Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Driving and Land Use in Taiwan

Here a car speeds past a line of waiting cars and runs a red light.

One of the things that I want to do is use this Blog as a way to elaborate on the points made on my website. So without further ado, let's comment on some issues raised on my page on Driving in Taiwan. First, two perspectives, both common. This is from George Thompson's letter of a few days ago:

Driving habits offer another example. The driving situation here is not a matter of poor driving skills, but horrendous driving habits. The driving culture illustrates a near total lack of respect for the rules of the road as indicated in the number of vehicles that run red lights at high speeds.

The response from K. Avrom Medvedovsky, while generally excellent, wavered a little on this point:

How utterly common to hear a foreigner complaining about the driving habits of Taiwanese motorists. Yes, Thompson, the Taiwanese don't drive like the folks back home. Given the sheer density of traffic on this postage stamp-sized island, is it any wonder? Nevertheless, I've yet to see or hear about incidents of road rage in Taiwan in which guns are fired. As for people running red lights, clearly Thompson has never operated a car in Montreal, or Washington, or any other major North American city, where to venture off the sidewalk is to risk life and limb.

It is true that people in large North American cities occasionally run red lights, but they do not do so routinely, nor do police cars sit idly by while major traffic infractions are committed in front of them, as happens in Taiwan (see this pic of cars driving past a line of waiting cars and illegally entering the intersection ahead of everyone else as a police car watches for an example). There's no equivalency here between North American cities and Taiwanese drivers, as any Taiwanese or foreigner who has driven in both will aver. The fact that this perception is made by both sides ought to signal that it contains a strong component of reality. And I am sure that if you actually pressed Medvedovsky, he would agree. He's just pooping all over Thompson's whining newby horse manure, and more power to him!

Medvedovsky does make one on-target observation, and that is the high population and traffic densities. Let's draw this point out a little.

First of all, it is imperative to point out that high population densities are the result of deliberate choices made by government policy, both in population planning and in land use policy. In Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s birth control and abortion were both difficult to access, as the Chinese Nationalists who were occupying the island wanted plenty of warm bodies to fill out their army to retake the mainland one day. As this fantasy faded, sensible population control policies asserted themselves. But the damage had already been done.

More important than this, however, is the land use policy that has done grievious damage to the island's living standards. Let's look at a picture of Taichung at dusk:

Notice anything strange about this picture? The taller buildings are very spread out across a wide area of the city. And more importantly, buildings of medium height are everywhere. A large American city, by contrast, has low buildings on the outskirts, with the height rising steadily until it reaches the center, where the buildings are tall indeed. An American city looks like an inverted funnel, while a Taiwanese city resembles an inverted box. Why is that?

In Taiwan, the government has insanely decided that the height of buildings shall be determined not by market forces but by government fiat. Thus, each street has a regulation that controls the height of the buildings that may be erected on that street. On some streets that is just three stories, others five, others 8, and so on. In economics this represents a quota, or a limit on the amount that can be produced. In Taiwan there is a government quota on the number of stories a given parcel of land can produce. This has a profound impact on nearly every aspect of Taiwanese life.

In the US, if the value of your land increases, you can whack down your current building and erect a new, taller one, because the value of the land determines the height of the buildings, not bureaucratic fiat. In Taiwan, no matter what happens to the value of the land, if you whack down a three story building, you can only put up a three story building. Therefore it makes no sense to knock down an existing building; there's nothing to be gained. Hence the large number of run-down, crappy, small buildings in the heart of expensive urban districts.

Because there is not enough space in Taiwanese buildings, residents are forced to engage in all sorts of illegal behavior just to obtain the requisite living space. Thus almost every building on the island has an illegal structure or two on top, as well as illegally built out balconies. Residents also are compelled to annex unoccupied space around their buildings and use it for their own purposes. Thus the customary rule that everything in front of a building or storefront belongs to that structure, including the public space.

