Taiwan’s cycling initiatives can inspire us, reckons Rob Ainsley
Taiwan’s towns are usually nothing to write home about. So no wonder I couldn’t find many postcards as I cycled there last month. The west coast – where all those bike factories and frame producers are – is one long dreary concrete sprawl. My mountain bike’s older than most of its buildings. Less corroded, too.
But the country proved a great place to tour. We were doing its End to End. (I’m collecting them: Britain, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Cuba in four memorable weeks, Isle of Man in one forgettable day…) Its east coast was fabulous: lush dramatic cliff scenery, dramatic winding roads.
The Suhua Highway was tricky though. Not because of the sheer drop to the ocean – it was fenced – but the one down the deep drainage channel inches from my wheels. One moment of inattention as a lorry passed and my journey would be over. The one that began in Woodgates Maternity Home, that is.
We hired carbon-frame road bikes from Giant: two weeks for a hundred quid, which would just buy a round of real ale in a hip Taipei bar. Super bikes, but the tiny panniers’ clips were robust as a potato crisp. I didn’t fall off, but the panniers constantly did.
But mostly it was a delight. Like fast continental-style road cycling? You’ll like Taiwan. Main roads usually include wide bike lanes, surfaces are smooth and pothole-free, mountain climbs and descents are evenly-graded, and there’s plenty of roadside shops for provisions. Locals are friendly, polite, happy to help with menus or directions. There’s regular ‘Cycling Rest Stops’, typically at police stations. Some countries’ coppers you fear, because they want a bribe; here they give you water, pump your tyres and lend you lube, and in return only want a souvenir selfie.
Taiwan may make the world’s bike frames, but cycling levels are low. Its 23 million people own 6 million cars, 14 million motorbikes, and it seems 2 billion smartphones and tablets – but only 1 million bicycles. Roads are jammed, pollution’s awful.
So Taiwan’s trying hard to encourage bikes. In Taipei, they recently legalised pavement cycling, and painted lots of onroad bike lanes. It’s makeshift, but it makes breezing round the city easy, and results in no apparent conflict. Taipei’s network of riverside cycle paths, often wide as a road but always car-free, stretches for dozens of kilometres. And if your path crosses a motorway or railway, there’ll be a big, smoothly-graded, rideable new ped-bike bridge.
It’s working. Modal share in Taipei is up from negligible to 5%. They’ve had the political will, and aren’t afraid to spend on infrastructure. That should inspire us as we lobby councils and MPs. Taiwan is making great strides (most of them sideways on footpaths to let scooters past).
The big boost to leisure cycling in Taiwan though came from a 2007 film, Island Etude, in which a student spends a couple of weeks riding round the island toting a rucksack and guitar. He encountered Taiwan’s many aboriginal groups, whose languages, clothes and customs are Austronesian, not Chinese. The movie inspired young Taiwanese who saw their country more inclusively than older generations. The huándǎo (‘island ring’, pronounced 環島), as they call it, is their way of embracing it all, their nation, its landscapes and people.
We saw hundreds of huándǎo-ers, all on good road bikes, wearing sunglasses, faces scarfed up against the sun like the Invisible Man, sporting rucksacks like the film guy. Or perhaps they don’t trust rental panniers either.
In Britain, circular routes are usually day rides back to the car. Multi-day journeys however are point-to-points, End-to-Ends, coast-to-coasts. Maybe that’s western linearity and logic versus eastern spiritual ebb and flow. Or maybe our island’s simply best suited to cross-sectional touring.
But now Sustrans has issued their own End to End route, it might be time to try creating a big round-Britain huándǎo of our own too. A frame imported from Taiwan, as it were. A ride to embrace not just the picture-postcard stuff, but our multicultural heritage too, from Lakes sheep farmers to Southall’s sari shops. It’s food for thought.
Which reminds me: Taiwan’s Night Markets, with their cheap tasty dinners, would be welcome here too. That would be worth writing home about.