing sides, etc. Interestingly, the license plate numbers are also stenciled on the back tailgate in white letters above the plate.

There are big trucks here, too. Dump trucks, tractor trucks, and load hauling semi trailer trucks. These, especially the dump trucks, are given a wide berth. The word on the street about the dump truck operators is that if they hit you, they will probably run you over again if they didn’t kill you the first time. The reason for this is that their drivers union will pay for expenses if the victim dies, but they won’t pay out if the victim survives–expenses must be paid by the driver. There have been stories in the news in recent years that corroborates this.

One concluding experience: crossing the road on foot and generally not getting hit. Driving here is a dangerous enterprise for the non-initiated. There are certainly road rules, but they are more like guidelines. The real drivers assert themselves, often aggressively, to move where they will. Scooters fly around like Imperial Speeder Bikes in Return of the Jedi. Cars and truck drivers do what they need to do to get where they want to go, sometimes regardless of any one occupying the space where they want to go. Similarly, pedestrians try to avoid getting hit, but you have to be assertive as well to make it across the street safely. The best thing to do if you visit here is take a break in a coffee shop or restaurant and observe an intersection for awhile: you will pick up on the rhythms that you need to know before you join the chorus in the streets.

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Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.