Not all that long ago, Taipei was considered a hardship assignment for expatriate executives and their families. The availability of Western foods and household goods was limited. The transportation network and social infrastructure left much to be desired. And the traffic conditions and pollution levels were abysmal.
While there is still much that needs improvement -- and some other Asian cities are also making rapid progress -- Taipei now compares favorably with most other regional urban centers in terms of creature comforts and convenience. TOPICS examines the progress to date and some of the problems still remaining.
How Taipei Stacks UpExpatriates have good words for the housing, schooling, medical care, and MRT, but they would like to see more international-standard cultural events.
By Don Shapiro
The leading political parties may squabble over whether the major credit should belong to the DPP's Chen Shui-bian (mayor of Taipei from 1994 to 1998) or to the KMT's Ma Ying-jeou (mayor since 1998 and currently a candidate for reelection), but few would deny that over the past eight years the city has made great strides toward becoming a major modern metropolis. As some of the other reports in this section examine, Taipei's long unruly traffic conditions have been considerably tamed -- with the help of an efficient Mass Rapid Transit system that provides quick and convenient connections between distant districts. Residents of the capital city are breathing cleaner air and enjoying the introduction of more open space and more greenery.
For both local citizens and expatriates, those improvements have added to existing attractions in making the city a more pleasant place in which to live and work. Chief among those positive elements may be the friendly nature of the Taiwanese people. "Most of our clients feel very relieved when they actually come here and see Taipei," says Fon Choi, Taiwan country manager for ARM Specialist Ltd., a relocation company that assists employees of multinational companies in settling in after a new assignment. "What makes the biggest impact is that people here are so helpful and hospitable toward strangers."
Before their arrival, those families typically have three major concerns: housing, medical care, and education. While expats heading for such other cities as Hsinchu, Tainan, or Kaohsiung may be less content with the local conditions, those coming to Taipei are generally fully satisfied on all three counts, says Choi. "Although they may have to get used to apartment life after living in a house in their home country, the standard of housing geared toward expatriates, for example in Tienmu, is quite acceptable." The only problem may be budget, and in some cases the new arrivals need to renegotiate with their human resources departments for additional allotment for rent.
With regard to medical services, Choi reports that many clients find Taiwan's offerings superior to what they enjoyed at home in terms of the amount of personal attention and the ability to see a doctor without a long wait for an appointment. Initial qualms are relieved when they see the clear English-language signage in most hospitals and find that they are able to communicate with physicians easily in English. As to the educational facilities for their children, "people are usually very impressed with the international schools here," particularly the Taipei American School and Taipei European Schools, says Choi.
At the same time, questions of personal security tend to be far less of a concern for most foreign residents than back in their own countries. "Most people feel very safe here," notes Choi, herself a native of Belgium. "Burglaries happen, but there's very little crime that threatens physical injury. You can feel very relaxed walking on the streets, and females feel much more secure about going around alone than they would in American or Europe." That sense of security has taken on new importance in the post-911 environment. "One of the advantages that Taiwan has over some of the other locations in the region -- certainly compared to places in Southeast Asia -- is that it's seen as a pretty safe place" with regard to terrorism as well as crime, says William J. Farrell, managing director of Boyden, the executive search company.
Especially among foreign businessmen who already have extensive experience in the Asian region, Taipei ranks much higher than it used to in terms of living conditions, according to Farrell. But for those offered a job in Taiwan who have never lived in Asia, Taipei is likely to be much less familiar to them than Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, or Tokyo. "Often they need to be educated about Taipei before they can make a decision."
Ironically Taipei's improved image is coming just at a time when, for economic reasons, Taiwan's importance as a business location in the Asia-Pacific region is beginning to slip. China, with its vast manpower and low costs, has established itself as the unrivaled manufacturing center for the region -- and the lack of direct transport links between Taiwan and the mainland has reduced the role that businesses on the island can play in regional operations. Since multinational companies no longer maintain many Taiwan-based positions with regional responsibilities, executives offered jobs in Taiwan branches and subsidiaries "may wonder whether they are getting off the main track," says Farrell.
