Taiwan may be the last place on the planet one would expect to embrace a bicycle-friendly policy. The country was built on an industrial platform that has played a key role in the world's economy by producing electronics, computer components, and a swath of other goods stamped Made in Taiwan. Through this industrial boom, the Taiwanese people have enjoyed improved economic status over the decades. With that success, however, has come an influx of gas-powered vehicles.
In recent years, this southeastern Asian island nation has felt the strain on air quality due to a growing number of automobiles. To combat this issue, promote a healthy lifestyle, and create meaningful tourism opportunities the country has focused its efforts on molding a cycling culture - reintroducing this very basic form of transportation to its people. Finding the perfect combination of ingredients for such a complex recipe, however, isn't always so easy.
Home to one of the world's biggest bike manufacturers, Giant, Taiwan quickly gained an advocate willing to join the fight in bringing cycling center stage in the country. Giant has been a key player in efforts to make the island more cycle friendly. One important push was to create the U-Bike bike rental program in the capital city of Taipei, which uses Giant brand bikes. The program allows the public to rent from easy-to-use kiosks scattered all over the sprawling city. Registration is quick; the renter slides a credit card to buy credit and receives a pass card. That pass card is swiped at the kiosk the bikes are locked into. All bikes have a built in lock system for security, head light, tail light, front basket, and a comfy seat. The fee for renting the bikes are typically less than U.S. $2 per day depending on how much the bike is used. Returning the bike is easy: find a return/rental station, click it into the hub, swipe your pass card to end the rental.
Efforts like the U-Bike rental program allow the public to try cycling on their own terms. It has subtly introduced bicycles to the streets of Taipei and other major cities without forcing the riders to take on the financial burden of buying a new bike.
Building dedicated bike paths and adding bike lanes to the existing streets has been another key ingredient in the success of Taiwan's cycling culture. Bike paths in major cities have provided a place for recreational cyclists to ride. The idea of biking for recreation can be a foreign idea to many in a society which has historically used them mainly for transportation and delivery of goods. Seeing one's peers take to the bike paths for fun has helped broaden the idea of what cycling can be.
One recent effort the Taiwan Tourism Bureau has tackled is positioning the country as a cycling destination for travelers from around the world. Touting the hundreds of miles of coastal roads, bike paths, stretches of rural tarmac, and welcoming nature of the people has been their primary focus.There are even bike-friendly hotels and restaurants. One such establishment, Yoho Hotel, allows guests to pedal into the lobby and provides "Bike Spa" services to get your bike in shape for the next ride.
The tourism bureau has also catered to the professional cycling circuit by hosting its first ever major world race in November, the Taiwan Cup. Some of the world's top teams from Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, the Ukraine, the U.S. and more battled it out in the emerald colored valleys and on the rugged coastline. The race received press globally and generated serious excitement in the host city of Hualien. All this was in an effort to bring legitimacy to Taiwanese cycling opportunities.
By easing the public into cycling through improved infrastructure, with user friendly rental programs such as U-Bike, and by promoting bike tourism, Taiwan has created a recipe for success that has worked particularly well there. The island has been rewarded for its focused execution with a cycling culture which is growing steadily and thriving in a region relying heavily on the modern travel modes of the 21st century. Whether the Taiwanese will be taking to the streets on bikes decades from now is hard to say. The survival of this culture will most likely rely heavily on the continued support the government has given it. From the looks of their efforts to date, though, things should keep rolling along happily on two wheels for some time.