Moving around Taipei

Last month I was in Taipei with colleagues from DEMAND thanks to funding from the British Academy International Partnership and Mobility Scheme and the Taiwanese Ministry of Science and Technology. In addition to workshops with the staff and students at National Chengchi University, our main collaborators, we also made visits to Taipei Medical University, National Taiwan University iNSIGHT Centre, and a local non-profit called HAND: Humanity, Alternatives, Nature, Dialogue. The trip was full and fruitful, and offered many opportunities to reflect upon the themes of our research as they were manifest in a different context. More information about our trip can be found on the DEMAND website, and on Storify.

Without further preamble, here’s a short reflection on normal mobilities in Taipei:

In the 1994 Lonely Planet guide to Taiwan, Taipei was characterized as a “boom town” with “overcrowding, noise and incredible traffic jams” (126). Planning for a Metropolitan Rapid Transit system began in 1975, but was plagued by delays, difficulties and bureaucratic obstacles (ibid., 170) that led to worries that it would “be obsolete by the time it’s completed” (126). Since then, however, significant improvements to infrastructure and public services have transformed a once-chaotic system into another aspect of what locals praise as the ‘convenient’ Taipei city. The city’s MRT (Metro) opened in 1996 and has been growing since then, with the latest section opening in 2013 and more lines set to open in 2015. The ‘U-bike’ shared bike scheme started as a pilot in 2008 and reached over 500 million passengers by June 2013. Taxis are also plentiful and inexpensive – with a ten minute ride costing as little as $150NTD/£3.

Yet more striking when in the city are the scooter/mopeds, which are parked in orderly lines on many streets and crowd into special portions of intersections during rush hour. For the locals we spoke with, car ownership was largely unnecessary in Taipei, though it is still important in more rural parts of Taiwan, because other means of getting around are sufficient for many purposes. Moreover, the falling of real wages over more than a decade has made scooter ownership more practical for many in younger generations. The infrastructure of Taipei city streets, which vary from multi-lane thoroughfares to small lanes that would barely fit one car, also call for and support the usefulness of scooters, which provide a means of getting around both queues of traffic on main streets and queues of pedestrians that clog the small lanes of Taipei’s many night markets.

Taipei scooter rider with yoga matA few days of casual observations also demonstrated that the use of these technologies has become a thoroughly ordinary part of everyday life. Though Taiwan receives twice as much rainfall annually as the UK, this didn’t appear to be a reason to avoid scooters, as we saw people riding in the rain with the protection of ankle-length raincoats. Scooters are also well-adapted, through skill as much as design, for carrying a large range of items. In some cases they are fitted with plastic boxes or crates behind the driver, or adapted to have cargo-sidecars. But in many other cases, people travelled with things between their feet on the small platform of the vehicle. Many models had small hooks that could be used to ensure handbags, backpacks and shopping bags don’t shift or fall off in transit. But in other cases this space was used for extra helmets, large bottles of drinking water, suitcases and yoga mats. In some instances, the space was used for additional passengers – for instance with children standing or sitting on a small plastic stool. Given recent findings from DEMAND’s Theme 1 (Mattioli and Anable) about the car-dependence linked to walking dogs, it was also interesting to see multiple instances where small dogs were catching a ride in the space between their owner’s feet.

Taipei scooters lining city streetWhile the transformation of public transportation and normalization of scooters in Taipei undoubtedly brings complications as well as conveniences, it raises interesting questions in relation to UK government promises for reductions in carbon emissions. As I discussed in my presentation at National Chengchi University, perhaps our imagination has been too limited when thinking about how technologies like electric vehicles could transform our transport system. What if we didn’t automatically assume that EVs will be used in the same way as ICE vehicles? What if we allowed ourselves to imagine a future where scooters, or some other type of vehicle, were normal? How could the transformation of Taipei’s transportation system provide possibilities for thinking about steering change elsewhere?

Needed distractions

One of the great pleasures of being an academic is that reading is a part of my job. But at times this can become a great frustration too. Not only is it impossible to read all that one might want to (or feel the pressure to), but reading can become tinged by a compulsion to productivity. Time spent with a novel may be enjoyable, but can be more difficult to justify when one’s physical or virtual desktop is strewn with articles to be read or reviewed. Yet at the same time, reading widely and outside of one’s immediate area of work can be rejuvenating, and can even prompt stimulating adventures or even improvisations.

This weekend was therefore one filled with some much needed reading diversions and distractions.

Thinking about new media and curation:

The striving toward autonomy is, some argue, ever more prevalent, perhaps even a prerequisite, for works of new media, which exist in a technological context shared by other media and entertainment that have educational and other commercial objectives. In this, it would seem that no matter the form of the artwork, the medium never matters as much as the context. However, the more interconnected the work to its context, the greater the change in the way the work of art might be curated or approached by a curator.

– Graham and Cook (2010) Rethinking curation: art after new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pg. 83.

Thinking about the possibilities of short plays that take place inside cars:

There is great pleasure to be had in a world of limits.

– Neil LaBute (2005) Autobahn: a short-play cycle. NY: Faber and Faber, p.xv.

Thinking about a colleague hosting an event next week to bring together community around the challenge of food justice:

Food Justice, for me is not just access to healthy and affordable food, but also to food that is culturally appropriate and which is produced in a manner that does not transfer the burden of injustice onto someone else.

– Megan Blake, posting on her Geofoodie blog

Thinking about a colleague posting about her new Leverhulme-funded project:

Focusing on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.

– Imogen Tyler, posting on her Social Abjection blog