Monday, September 24, 2012

New Blog

I've decided to start writing about mass transit and urban planning in Taiwan at dodging  For now I'll mostly post about bits of news that I notice and feel like commenting on, hopefully later- maybe half a year or so- I will write something more substantial.  Taishun Street will be mostly on travels and life in Taiwan, though I haven't yet decided for sure what direction I want to take it in.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How I learned to stop worrying and love MRT expansion

The United Daily News had a couple articles on the upcoming wave of MRT expansion. The first is pretty good, explaining how the new lines will take shape. The second article features interviews with Taipei residents who complain about the extensions. Unfortunately the UDN doesn't refute these complaints, which are without exception ridiculous. Nor do they give the MRT construction bureau a chance to refute them (or maybe they tried and the construction bureau was just too incompetent).
Anyway, most of the complaints have to do being forced to transfer under the new system. For example:
-Elderly people from Zhonghe complain that transferring will make getting to NTU Hospital difficult.
-Elderly people in Xindian complain transferring will make getting to Shilin and Beitou difficult.
-A Yonghe resident complains that they will have to transfer at Guting as well as Taipei Main to get to eastern Taipei, and that the trip might take twice as long (!).

First of all, the new transfers will almost all be cross-platform, like those in Hong Kong- in other words you will not have to walk 300 feet through crowded passageways like in Taipei Main. Instead you will have to walk 30 feet, across a less-crowded platform, and hopefully, if the MRT company is smart, they will time trains to arrive at transfer stations around the same time so no one will have to wait more than a couple minutes for the next train. More annoying than a direct train, but only by a little.
And there are benefits, which the last complainer utterly failed to grasp. For example, even though the Zhonghe line will not pass through any major employment or commercial center like east Taipei or Taipei Main, getting to east Taipei will be much faster since the orange line will intersect with the blue line to the east of Main, and there will another, cross-platform transfer to the Xinyi line at Dongmen, making the 10 minute walk MRT users need to take to get to 101 unnecessary. Yes this comes at the cost of direct access to Main, but even that extra cost isn't so bad given that there will be an easy transfer.
To be fair there are some annoying things about the new layout, for example people going from the Xindian line to the eastern sections of the Songshan or Nangang lines, or from the Zhonghe line to Banqiao, will have a choice between a roundabout route with no transfers, or a more direct route with two transfers. But overall, these extensions will be good for most people.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Photos from the King of Qingshan Festival

The King of Qingshan Festival (青山王祭, Qingshan Wang Ji) is one of the biggest traditional Taiwanese temple festivals in northern Taiwan. The centerpiece of these festivals are parades that feature lion and dragon dances, traditional drum and suona troupes, folk dancers, martial arts, idols from neighboring temples and a lot of explosives. I visited the grand finale of the Qingshan Festival last week; below are some of the photos I took. Overall this was one of the better temple festivals I've been to, with some particularly good drumming performances, martial artists and huge pile of explosives.
I've also added some photos from the 2009 festival.

Small idols await the King of Qingshan's procession (taken in front of the King of Hell Temple).

In the zone.

And a couple photos from '09, taken in front of Longshan Temple:

The bajiajiang (八家將) and 七爺八爺 (the tall god-puppets) in these pictures are all entering Longshan Temple to pay respects to Guanyin, the primary deity there.

You can view more of my King of Qingshan Festival photos here.
Also, Laorencha has photos (and a video!) here and his backstory here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A run-in with Tsai Ing-wen

Went over to Qingshan Temple a couple days ago to see if their annual festival was on. When I got there I was told that Tsai Ing-wen was about to arrive, and minutes later she did, greeted by a blast of firecrackers, a phalanx of unobstrusive security guards, and dozens of excited supporters. She was so mobbed that I could barely tell where she was in the crowd, let alone see her. It was on an entirely different level than Hau Lung-bin's visit a couple of years ago, when a friend was able to push her way forward and shake his hand (and yell "Go Taiwan!" at him).
I followed the mass of people to Qingshan Temple, where Tsai prayed to the King of Qingshan and the temple's chairman gave her his endorsement. She followed this with a speech, mostly in Taiwanese but with the odd Mandarin phrase. My Taiwanese is far from the "political speech" level, but I was able to make out "We are all Taiwanese", and Mandarin sentences like "Anyone who identifies with Taiwan is Taiwanese" and "Taiwan is a multi-ethnic nation" made the theme pretty clear. I thought she came off a bit stilted, but that may just be her style- slow, purposeful and not overly emotional. The betel nut-chewing crowd drifted a little towards the middle, and I felt some of them seemed unsure about the "we are all Taiwanese" idea, though that just might be my prejudices about the very Tai-ke audience.
When Tsai finished she came down from the temple steps and gave a quick interview, and followed by some hand-shaking. I managed to shake her hand probably only by dint of very long arms, and being an extremely obvious foreigner.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tsai Ing-wen Promises to Build Stuff

