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Taipei Leads Asia With Millions of Bike Rentals

A woman rides a Youbike bicycle past a renting station outside the Taipei City Hall in Taipei, Nov. 5, 2009.

Taipei has emerged as a role model for Asian cities, with a public bike rental program that has reached 20 million trips per year because of low rates and an abundance of bikes throughout the crowded Taiwanese capital.

Envoys from Tokyo and Singapore, two other dense Asian cities, have visited Taipei to ask the city’s transportation department how the rental program, known as YouBike, has developed. Interest surged after the seven-year-old program suddenly saw rentals double from 2013 to 2014.

Biking took off in Taipei because more than 30 percent of people already commute by metro or bus. They willingly pedal the final kilometer to work if rentals are close to their final metro or bus stop. Taipei’s city government has placed many of its 222 rental kiosks in exactly in those locations.

Officials in the city of 2.6 million also keep rates as low as 15 U.S. cents for the first half hour, affordable to city dwellers who want the bike for a day trip on one of the mostly flat city’s riverside trails. Rentals total about 20 million per year now.

“Taipei’s population density is high and people’s usage of buses and the metro has reached a certain level,” said Liu Chia-yu, a division chief under the city government’s transportation department. “Those people actually can use YouBike in the natural course of their movements.”

After slow pickup in the first years, the city added stations and bikes. It also cancelled a program membership in 2012 to bring in more riders. It plans to spend about $32 million between 2015 and 2019 on more new bikes and places to rent them. Riders are allowed to rent from one place and drop off at any other.

“When Taipei was planning its overall city transit system, bikes were a form of transport we wanted to encourage,” Liu said.

FILE - Cyclists cruise down a bike path in Taipei, Taiwan. Taipei is now examining ways to improve traffic safety for riders.
FILE - Cyclists cruise down a bike path in Taipei, Taiwan. Taipei is now examining ways to improve traffic safety for riders.

Users like convenience of rentals

Taipei now lacks the traffic jams that are notorious in Asian cities such as Bangkok, Beijing and Jakarta. Air pollution is also less severe in here.

Taiwan-based Giant Manufacturing, a maker of bikes that are sold internationally, operates the YouBike system and supplies it with 7,200 clean, orange bikes.

Chang Da-you, a 28-year-old office worker in Taipei, is a typical YouBike commuter. He rides five kilometers to and from work every day that it’s not raining. On weekends, he bicycles up to 20 kilometers along a river trail.

“It’s convenient. Wherever you go, there it is,” Chang said. “If there’s a metro stop nearby there’s also YouBike, so you can take the metro to your bike and ride the bike to any other place.”

Taipei is now examining ways to improve traffic safety for riders after the first phase of green-painted designated bike lanes on major streets attracted too many stopped cars and trucks to offer a haven from the traffic. The city will open more than 150 kilometers of new paths by 2019.

Japan’s tourist city of Kyoto also has rentals, but mainly older bikes and from specific shops. Seoul launched a rental system like Taipei’s in October and plans to expand city-wide by 2020 with as many as 20,000 bikes.

Taipei is credited with not giving up where other cities might.

“In the beginning days there wasn't a lot of action. But rather than stop they sort of redoubled their efforts, which is fantastic,” said Anthony van Dyck, a Canadian in Taipei who follows YouBike as founder of an informational website for foreigners.

“I think a lot of governments would just take a step back and they did it the exact opposite. They just tried twice as hard,” he said.