Taipei (CNN) — It’s been nearly two months since Taiwan lifted its entry restrictions and ended mandatory quarantine, allowing most international tourists to visit the island.
The government has since vowed to boost its tourism offerings and attract 10 million international visitors by 2025 after losing out on tourist revenue amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
But in order to lure and retain international tourists, critics say Taiwan must first improve its road safety — for drivers and pedestrians alike.
The island may be renowned for its cuisine, natural scenery and hospitality — but it is also notorious for its dangerous roads. Multiple countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan and the US, have specifically called out Taiwan’s road conditions.
“Be alert for the many scooters and motorcycles that weave in and out of traffic…Exercise caution when crossing streets because many drivers do not respect the pedestrian’s right of way,” the US State Department warns.
The Canadian government is more blunt: “Motorcycles and scooter drivers don’t respect traffic laws. They are extremely reckless.”
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A Facebook page that has recently gone viral in Taiwan pulls no punches in its name: “Taiwan is a living hell for pedestrians.” Founded in December 2021, the page has nearly 13,000 followers a year later.
Returning to his native Taiwan after a stint living in Melbourne, Australia, Ray Yang, the page’s founder, said the reverse cultural shock of “nearly getting run over” by motorists prompted him to start the page.
“Cities in Taiwan share a major issue — a lack of pavements and consistent walkways for pedestrians,” Yang told CNN Travel.
According to government statistics, 42% of roads in urban areas have sidewalks. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. The roads can be narrow, full of parked scooters and cars, blocked by lamp posts and transformer boxes, and occupied store fronts with plants or signboards. Pedestrians are then often “forced” to walk onto car lanes, Yang said.
Moreover, some pedestrian pavements are a patchwork of patios — known in Taiwan as qilou — built from different surfaces and heights, adversely impacting their walkability.
Parents with babies and small kids sometimes have to carry the strollers by hand as they make their way through, while wheelchair users are forced to zigzag in and out of car lanes and the walkways which are at times obstructed.
Pedestrians often have to fight for their right of way with cyclists and motor vehicle drivers as they cross the road or walk on pavements, Yang added.
“In Taiwan, there is a common saying that the characteristic friendliness of Taiwanese people vanishes as soon as they get behind the steering wheel,” says Professor Cheng Tsu-Jui of Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University.
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Last year, 2,962 people lost their lives to traffic incidents in Taiwan, which translates to 12.67 deaths per 100,000 individuals.
That’s approximately six times higher than Japan and five times higher than the UK.
Local Taiwanese media have coined the term “traffic war” to describe the island’s “battlefield-like” traffic conditions and high number of road fatalities.
Taiwan’s roads being unfriendly to pedestrians is a by-product of a larger problem, according to Charles Lin, the executive vice president of Taiwan Traffic Safety Association, an advocacy group that has been campaigning for safer roads.
The crux of Taiwan’s road safety issues, he says, primarily lies in the lack of updated road engineering and design expertise, road design guidelines that are “unclear” and only “exist on paper” as they are “selectively implemented,” and a “car-centered” planning that prioritizes private vehicles over public transportation, cyclists and pedestrians.
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As Taiwan began modernizing its roads in the 1960s, it referenced road design guidelines from the US, which largely prioritized cars over people. However, as other countries began to incorporate the needs of vulnerable users — namely pedestrians and cyclists — into their road designs, Taiwan fell behind.
It also doesn’t help that in Taiwan, a myriad of government agencies have jurisdiction over the construction and management of roads complicate division of responsibilities and bogs down efforts to push for change.
In addition to safety concerns and the absence of pedestrian-friendly walkways, Taiwan’s lack of public transportation and could also limit the development of tourism beyond the major hubs on the island.
“Public transportation can be appalling outside of the Greater Taipei metropolitan area — even non-existent in some rural areas,” says Cheng. “It is not at the level of turn-up-and-go.”
For years, the Taiwanese government has been aware of the island’s road safety issues, and has attempted to address it primarily through public campaigns on fastening seatbelts and wearing helmets, plus crackdowns on drunk driving.
It has also issued handbooks on the latest road design best practices and has established makeshift sidewalks, as well as improved road designs in some areas.
But experts have said the government’s “typical” response has been resorting to more policing and adding on more traffic lights and speed cameras — even in locations where “it doesn’t make sense” to install them — “piecemeal” strategies that are not necessarily effective, according to Lin.
“We rely on enforcement too much,” says Lin. “The focus should be on designing better road infrastructure and enhancing drivers’ education.”
Huang Yun-Gui, the executive secretary of Taiwan’s National Road Traffic Safety Commission, told CNN Travel that “there is much more work to do in improving Taiwan’s road safety, and the government is working towards the ultimate goal of zero road fatalities.”
Scooter traffic in Taipei photo via Getty Images