No election campaign in any country is complete without ambitious promises to build stuff, and Tsai's is no exception.
A few weeks ago Tsai proposed several transportation-related projects for Xinbei. The most ambitious was extending the MRT's Muzha line east from Taipei Zoo and the TRA's Pingxi line west from Jingtong so the two will meet in Shenkeng. Tsai claims this will turn Shenkeng into a transportation node, and will make it easier for tourists to visit Shenkeng and from there visit other tourist spots in the northeast, such as Jiufen. Her advisers, she assures us, tell her that it's feasible.
The Pingxi-Shenkeng idea strikes me as really bad, even by pie-in-the-sky pork barrel standards. The point of rail is that it can move huge numbers of people while using less energy and much less space than other forms of transportation. If you're not going to get a huge number of people on a rail line, there's no point in spending the huge amounts of money it will cost to build. An extension of the Muzha Line could make sense since despite Shenkeng's low population, most people live in a single narrow valley that leads right to the current terminus of the Muzha Line. There's a good possibility many of those people would choose to take the MRT instead of drive.
An extension of the Pingxi Line however is unlikely to attract enough passengers to make up for its cost- and given how narrow and winding the Jingmei River Valley is between Shenkeng and Pingxi, that cost would be very high. Tsai suggests that such a line would make it easier for tourists to visit both Shenkeng and Pingxi, and even suggested it would help with traffic around Jiufen. But the number of tourists wishing to travel between Shenkeng and the Northeast Coast or Pingxi cannot be very large- presumably most people would choose one or the other even if transportation between the two was more convenient. If there was actually demand for this there would presumably be more than one bus an hour between Shenkeng and Jingtong, and these buses would presumably be crowded- but past Shenkeng, they're far from crowded. And even a Shenkeng-Pingxi rail line was crowded with tourists, without enough locals to use it, it would be empty on workdays. But there is nothing but a few hamlets between Shenkeng and Pingxi- almost certainly too few people to justify a rail line.

Friday, October 28, 2011

More Sanchong Sidewalk Wars

Some Xinbei politicians are worrying that there aren't enough parking spaces near two soon-to-open Xinzhuang Line MRT stations, Cailiao and Taipei Bridge. These stations are in Sanchong's downtown, probably one of the densest- and therefore most conducive to walking- places in the Taipei Basin. If one of the benefits of an MRT system is that it stops people from driving, why should the government subsidize driving by providing parking? The complaining politicians in the article claim that without "enough" parking spaces scooters will clog up all the alleys and sidewalks, but in a dense city there will never be enough free parking spaces. Once again the real problem is an assumption that the government must make driving easier, no matter the cost, and despite supposed concerns about global warming.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Undergrounding of Taiwan's Urban Railways

Interesting article in the Liberty Times about the costs of putting Taiwan's urban rail lines underground, versus building elevated lines. The gist is that it cost 3.5 times to move the TRA lines in Taipei underground than it will to elevate the rail line in Taoyuan. The comparison is a little unfair, since construction costs are presumably higher in Taipei, but it's a point I've often wondered about- has burying the TRA line in Taipei really been worth its cost?
Typically the benefits of burying train lines versus elevating them are considered to be the reduction of noise pollution and the increase in light reaching street level; Alon Levy discusses these complaints (and ways to mitigate them) here. To be fair, Alon focuses on two-to-four-track intracity rail, while an elevated TRA line plus HSR would require 6 tracks, though perhaps burying one and elevating the other would have been a possiblity. The problem in Taipei however is that burying the rail lines failed to achieve any benefits over elevation, because once they were buried Taipei simply added an elevated six-lane highway, which produces more pollution than an elevated rail line in addition to having the same problems with noise and blocking light- all for a higher cost.
Zhonghua Rd. is slightly better, but it is still ridiculously wide for an urban road- about 80 meters including the sidewalk, which in a city of too-narrow sidewalks is ironically far too wide and underused as a result. Although not quite a step backward lie Shimin Blvd., it is no better than an elevated 4-track structure. In fact an elevated structure might make the area more pedestrian-friendly by splitting Zhonghua Rd. into two sections.
If it is impossible to only bury some of the tracks or to elevate all of them there are still better ways to use the new space rather than just pavement. Perhaps buildings could have been constructed on the new space along what is now the center of Zhonghua Road, in effect creating two roads with a block in between. New buildings may have also been possible on one side of Shimin Blvd. Adding new buildings would increase the supply of real estate in some of Taipei's most desirable areas, thereby helping combat high costs.
Of course some will argue that the highway was necessary to relieve traffic. This is a fallacy however; Alon Levy's statistical analysis shows that in the US adding highways has no appreciable effect on congestion; and anecdotally New York's experience with highway expansion has shown that adding highways only causes more people to drive while draining mass transit of passengers. Furthermore many trips done by driving could also be done by mass transit. Finally, mass transit is more space-efficient than driving, and if there is one thing everyone should be able to agree on it's that Taipei is short on space. Therefore if extra capacity was really necessary along what's now Shimin Blvd., maybe a better idea would have been building an MRT line (eg, an extension of the Airport Line to Xinyi) rather than an elevated highway, or perhaps speeding up the construction of MRT lines parallel to Shimin (i.e., the Xinyi and Songshan lines) and improvements to the TRA that would add capacity (i.e., signal upgrades and triple-tracking the Nangang-Qidu segment).
In sum, by burying rail lines Taiwan has spent a huge amount of money to benefit drivers. This reflects the auto-oriented viewpoint of the government (and the general population), an attitude which ironically conflicts with other public concerns (lack of space, air pollution, concerns over global warming).