Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Taipei Traffic

"Taipei traffic was insane!"

You often hear similar comments from those who visit the city. But I don't agree with that at all. It was very orderly, just in its own unique way. There was a certain etiquette to be observed and you were fine as long as you drove in a socially acceptable manner -- not to be confused with a legal manner of course.

For example, I've driven in major cities all over the United States and I contend that Taipei drivers were more like Boston drivers than, say, Houston drivers. In Houston, there seems to be no speed limit and their attitude is on the order of: Fifty-five miles an hour?? Why, we can change a flat tire at fifty-five! Their primary objective each day is to get from point A to point B in less time than anyone has ever done it before.

Boston drivers, on the other hand, behave more like an aggressive swarm of killer bees than a speeding formation of geese. I have often wondered why they even bother painting traffic lanes on the streets of Boston because everyone there just seems to ignore them. For example, a Boston intersection may be marked for three lanes in each direction and once in a while there may actually be three lanes of cars. But there may also be four or five, depending on how many millimeters of space happen to be available at the time. Disgruntled Sox fans might actually manage to find space enough for six lanes if their team loses to the Yankees, especially if they can blow their horns often enough and loud enough to alter the space/time continuum. Expecting Boston drivers to calmly drive in their own lane would be like expecting a group of Italians to calmly wait their turn at an airline ticket counter. It's just not going to happen.

In Taipei, there was an accepted way to drive, and it had nothing to do with the law. For example, I remember left-turn lanes but no left-turn arrows. When the lights turned green at an intersection, those in the left turn lane just jumped out and, bumper to bumper, cut in front of oncoming traffic. The oncoming traffic would slowly advance until it was no longer possible for more cars to turn left and at that point the cars wanting to go straight ahead took their turn. Nobody got excited; that's just how it was done.

However for those who violated the informal rules, a correction might be enforced on the spot. One day my taxi was waiting at an intersection. Just ahead of us were two other taxis, one beside the other. The one on the right apparently tried to ease forward to create an extra lane, but he happened to tap the bumper of the cab to his left. The driver of the cab that received the tap immediately got out, walked around to the offending cab, punched the driver in the face and returned to his car just as the light turned green. He then drove casually on his way, the dispute apparently resolved.

Because I didn't own a car, I did very little driving and made most of my short trips by taxis, which were cheap and plentiful back in the early 1970s. I think most of them were Yu Loongs, which I believe was a Taiwan manufacturer. Many of them had some sort of mechanical gadget that allowed the drivers to open and close the right rear door for the convenience of their passengers. Many of the drivers had a wood beaded seat covering, which I assume was designed to allow some air circulation, especially during the very hot and humid summers.

A cabbie once told me that there were no bad taxi drivers in Taiwan. He explained, "The bad ones are all dead." I suppose there was some truth in that.

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