TAIPEI — As other major cities in Asia fight choking smog and traffic, the city of Taipei, in Taiwan, is offering its 2.6 million people a fast, cheap and non-polluting way to cross town. The Taiwanese are pedaling to work, among other places, as part of a city-run bike rental network. But the surging popularity of the program has led to new traffic headaches.
Five years ago, motor scooters jousted with taxis and buses for space on narrow Taipei streets as people struggled through rush-hour traffic. Then the city backed a plan to start renting bicycles, following the lead of places in Japan and South Korea.
Since then, the city has made 11 million rentals, much of that over the past year. Customers pay nothing for the first half hour. Each 30 minutes afterwards costs less than half a U.S. dollar.
Hsu Tsai-tung, a 37-year-old Taipei office worker, cycles to parks, a university and her workplace on rented bikes for a host of personal reasons.
"One advantage is that the rental is free in the beginning and good for my health as an office worker who doesn't move during the day. Waiting for a bus would mean spending time, which I avoid by riding a bike. Cycling is a natural choice because it's convenient, saves money and promotes health," she said.
Some also pedal for convenience, as the orange one-speed bikes can be dropped off at any of the existing 129 rental stations, all of which are self-operated with smart cards.
The shift to bicycles could also ease air pollution, which has become a health hazard around much of urban Asia.
In China, Shanghai has posted record pollution levels this month with particulate levels at nearly 20 times above what the World Health Organization considers safe. Taiwan's Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Shen Shu-hung, says he wants to know whether bikes have brought down Taipei's pollution, which has been found to endanger commuters and people living on low building floors.
"Taiwan is conducting an analysis on whether the rental program, called YouBike, has reduced air pollution. I am taking a cautious view for now, in case it turns out that bike renters are people who previously spared the air by walking or riding the metro, so the government needs a more in-depth study," he said.
But the 5,350 bicycles on the streets today have begun to cause new problems for city traffic. People who pedal through the streets compete with illegal sudden stops and fast right turns by motor vehicles. Bike riders have switched to the sidewalks as a result, scaring or angering pedestrians, despite a police ban on the practice.
Taipei Department of Transportation official Huang Huang-chia says no single type of incident has become epidemic, but riders need to be better educated.
He describes incidents involving rented bikes as isolated cases that are not necessarily concentrated in any specific category of problem. The city's approach, he says, will be to educate people on every aspect of bicycle safety in Taipei.
The rest of Asia may not be far behind. Bike rentals have taken hold in Kyoto, Japan; the Chinese city of Hangzhou and Daejeon in South Korea. Taipei will finish its program with a total of 162 rental stations by the end of next year.