A further problem caused by this is the sprawling cities of Taiwan in which greenspace is constantly gobbled up by developers to put up yet another block of hideously ugly and excrutiatingly identical three-story concrete pestholes.

What is the fallout for driving? Well, it's pretty obvious: too much space is devoted to buildings, and there is not enough for everything else that people need or want, like homes with yards, parks, golf courses, parking lots, and so on. This includes, of course, roads.Since the infrastructure does not take into account actual human need by either bureacratic insight or through market signals, the result is anarchy: high traffic densities that force drivers to park without consideration for the needs of others, and force them to enter intersections dangerously, and so on. Because too much space is given over to buildings, there is not enough for other needs.

Note that this is not a problem caused by Taiwan's small size, as both locals and foreigners are apt to claim. There is plenty of land in Taiwan, and nothing stops people from putting up mighty skyscrapers full of apartment buildings. That would create plenty of choices for everyone: tall buildings in the center of the city, for people who liked that lifestyle, and large homes in the suburbs, for people who liked that lifestyle, and the whole spectrum of choices in between. Here in Taiwan, though, everyone in urban areas gets the same two choices -- ugly short buildings, or cramped apartments in taller towers.

Certainly the drivers education and enforcement systems are daft here. Certainly people do not know the rules. Certainly there is no ethic of civil society that compels individuals to account for the needs of others. But the Taiwanese are not essentially evil or essentially stupid. None of the aforementioned can occur without that most basic of needs, space, being able to respond to the requirements of Taiwan's nascent civil society. And I fear that until it does, civil society will not be able to fully blossom on the Beautiful Island. As long as Taiwan's land use laws encourage an artificial density of human activity, it will not benefit individuals to behave as though civic society existed.

Why does this situation exist? Who benefits?is the question that needs to be asked. A quota, as any economist can tell you, benefits producers by driving up the price. Thus, land developers, construction companies, and cement firms are the primary beneficiaries. In other words, the Taiwanese get it coming and going: their houses are too small and poorly-constructed, and they pay too much for them. The exploitative land policy in Taiwan is solely the result of KMT greed. The land developers, cement companies, and other concerned businesses were either owned outright by the former ruling party, or by its good buddies. In the 1960s the cement companies got rich selling cement to the Americans for their imperial adventure in Vietnam. When that business disappeared, the government promulgated the Ten Great Infrastructure projects, which, not by coincidence, demanded mass quantities of cement whose producers, not by coincidence, were closely connected to the KMT. When these petered out the housing market was the natural target, and so the development boom began, fueled by the island's increasing affluence. Houses in Taiwan are built of concrete, not wood, favoring local cement companies, owned, of course, by friends of the KMT. Wooden houses are perfectly legal and you can build one if you like. The catch is, however, that the fire department won't certify it for fire safety, and without that certification, you can't get fire insurance, which means that you can't build the house. This informal trade barrier exists solely to protect the cement market in Taiwan, and the KMT's friends.

So next time someone cuts you off in traffic, reflect on the height of the buildings, and curse the KMT, and not the drivers in front of you.


Anonymous said...

How can we document this? We have professional paper...

Anonymous said...

From Scott Sommers.

It should not be forgotten that this ridiculous (and unique) arrangement was provided for us by the KMT. Not to excuse the DPP from all this mess. They're too busy promoting Taiwanese language textbooks and closing bilingual kindergartens to worry about the kind of issues that have a real impact on voter's daily lives.

Anonymous said...

Road rage kills in Taiwan, too. Gangsters and criminals who defy the law of gun prohibition do kill people out of road rage with their illegal fireamrs.

Anonymous said...

It's tough to follow rules of the road. Y? Most people have no sense of regulations. I don't think it's taught/enforced at driving school.
When you drive on the highway and you high beam a slow driver on the left, what happens? The driver doesn't even acknowledge it, and keeps on the lane. Do they not know it's common courtesy to move to the right lane?