Even strictly on quality of life issues, despite the gains, there are still aspects in which Taipei falls short -- though frequently such discussions end up with "on the one hand/on the other hand" pairings. An example is the availability of cultural activities. "One deficiency is in international-caliber, high-quality entertainment, such as music and dance performances," suggests Farrell. "Some major events come here, but not nearly as often as to say Singapore, Tokyo, or Hong Kong." The "on the other hand" response is that for those interested in exploring Chinese culture, the opportunities in Taiwan are endless. The National Palace Museum, home to the world's greatest collection of ancient Chinese art, is but the most obvious. For lovers of the great outdoors, mountainous Taiwan has numerous fine locations for hiking and climbing, some of them even within the city limits. And besides the superb quality and variety of Chinese cuisine, Taipei is home to an increasing number of well-run Western restaurants, bars, and pubs.
Another example is the often-criticized traffic and transport system. Driving in Taiwan certainly takes getting used to and often frays the nerves, and non-Chinese-reading foreigners complain that the buses -- while clean and air-conditioned -- are almost impossible for them to use unless someone has explained the routes to them in advance. The MRT, on the other hand, is a joy -- completely user-friendly even for those who haven't studied the local language.
The red tape at government offices and institutions such as state-owned banks is also a continuing source of complaints, particularly over the time it may take to process a work permit or open a bank account. But compared with the past situation, when foreigners were required to apply for an exit permit (and find someone to guarantee their tax payments) every time they made a trip abroad, the current procedures are much less burdensome.
Information is also much more readily available. It used to be a formidable challenge just to get a definitive answer from a bureaucrat about basic regulations. Now almost everything you need to know is posted on the internet. A prime example is the National Police Administration web site, http://nweb.npa.gov.tw/iff/main1.html, which includes details about regulations on visas, residence, employment, taxes, health insurance, and much more. The service attitude that demonstrates may be the best indicator that Taipei is moving in the right direction.
Taipei Traffic: No Longer the Dark AgesThe opening of the MRT, and other innovations such as the creation of special bus lanes, has made it much easier to navigate around Taipei.
By Richard Dobson
Getting from point A to point B in Taipei, especially for the uninitiated, can be a harrowing experience. Amid highly congested traffic, cabs, buses, and motorscooters weave in and out of lanes, seemingly unburdened by any consideration of the rules of the road. Until just a few years ago, no mass rapid transit system spanned the city, meaning that if you wanted to go anywhere you had only two choices: brave the dizzying traffic or walk.
But it used to be worse. A lot worse. In fact, to complain about the current traffic and transport conditions in Taiwan's capital seems almost unfair in light of the major improvements that have been made over the last 30 years or so.
The chaos reached its peak between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, in what was termed by the media as the "black days" of Taipei traffic, a fault line between the old Taipei with its narrow network of streets and the thriving metropolis it was rapidly becoming. The most daunting problem facing the city government was the spiraling ownership of private vehicles, which accompanied the steady increase in people's incomes throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. These mounting numbers of vehicles crammed into desperately small arteries that often became hopelessly clogged. Bill Thissen, a newscaster at International Community Radio Taipei and a 20-year resident of Taipei, recalls the sudden spike in vehicle ownership during the 1980s that made for tangled traffic. "When I first got here, it was very easy to get around by car," he notes. "You could turn left on any street and park almost anywhere. And then all of a sudden, everyone seemed to be buying cars," he said, and the additional vehicles overwhelmed the limited infrastructure.
According to Huang Shen-tai, a professor at National Chiao Tung University's Institute of Traffic and Transportation, private vehicle ownership in Taipei -- including both motorcycles and cars -- increased 30-fold from around 50,000 in 1970 to 1.6 million last year. With the increased traffic volume came long lines of parked, double-parked, and sometimes even triple-parked cars along main thoroughfares. At the same time the number of private bus companies was increasing. While that offered some welcome alternative to private transportation, it also meant that hulking buses would have to compete with masses of smaller vehicles for space on the road.
Compounding these woes were the grade-level intercity railroad lines running along Zhonghua Road and Civil Boulevard near the train station, holding up traffic with lengthy waits at boom-gate crossings.
