Accomplishments, Asia, Destination, Taiwan

Taking on the Mean Streets of Taipei

Morning commute in taipei

Traffic in Taipei is ridiculous. Everyone that lives in Taipei has come to terms with this, but if you’ve never been to Taipei before be prepared for a shock. There is no regard for pedestrians of any kind. Pedestrians must cross the street on high alert because cars and scooters will stop for no one and nothing in their mission to be first. Coming from countries where drivers are expected to stop before the crosswalk this used to be incredibly irritating. Then, recently, I had what I thought was a stunning epiphany. It occurred to me that I was looking at driving in Taipei all wrong. Perhaps the laws here dictate that vehicles have the right of way and pedestrians should wait until all traffic has cleared? It seemed like a simple and logical explanation to the chaos I see every day.  I asked around to see if this theory had merit, but no. Pedestrians do have the right of way.

It’s just that nobody cares.

Oh, well. Life would be pretty boring if we didn’t add in all those “…and then my life flashed before my eyes” moments every time we crossed a street, wouldn’t it?

Following are some examples of common, every day, batshit driving in Taipei:

That car wouldn’t dare turn in front of all those cars and scooters would he?

  • Running red lights. Everybody does it. No one seems to care.
  • Going up one-way streets the wrong way. Especially common for those that drive scooters.
  • Scooters driving around on sidewalks. Sidewalks aren’t  for people! Why, that would just be silly!
  • Turning left directly into oncoming traffic. They’ll stop.
  • Motorists not honoring scooter/bike space cushions.
  • U-turns, often across four lanes of traffic and directly in front of oncoming traffic. Because, you know…they’ll stop.

Yes. He would. Along with his buddy behind him and biker in front.

I’m over it.

As chaotic and unmanageable as it sounds there is a certain rhythm and flow to the traffic that all motorists seem to know. Even though scooters squeeze their way into every available space, causing cars to slam on their brakes as they’re cut off with less than a foot to spare, there seems to be an incredibly high tolerance for bad driving and an astounding lack of road rage. I’ve never seen such calm and dispassionate acceptance of  pervasive assholery in my life.

I’m bringing this up because I’m now in the process of learning to drive a scooter. Taipei is not like Poland. Outside of Taipei it is a lot tougher to get around without your own set of wheels.  Honestly, the idea of puttering around the countryside on a scooter is very tempting, and I can’t pass up this opportunity to learn something new. I’ve always wanted to learn how to drive a motorcycle. It’s no motorcycle, but it’s a step in the right direction.

My friend Jeff, being the kind generous person that he is, took me out a couple of weekends ago and let me give it a go in a riverside park. It was late at night and aside from a late night basketball game and a couple badminton players the park was mostly deserted.  I drove around slowly wobbling up and down the length of the park while he snickered from the safety of solid ground. I managed to turn both left and right without losing my balance and even mastered a few figure eights. I drove back to my studio slowly that night calmly stopping at every yellow light, not pushing or shoving my way between cars and, in general, obeying traffic laws as I know them. I also drove with Jeff sitting behind me hollering in my ear to go faster.  Did I feel ready to try driving Taiwanese style yet? He wanted to know. No, Jeff. No.

A few nights later we tried again. This time, we started from a small park near my apartment.  The goal was to try to find a new community gym where I could go work out, mine having closed down due to renovations.

My gut kept clenching. Knowing that any miscalculation could cause me to splatter all over the concrete like a juicy sack of meat with only the worthless protection of a very badly fitted helmet was giving me some anxiety. The dangers were all too real and my imagination was running wild.  It didn’t help that before I had gone five feet, and while I was still trying to get my balance, two cops drove past on their scooters and stopped at the Family Mart ten yards up the road. They then turned and proceeded to eye me with suspicion. One of them glanced under my helmet and then gave me a surprised little smile when he realized I was a foreigner.

I felt paralyzed. I slowly moved up a few more feet so Jeff could hop on the back, but I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to wait until they had driven off, but they weren’t moving and Jeff was screaming in my ear to just go! Go! Go!

I went.

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was about to get pulled over. None. I’m screwed, I thought. I don’t have a driver license for Taiwan. I don’t have my US driver license with me. I don’t know how to drive this scooter.  I have no business being on this street.

I quietly freaked out all the way up the alley to the main road. I came to a screeching stop simultaneously managing to hit the accelerator and the brake, and nearly fell off the scooter again.  And who should immediately pass me? The two cops of course. I braced myself for the worst but they kept going, barely hitting the brakes before they pulled out onto the main road and sped off.

All I can say is that would never, ever happen in the States. Ever. Of all the examples I can give anyone of what a totally foreign place I live in that’s probably the best. Un-freaking-believable.