Anonymous said...

I have to say your web pages are insightful if not detailed observations which are informative to people wishing to visit the island. It really is a good read and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

But I would like to add that even though driving in the country is terrible - I know because I was born there - one must remember that the island has developed its own unique kind of driving culture amongst all the chaos and growth during the developing years. Thus it would be pointless and stressful to try and impose one’s culture values and social habits onto this island.

My recommendation for everyone is to join the flow and in process reduce the probability of heart attacks or aneurisms. Not only will your health benefit, you’ll find personal growth and development by becoming more patient and thoughtful…hopefully anyway.

Driving anywhere outside of Taipei, especially at night is high risk. Locals know that and that’s why people with any sense don’t go for late night cruises. Economic progress and wealth segregation have created social problems which results in unexpected and nasty events for people – locals included.

The advice here is to go with someone with local knowledge, take a cab, or travel during the day. Remember, its okay to apologize behind the window first even know if you’re right! After all, is it really that necessary for you to obtain another scar to show off to your ex/girlfriend/wife/mum back home?

It’s really not that hard to drive in Taiwan. Just don’t expect everything the same as your home town. After all, if the food tastes so different, how can the driving be the same?

Take care now.

Anonymous said...

FYI: Regarding "driving legally" in Taiwan; you can get a "Permit to Drive" (it's actually an extension of the 30-day limitation imposed on your International Driver's License) rather than go through the tests to get a "Taiwan Driver's License". The "Permit to Drive" is a two-page form: one you keep in your wallet; the other has a passport-sized photo on it (that you have to supply), and is kept on file at the local License Bureau. The best news is: NO TEST and IT'S FREE!!! On the down side, it only lasts as long as your ARC, so don't forget to renew them both at the same time.

Paul said...

I notice that you cited someone as saying that the difference in driving habits is one of culture, not poor driving skills; a comment has also been posted to that affect. Generally it's good not to expect things to be as they are at home, and these are nice, tolerant remarks.

In fact, however, nothing to do with being a foreigner or not: far, far too many Taiwanese people are needlessly killed each day on the roads as a result of what can only be described as gross negligence by the authorities in allowing the situation on the roades to persist. The simple enforcement of traffic laws would be a good place to start - Taiwan does in fact have some of the basic laws already in place.

A brief look at what passes for the driving test [passed first time; thank you very much(!)] shows that Taiwanese drivers are simply not taught how to drive properly in the first place. The 15KPH crawl around a car park that constitutes the Taiwanese driving test is hardly a realistic driving test of the skills one needs, whatever country you live in. It's not just what happens when you press what peddle, but about hazard awareness, and being taught to think of other road users as a matter of course. No test will create perfect, safe, considerate drivers, but a good test of reasonable training will raise the threshold considerably. Driving may reflect culture, but it's a culture than can - must - be changed.

More than land use policy - and I'm not entirely sure I agree with your argument on that point - I would say, then, that Taiwanese driving standards reflect very lazy, dangerous, attitudes towards driving, from government downwards, and a poorly conceived testing regime.

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in understanding more about the way land is used in Taiwan. This post is five years old, do the old regulations apply? If so, can you point me to some references?

James said...

This was a fun read! I am glad I am not the only one who sees this. The lack of enforcement of the traffic laws (among others) makes Somalia look like a police state!

Maybe I missed it, but you failed to mention that not only do they drive the wrong way down a street (scooters and cars) but they will park that way too, at varying distances from what passes as a curb.

But as my wife says, what can you do about it?

Tanya said...

Has anything changed in 7 years? In my town, people stop cautiously at the blinking yellow light, and proceed with reckless abandon at the blinking red.

I've never experienced such backward driving. I'll point to driver education, testing, and enforcement as others have despite that the theory on land use is probably also a factor.

But, as has been expressed so many times before by so many like us who very well know the answer: what can we (foreigners) do? This is not our country, though we love it so.