Besides the opening of the Mass Rapid Transit System, the combination of a number of other initiatives helped ease the swollen traffic considerably. After completion of the new Taipei Main Train Station in 1989, the railway tracks through the city were all moved underground by the early to mid-1990s -- not only removing the bottlenecks at crossing points but also making room for wider roadways. Also easing the situation was the construction of a series of overhead expressways throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including those at Civil Boulevard (over the former railroad right-of-way) and Xinsheng, Jiankuo, and Huanhe Roads. Other improvements were the establishment in the 1990s of exclusive lanes for buses on major avenues (some of them running in the reverse direction to traffic on one-way streets) and the adoption of stricter controls on road-side parking (including a vigorous towing program), effectively removing buses and parked cars from the general traffic flows along the most heavily traveled roads. By September this year, there were 10 bus lanes stretching for a total of 50 kilometers across the city, while the total number of parking spaces in Taipei -- including on and off-street, private parking spaces and commercially operated parking garages -- has increased from 43,680 in 1992 to 95,706 this year.
In addition to those measures, Wilson Chen, commissioner of the Taipei City Government's Transportation Department, also credits more rigorous police enforcement of traffic violations as resulting in more efficient and safer traffic conditions. "Strong police enforcement of drink driving, parking regulations, and general traffic violations have helped to improve the situation," said Chen. While not everyone may be abiding by the rules, the fatality figures indicate that the tougher enforcement is indeed having its effect. The figure for traffic-related deaths has dropped from over 200 in 1991 to 98 last year -- a 10-year low -- and this year only 55 fatalities were recorded as of September.
But despite these tangible achievements, Chen considers the biggest contributor to the improved traffic conditions to be the advent of the MRT. "The MRT has not only slowed the growth rate of vehicle ownership in the city, but has also sped up the flow of traffic," said Chen. According to a departmental white paper released in October, the growth rates of car and motorcycle/scooter ownership hit their lowest level in ten years in 2001, reaching only 0.10 percent and 1.16 percent respectively. As of the end of last year, there were 1.45 million cars and 2.7 million motorcycles registered in Taipei City and Taipei County combined.
In 1995, one year before completion of the first MRT line to Mucha, the average speed of traffic around Taipei during morning rush hours was calculated at 19 kmph. The figure for April to June this year stood at around 26 kmph. Long-term motorists in the city confirm that they are making better time during their daily commutes. "Before, it took me 30 minutes to drive to the City Government area, but now, using the Civil Boulevard link, I can do it in only 20 minutes," says Chen Cheng-hui, a Taipei resident who has been driving in the city for the last decade.
According to a poll conducted by the mass-circulation United Daily News in November 1996, 53 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the existing traffic conditions, while 40 percent said they were satisfied. A similar survey in July this year by the Transportation Department's research committee found that 54 percent of respondents were satisfied, while only 34 percent expressed unhappiness with the current conditions.
The MRT's positive effect on traffic flows became apparent soon after the first portion of the system, the Mucha line, came into operation in 1996. It was even more pronounced after the partial opening of the Tamshui line a year later. The line's later extensions to Hsintien and Nanshihchiao in Chungho in the Taipei suburbs, and completion of the Hsinpu-Kunyang line along Zhongxiao Road by the end of 1999 -- providing greater interconnectivity within the system -- also had a major impact. In particular, the addition of the east-west Zhongxiao route, which permitted transfers to the two north-south lines, was a key factor in persuading large numbers of Taipei commuters to switch to the MRT to get to work and back, said Lee Po-wen, chairman of the Taipei Rapid Transit Corp. that operates the system.
"When the first Mucha line of the MRT opened, about 24 percent of vehicle-owning commuters opted for the service, but now the proportion is up to about 43 percent, with the most growth following the opening of the Zhongxiao line," Lee said in an interview with TOPICS. Currently the 65-km network ferries 930,000 people around the city daily, up from 230,000 in 1998.
After coming to office in 1999, Taipei City Mayor Ma Ying-jeou announced his commitment to increasing that percentage of vehicle-owners using the service to 50 percent. That goal appears within reach due to the planned expansion of the MRT network and the increased integration of service with the city's bus administration.