The rest of the ride was full of terrifying starts and stops, near misses, scarily out of control turns, and toward the end, one illegal u-turn on my part. I also have a vague recollection of maybe running a red.  Every time I braked I managed to turn the handle and accelerate at the same time. It did not help that Jeff was hollering in my ear the entire time.

Go! Turn left! No, right! BRAKE! Stop accelerating! Go faster! Whoa! Whoa, go slower! Turn! Turn! Can you just turn around in the street? No? Where are you going?!  Just TURN! STOP accelerating when you’re braking!!

It was with sheer relief that we finally found the gym. After I parked I glanced at Jeff. The look of absolute disgust on his face was priceless.  He hasn’t let me try again since, but I’m hoping I can wear him down.  Now that I’ve had a taste of being behind the handles of a scooter I know I’m addicted.  This little adventure will end with buying my own scooter. I can just feel it.


Next time, I’ll be on my own scooter.

Featured Writer: Scintillatebrightly

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11 thoughts on “Taking on the Mean Streets of Taipei

  1. Scribe Doll says:

    Your post brings back some powerful memories. I spent a couple of months in Taiwan, about ten years ago, teaching. I will never forget the thick pollution, the difficulty in finding vegetarian food, and the sticky, damp heat. Oh, and the cockroaches (seen those, yet?) On my first evening in Kaosiung, I discovered a ginger one in my dressing table drawer, shrieked, and closed the drawer again. I didn’t know how to get rid of it. I didn’t want to squash it. Eventually, I had a stroke of genius, and pulled my vaporiser bottle of Chanel No. 5. I began squirting it on the cockroach. He ondulated his antennae towards the scent with the grace of a Covent Garden Royal Ballet dancer… but did not die. Later, when my flatmate came in, he caught the critter in a jar, and we went down to release him in the street. As we watched him scurry away, we thought, “There goes the most expensive-smelling cockroach in South-East Asia…”

    1. mariawasilewska says:

      Oh yeah. I’ve seen them 🙂
      They fly too, which I’m sure you ended up finding out.

    2. cphu says:

      Well Taiwan has changed drastically for the last 10 years. The Taipei 10 years ago is not the same Taipei anymore. You would never find Taiwan’s cities on the list of the most polluted cities in the world. In fact, Taiwan’s standard of living is already higher than Japan.

      Also, if you are like me living in New York, you will find Taipei to be a very charming city! People are so nice and the traffic is 100x better. NYC subway is soooo 3rd world comparing to Taipei’s.

      1. mariawasilewska says:

        Don’t get me wrong CP, I love living here. But you have to admit the driving culture is majorly different. I’ve been to New York and at least they obey the traffic laws there. Here they’re often not even enforced.
        I must admit, I love the metro though. It just keeps getting better and better. They opened up a new line since I’ve been here the final image of the city once they’re done with all the projected lines is going to be amazing.

  2. Judy says:

    I have a son,daughter-in-law, and 2 grandaughters in Taiwan. They live in the town of Maioli.My sons wife is Taiwanese. My 2 grandaughters are blended Taiwanese-Canadians.We have been to Taiwan and are going later this year for another trip. It is a beautiful country with lush countryside.We have been to Taipei and also Kaoshiung,a city on the other end of the island.I was amazed with the country, the culture and the people.I expected it to be more populated and was surprised to see it was just like any other country when you moved about from City to towns to countryside.Miss my family over there and was excited to see your article.

    1. mariawasilewska says:

      It is a beautiful country. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

  3. tukusigal says:

    Thank you for your report. No wonder some Chinese drivers here (in my town, Michigan, U.S.) are horrible drivers! I am from Japan, and I am amazed how Japanese and Taiwanese drive differently (Japanese are very law-abiding).

    1. mariawasilewska says:

      Tuku I used to wonder where the stereotype came from. I can’t say all drivers are bad drivers, but the driving culture is definitely vastly different from that of the States.
      Incidentally, I’m from Michigan too 🙂
      I hope I get a chance to go to Japan soon. I would love to compare the two countries.

  4. tukusigal says:

    Are you from Michigan? Wow
    If you get to go to Japan, I will look forward to your comparative report! Hang in there in Taiwan 🙂 I have not been there, but my husband and his friend (Americans) have been there. I want to go to the national art museum someday.

  5. Gosh, traffic in Taipei was NOTHING compared to Ho Chi Minh, where they swerved around us at all times, even on sidewalks. In Taipei it just worked — it wasn’t bad at all!

    1. mariawasilewska says:

      I’ve heard its pretty wild in Ho Chi Minh too. I hope I get a chance to compare sometime soon.

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