Monday, 30 June 2014

Some Thoughts On Transport Infrastructure

Sunday was a lazy day for me; didn't do much in particular apart from take several much-needed naps and take the dogs out to the park. However, I had come across a blog post by someone else ("Taiwan Explorer") earlier in the week about scooters in Kaohsiung. The post itself was only of tangential interest (Kaohsiung has more scooters than other cities) whilst what piqued my interest was the news (news to me at any rate) that, not being satisfied with having built a Metro system ("MRT") that attracts insufficient numbers of riders to pay for itself, the Kaohsiung city government is now intent on building a "light rail project" (i.e. a tram).

I imagine that the Kaohsiung city government intends the tram network to supplement the MRT because the failing of the MRT was always that it was too limited in scope to be useful to more than a few handfuls of people who happen to live near its' stations. If I remember back to when I was living on 9th road in Kaohsiung city many years ago, it would have been nice to step outside the apartment, hop on an air-conditioned tram and wizz along to work downtown wearing shirt and tie. What I had to do instead was (at first) ride a bicycle in the height of summer and change clothes once I got to work and then later (when my resident visa was granted) drive a scooter through the traffic. But I would still have owned a scooter and I would still have used it quite often - for two main reasons; first, there would always be lots of little places that I could arrive at directly on a scooter that a tram could never reach; second, a scooter, motorcycle or car can be driven out of town into the countryside, but you cannot take a tram as far as that (over a certain size, a tram network operator will encounter diseconomies of scale). There is also the additional point that, on a tram, I would need to carry things with me that I could easily hook up to the scooter instead. For the tram to work then (in terms of numbers of riders), they are going to have to get it exactly right both in terms of the reach of the network (Kaohsiung city proper is geographically larger than Taichung city proper, so this is no small undertaking) and its' design.

I will be surprised if they manage it. Partly this is because I expect mistakes from central planning, but partly it is because I think there is a psychological reason why trams largely lost out to the internal combustion engine a century ago. Driving a car or a motorbike conveys physical feedback data to the driver resulting in very acute perceptions of control, which is one reason why driving can be enjoyable. Standing around in a tram, essentially waiting, does not convey anything like a sense of control. Add to that the seemingly unparalleled convenience of a scooter, and it is difficult to guess whether enough people would switch from scooters to a combined tram-and-MRT network for it to become profitable. Were it built and I were living in Kaohsiung city now, I would probably use it sometimes, but probably for something like a third to a half of my daily trips at most (i.e. mostly for going to work and back, and not always even then).

Above all else however, the idea of a government built tram network for Kaohsiung strikes me as mind-numbingly boring. So long as decisions over transport infrastructure remain the prerogative of city governments, there is unlikely to be any experimentation with new forms. If that remains the case, then I expect that we'll be stuck with just roads and railways for another hundred years.

If investment in public transport, and related infrastructure were opened up to free competition, then there are two ideas that I would like to see tried...

First, with respect to heavy cargo currently transported in trucks over long distances across freeways and expressways, I wonder whether this might not be done more quickly and cheaply by using modern airships - a balloon with its own internal frame and directional thrust. Flying in a straight line should obviously be quicker than using a complicated, twisting, traffic-fraught road network. The infrastructure needs for these things are basically landing and take-off sites connected to the road network. Whether sufficient economies of scale could be reached by different industries using this alternative form of transport is another question, and is the one factor most likely to make it impractical. But the idea could conceivably be tried as a substitute for tourist buses too.

Second, for the large numbers of people commuting to and from work, I would like to see air-conditioned vaulted tubes built across the city with numerous exit and entry ramps akin to freeways wherein people could use bicycles and in-line roller-blades. By being above the traffic, the commuters are protected from the risk of collision with cars and other heavier vehicles. In order to get up to the twenty to thirty foot height that the vaulted tubes would need to be set at, the entry ramps could contain several kinds of electro-magnetic catapult designed to impart sufficient force to send the cyclists or skaters up the ramps at low speeds of the order of say 40 kph, with the people thereafter using their own energy to propel themselves along at whatever speeds they like to get to their destinations. The walls and ceilings of the tubes would of course have to be at least partly transparent to allow people to recognize where they are at different stages of their journey. The two points I particularly like about this idea are (a) that it allows people to get and stay relatively fit without having to risk collision with heavier vehicles and without investing additional time outside their daily routines, i.e. you don't have to to the gym, you can get fit just by going to work and (b) that, unlike passive systems like trams and metros, you maintain a sense of control over your progress.

As said earlier however, and it bears repeating, these kinds of things will remain pipe-dreams so long as governments maintain power over infrastructure investment. But insofar as the government remains in charge, I would like to see the existing forms of transport infrastructure (particularly the road networks) improved first. Here are a few possibilities...

1. Find a way to introduce some element of competition into the enforcement of existing traffic laws in order to make comparisons between what works and what doesn't. Say you divide the city of Kaohsiung into its district areas, and in each area a committee (perhaps elected) chooses which traffic law violations it wants precinct police stations to concentrate on. Further suppose one district chooses to focus on incentivizing the correct use of mirrors and signaling (and dis-incentivizing the converse), and another district focuses on simply dis-incentivizing red-light runners, illegal left turns and so on. This will generate data that can be compared, given the necessary caveats about population and detection and enforcement methods of course.  I've long held the conjecture that improvement in driving skills would do far more to reduce fatalities in Taiwan than the typical foci of existing law enforcement, but at the moment it is difficult to test this conjecture.

2) Education. Teaching children best practice for crossing roads - I still remember this from when I was four or five years old in England living in the walk-friendly suburbs, but it just isn't done in Taiwan. Initiate public awareness campaigns about the necessity of using mirrors and using them correctly (many scooters don't have them, and their drivers are not penalized for this). Similar campaigns could be conducted for other things such as car drivers making turns whilst, unbelievably, looking away from oncoming traffic (a woman nearly killed me once when she made an illegal left turn whilst looking the wrong way).

3) Scrap the existing licensing and testing system, and initiate real ones with real driving tests comparable to those in England or Germany but adapted to Taiwan. There are probably interesting ways in which the testing and training could be privatized in conjunction with insurers in such a way as to induce competition in driver outcome skill, as well as competition in price.

4) Conduct a comprehensive review of city road signs with a view to (a) removing erroneous signs or those signs likely to induce confusion for one reason or another, (b) installing additional signs where their absence is currently problematic, and (c) embark on a new road sign program that places road signs reminding people of good driving protocols (e.g. mirror-signal-move) at appropriate spots.

6) Conduct a review of city streets in order to identify all "blind" intersections, regardless of whether or not a traffic light is there. For these blind intersections, where the combination of street narrowness and the interference of building edges with lines-of-sight may tragically reduce reaction time, install bend-mirrors. Where old buildings on street corners are about to be torn down to make way for new buildings, find some way to incentivize designs that afford greater lines-of-sight to traffic in each of the intersecting roads.

7) Build road bridges over existing railway crossings. These are orders of magnitude cheaper than implanting an entire underground train system.

That list is not exhaustive of course, and nor is it thought-through to any great detail. It is just a list of some alternatives that might improve road safety in Taiwan's cities.


  1. You move to Kaohsiung city ?

  2. No, stll here in Tainan. I was just thinking about the new "light rail" in Kaohsiung that's all.


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