Connectivity with the bus services is crucial, notes Lee, who said the city government hopes to expand the current 68 feeder bus lines connecting with MRT stations to more than 100 lines that will reach further into Taipei County. Smoothing the integration effort has been the launch in the past few months of the prepaid EasyCard system, which permits fast access through both bus and MRT ticketing systems and can also be used at off-road parking facilities at 33 locations around the city. The EasyCard can be read without swiping, just by passing it front of the sensors. Lee says that by October the number of subscribers to the system had already met the target for the year of 300,000, and he expressed confident that many more people will start using the cards as more bus feeder routes connecting with MRT stations are added.
Pursuing the goal of expanding the MRT's reach, the construction of new lines to Tucheng in the southwest, Neihu in the northeast, and to Hsinchuang and Luchou across the Tamshui River is well under way, and those lines should be operational by 2006, 2008 and 2010 respectively. Further, additional east-west lines along Nanking Road -- to be known as the Songshan Line -- and Xinyi Road, as well as outlying orbital lines skirting the perimeter of the system, are currently in the planning stage.
To date construction of the MRT has cost the city an estimated NT$440 billion (US$12.6 billion). After suffering accumulated losses of NT$1.2 billion (US$34 million) in the first three years after operations commenced in 1996, Lee says, the company has been chalking up profits since 2000. This year the profit level is projected to be NT$800 million (US$22.9 million). But Lee notes that the city is having trouble coming up with money to build the Songshan and Xinyi lines, which will cost roughly NT$40 billion to $50 billion (US$1.1 billion to $1.4 billion) each, and that the central government has so far been unreceptive to requests for financial assistance.
"These two lines are very important for improving the city traffic situation -- especially the Xinyi Line in view of the heavy population along that road -- as right now there is only one line that runs east-west."
Broadening the MRT network will bring the city closer to its goal of becoming a world-class metropolis. "Without a very convenient MRT system, you can't claim to be an international city," says Lee Po-wen.
Environmental Pluses and MinusesThe trash heaps are gone but the rivers are still dumping grounds for sewage.
By Richard Dobson
Taipei's environmental track record caused it to be described as the "ugly duckling of East Asia" in the 1990s. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, single-minded concentration on rapid economic and industrial growth had badly spoiled the natural beauty of the capital city and indeed much of the nation. Rivers flowing through urban centers were poisoned by effluent from industry and households, the skies were often shrouded in toxic clouds produced by vehicle emissions, and street corners were cluttered with heaps of trash left to be picked over by packs of stray dogs.
But efforts by the central and Taipei governments to clean up the environment over the past decade have resulted in some impressive successes. With more greenery to dress up the city and less smog to hide the surrounding hills, Taipei citizens now find that the city is a much more attractive place to live.
Garbage, Garbage EverywhereOne of the most noticeable and welcome differences in recent years is the absence of the piles of festering garbage that previously accumulated on street corners due to the lack of daily collection service. "There used to be garbage everywhere," says Yang Chao-yueh, president of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union. "Because there was no recycling system and infrequent trash pickup, people would throw out all kinds of things, which would pile up on the street." This situation persisted until 1992 when a regular recycling program was introduced. Then in 1995, former Taipei Mayor Chen Shui-bian implemented an "off the ground policy" for garbage, beginning daily trash collection service and effectively removing the trash heaps from the streets.
This new waste management service was improved even further in July 2000 when the traditionally indirect method of levying garbage collection fees (hidden inside municipal water bills) was switched to charging consumers through the sale of compulsory standard garbage bags. Once they were aware of how much they were paying for garbage disposal services, consumers had an incentive to cut down on the amount of trash they generated -- and to cooperate with the recycling program. Lauded as a huge success, this new system resulted in a 34.6 percent reduction in city waste, while the volume of recycled materials increased to 8.4 percent of the total waste -- three and a half times the level of the previous year.
Invisible AirTaipei's topography as a basin surrounded by mountains has long made it susceptible to smog. Instead of being easily dispersed, airborne pollutants tend to hang over the metropolitan area. But the city has come a long way since the 1960s when there were virtually no environmental regulations and small factories located throughout the city poured out noxious fumes from their smokestacks. "Going to work from Tienmu to Hsintien each day along what we called 'canal road' [now Xinsheng North/South Road], I would have to drive through stretches where the black smoke from the factories was so thick that visibility was hazardous," recalls Richard F. Adler, a businessman in the semiconductor industry who came to Taipei in the late 1960s.
Following the promulgation of a rash of new basic laws throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including the Air Pollution Control Act and the promotion of industrial waste minimization programs, the industrial component of Taipei's air pollution decreased markedly. Today few factories are still operating within the city, though neighboring Taipei County is heavily industrialized. The bigger problem in recent years has come from motor vehicle exhaust, which the Environmental Protection Administration calculates as accounting for 95 percent of the city's air pollution. There were 445 vehicles per square kilometer in Taipei in 2000, one of the highest densities in the world.
But according to Stephen Shen, commissioner of Taipei's Department of Environmental Protection, the increased use of public transport coupled with tougher emission standards on vehicles and the phasing out of leaded gasoline in 2000 has led to a gradual but encouraging improvement in the air quality figures. "The number of days with very poor air quality, indicated by a Pollution Standard Index rating of over 100, has fallen from 73 in 1994 to 45 last year, and only 27 such days were experienced up to September this year," Shen reports.
Another significant improvement in Taipei's overall environment has been the development of more parkland. In 1968 the city contained only 2.89 square kilometers of park, but by September this year that figure had jumped to 7.18 square kilometers out of Taipei's total area of 271 square kilometers.
The main development areas were the Hebian (Riverside) Park that runs along the banks of the Keelung river and the Taan Forest Park, bounded by Xinyi, Heping, Jianguo, and Xinsheng Roads. The imaginatively landscaped Taan Park, which replaced squatters' huts and military facilities, has been likened to New York's Central Park (albeit a smaller version) in terms of its effect of providing a sense of openness within a crowded urban area. That the parks are highly appreciated by Taipei residents is shown by their frequency of use -- including senior citizens doing early morning exercises, couples out for a stroll, youngsters rollerblading and playing basketball in the evenings, and families going for weekend picnics.
A Dirty SecretWhile it is generally acknowledged that Taipei's new solid waste collection system has worked well, one area where the city -- and even more so the rest of Taiwan -- has fallen short of standards among industrialized nations is the sewage and waste water treatment systems. At present, Taipei government statistics show that 60 percent of households are connected to a closed sewage system, compared to a staggeringly low national average of 7.1 percent. But environmental experts contend that the actual figure in Taipei may be as low as 40 percent. They say the higher figure is the result of a misleading method of calculation that counts households as consisting of an average of four people rather than the actual number of 2.91 persons.
The bulk of the raw sewage and waste water ends up pouring into the surrounding waterways, constituting the major source of pollution for the Tamshui, Hsintien, and Keelung rivers that flow through Taipei or along its borders. For a country with ambitions to rank among the world's most developed, this situation has struck many foreign observers as a puzzling willingness to settle for third-world conditions in an important aspect of environmental infrastructure.
Domestic environmentalists say a major obstacle to overcoming the problem is the lack of political will in the absence of indications of strong public concern. "It is said that because the sewerage system is underground, local governments prefer to spend their money on improvements that everybody can see such as street lights and sidewalk pavements," says Matthew Chiang, executive director of the Beautiful Taiwan Foundation.
Further compounding the difficulties is that the operation of the massive Pali Sewage Treatment Plant, built in the mid-1990s and intended to treat the bulk of the wastewater from Taipei City, Taipei County, and Keelung, has been hobbled by a shortage of operating funds. Stephen Shen of Taipei's Department of Environmental Protection puts at least some of the blame on the refusal of the Taipei County government to pitch in with the cost of setting up a comprehensive system to divert sewage to the plant. The Taipei County Council rejected the budget proposal as too costly and the central government has also been unwilling to subsidize it, he said.
The plant, located near the estuary of the Tamshui River in Taipei County, was threatened with closure last June due a shortfall in operating funds. The management said Taipei County was NT$400 million (US$11.4 million) in arrears. Press reports at the time said that the plant, which was designed to handle around 1.3 million metric tons per day, was only processing around 400,000 metric tons, while well over a million metric tons of raw sewage was pouring into the Tamshui River daily.
The shutdown was averted when the central government stepped in to foot the county's bill, which the local government will repay over four years beginning next January. Local water officials said that following the government's bailout and a restructuring of the plant's operations to lower costs, county assemblymen were willing to approve this year's budget for the plant amounting to around NT$220 million (US$6.3 million), as well as NT$250 million (US$7 million) for 2003.
Given the otherwise positive picture of an increasingly beauteous Taipei area, resolution of the sewage problem would remove a troubling incongruity.
Looking BackSome long-time American residents of Taipei reminisce about some of the major changes that have occurred in city life over the past decades.
Oakwood International Corp.
Resident in Taiwan since 1958
When I came there were 12 taxis in all Taipei city, mostly imported American station wagons. The main mode of transportation was pedicabs and bicycles. When the pedicabs were banned in the 1960s, the drivers were given some quick retraining and then put behind the wheels of taxicabs. They would go roaring down the street, cutting back and forth between lanes.
Refrigerators were just coming into the market. Before that a lot of daily life had been spent buying food, and you'd have to use it up the same day because it wouldn't keep. If people were rich enough to own a refrigerator, it was a status symbol. They'd put it in the living room or dining room where everyone could see it.
Milk wasn't available -- only powdered milk. And almost everything had to be imported. Whenever I made a trip to Hong Kong, I'd have a long shopping list, including things like disinfectant and other basic household items.
Taipei American School
Resident in Taiwan since 1971
The biggest change is in medical services. Thirty years ago, trying to find decent medical care could be a trauma in itself. I remember going to the dentist for root canal work, but he didn't have the skill to do it properly and I ended up with an abscess. Most of the doctors then had been trained in the Chinese military, and they didn't have the access to training and modern methods that they do today. The National Health Insurance program may still have some kinks to be worked out, but it goes a long way to bring the best medical resources to the general population.
Another thing that's pretty basic is having places to walk. In Tienmu and Shihlin there were very few sidewalks, and you spent a lot of time walking in the streets. You had to go up to the mountains to find a good place to walk around. Now there are plenty of nice parks and walkways right in the city.
Polish Chamber of Commerce
Resident in Taiwan since 1976
When I first arrived, most commercial activity was confined to the area close to Chungshan North Road. The major hotels were the Hilton, the President, and the Grand. When the Howard-Plaza was being built, and especially when the Grand Hyatt was being built, many people were skeptical. "Who would ever want to go so far?" they said. Now, of course, the eastern part of Taipei is one of the busiest sections of town.
I've also been impressed with the improvement in concepts of hygiene. For example, years ago a waitress would come to the table carrying five glasses of tea in one hand, with her fingers extended into the glasses. Or she would come out of the restroom and proceed to the nearest empty table to wipe her hands with the tablecloth. If you were to see that today, you'd be dumbfounded.
James F. O'Hearn
Uniroyal Chemical Taiwan
Resident in Taiwan since 1980
In the eighties the expat community coalesced around the American Club, which was the focal point of social life, and it did a lot of things together. There was a strong sense of community. Now there aren't so many expats around -- companies don't offer the same kind of expat packages [of perquisites]. And so many other clubs, restaurants, and pubs have opened that the American Club doesn't have to be the social center.
Anything that you need is now available in Taiwan. When we came in 1980, you had to buy wine and liquor through the Monopoly Bureau, and they had a very limited choice of brands -- I remember Tores from Australia and Christian Brothers from California. Consequently when we went abroad we always made a point of bringing back a five-liter carton of wine or liquor. At that time the import duty on alcohol was about 300%. Now you can get any type of wine you would want at Costco or any retail shop, and the price isn't much more than you'd pay in the United States.
Orient Commercial Enquiries
Resident in Taiwan since 1980
The traffic has gotten much better in the past few years -- it's the best I've ever seen here. When I first came, the traffic was terrible and the exhaust emissions made the city very polluted. You'd walk down the street choking, and the buses were constantly spewing diesel fumes into the air The change became most noticeable a few years ago when vehicles were required to switch to unleaded fuel. But there also seem to be fewer cars on the road.
Another big change is the greater internationalization. In the early eighties, for Western food you had to go either to the hotels or one of just a handful of restaurants. Only one place had pizza. Each of the three TV stations showed only one or two programs a week in English, and you looked forward to them all week. Now there must be at least 14 all-English channels -- and it's better than the TV fare in most other cities around the region.
Some people complain that Taipei isn't international enough. I feel amazed at how international it's become.