Roads in Taiwan are somewhat of a free-for-all, particularly in the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods on the outskirts of Taipei where I do a lot of driving. Hello, Sanchong. Major highways to city blocks to back alleys are crowded with heavy traffic, borderline anarchic drivers, and a random assortment of obstacles that even the most careful driver is hard-pressed to avoid. I’ve had my share of near misses, though I’ve yet to actually hit anything. I mean, unless you count the time I drove into a post on the sidewalk meant to prevent people from driving on the sidewalk.
Taiwan’s roads might appear lawless, but there actually is an orderly flow to traffic that most people somehow understand and take in stride. Who am I to interrupt things by stopping at a red light or making a two point left turn? Just kidding, but my reflexes aren’t. While the de facto rules of the road are quite similar to any in America, the traffic conditions are vastly different – it’d be unthinkable that a few regulations not go to pot when some 15 million motorbikes are factored into the mix, along with any number of these hazards:
Blue trucks of death: Taiwan has countless small pickup trucks, many boxed, all painted blue, and all my personal worst enemy. They’re usually driven by construction workers wired on the nut and Taiwan beer, and smoking cigarettes. I’ve had countless close calls with these blue death traps, because they’re small enough to weave in and out of the bike lanes to gain a few car lengths and brash enough to bump a few scooters aside to do it.
Taike: Gangsters and their henchmen, and even wannabe gangsters, should be avoided at all costs. I’ve seen enough of these guys in my neighborhood to easily identify them now, and I give wide berth to large black vehicles or late model scooters pimped out with LED lights. They drive like maniacs, plus you just never know with lawless, helmet-less sorts. Also, taike are a solid nine on the creeper scale. I can’t count how many times a muffler-less bike has pulled up next to me at an intersection and, instead of blowing through the red-light per taike driving etiquette, the rider actually stopped – to gawk at the white girl invading their hood. I’m pretty sure my foreign face would act as a deterrent were I ever to have an issue with one of these guys, but I’d rather not find out.
Miaohui: Since most god parades are organized by above-mentioned gangsters, it’s wise to stop and wait for the dancing pagans to pass by or to just choose another route. Miaohui might last a while, and who knows what sort of reaction you’d provoke by zooming around the procession in an attempt to get to the front. There’s also a strong possibility you might drive into a fireworks display in the middle of the road, since temple workers don’t much care where they strew boxes of roman candles and long red lines of firecrackers.
Funeral processions: This is another event that one would be wise to avoid driving through, especially since 70% of Taiwanese funerals hire strippers and you’d be liable to drive into something while you were watching the spectacle. Plus, it’s just plain rude to crash someone’s death parade and, if my Taiwanese friend is to be believed, terrible fortune and bad favor from the gods.
Tented events: Some are funerals as well; others are temple fairs or rallies or who even knows what. I’ll be driving down the street, usually a smaller back one, when I suddenly run smack up against a large tent obstructing more than half the road’s width for a half block or so. Not gonna lie, a time or two they’ve come up so suddenly that I’ve been unable to slow down and swing out into the opposing lane past the tent, and instead had to zip along the inside wall of the tent and out the other end. I considered grabbing a chicken leg off a table of food one time as I blasted past, but fortunately I realized that it was an offering to the temple gods watching me tear up their temporary residence.
Garbage trucks: It’s not so much the trucks that I need to worry about. These not only move at a snail’s pace, they also play classical music to alert me to their presence on the road. No, it’s more the people who come flying out of doorways and alleys and from behind parked cars with bags of garbage and recycling. They won’t let a scooter come between them and tossing their trash, so I constantly have to watch out that I don’t mow down some little old lady standing in the middle of the road flagging down the truck with her bag of vegetable scraps.
Freelance recyclers: I’ve seen these guys roam expressways and small lanes looking for scraps of recycling to pile on their wheeled contraptions and drag around town. Another part of Taiwan’s terrific trash tribe, they tend to be of the older generations and moonlight their way around the city as garbage pickers who sell their findings back to the city for cash. They’re dicey to drive around because in spite of their geriatric pace they make unpredictable maneuvers into moving traffic.
Roadwork: Well, duh, you’re thinking, that’s an obvious one. But it’s worth mentioning because road construction in Taiwan manages to scare the crap out of me every. single. time. I’ll be driving along and see a crane or whatever ahead and maybe slow it down a bit, and then almost drive off the road when I see robotic mannequin dressed in high visibility gear and waving glowsticks. These figures are so lifelike it’s not until I’m almost on top of them that I realize they’re robots, and without fail I lose my cool for the next twelve blocks.
Stray dogs: In Sanchong, where I live, there are mutts running around everywhere. They may or may not belong to someone, and are no trouble at all to the general public, but they do randomly appear in front of my bike or dash across the street with no warning. I’ve swerved more times than I can count trying to avoid toasting these buggers.
Election demonstrations: For whatever reason, whether tradition or lack of common sense, it’s quite popular to hold election rallies (and set oneself up as an easy target) in the middle of the road. Should you happen upon an opposition candidate, you could easily putter past shouting insults and then burn out of there. And heaven only help should you inadvertently end up in the middle of a scooter brigade demonstrating through the district in support of some candidate. Never fear, these crews are easy to spot beforehand, since the bikes cluster up and trail flags and banners and there’s usually some guy yelling into a megaphone.
Tissue hander-outers: Were I ever so inclined to accept all proffered packs of tissues overlaid with various advertisements, I’d not have to buy TP for a year. These sorts usually lie in wait on street corners with stoplights so they’ll have a captive crowd on which to ply their flyers and freebies. They’re most definitely not the greatest at timing the red lights, though, and often just as I’m about to turn my throttle and peel away, one of them jumps in front of my bike and waves an ad in my face. Flower sellers also make the grade with this one.
Betelnut spitters: This is nothing like China’s culture of spit, and through I would once have claimed that no excuse on earth justifies hacking up a loogie and hocking it whenever and wherever you please, I guess a mouth full of red betelnut juice is an exception. These guys are generally careful about where they spit, and usually try to aim for a sewer or into a cup. But what’s a guy to do when he’s got both hands on the throttle and brakes of a scooter? I despise driving next to an old geezer hopped up on the nut who decides to let fly with a mouthful as he’s whizzing down the road.
Food vendors: These are generally carts, some with motors and some without, that have the ability to sell fruit, roast nuts and sweet potatoes, steam buns, and cook bowls of noodles and random animal parts. They park on curbs around the city to hawk breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I make full use of their drive-up services, but trouble starts when they bang up and start hauling those rattletraps home. The motorized ones rarely go above 10mph, the pushcarts cut back and forth across city blocks without warning, and I’m sure I’ve never seen one with a light on it. PS, driving through a night market? The first time I made it through one without accidentally bumping someone… well, I’ll let you know when it happens.
Cameras: Well, of course you should worry about getting a letter in the mail with a terribly unglamorous photo of yourself and your license plate. That’s how I was nailed for my first speeding ticket. What’s more dangerous than driving in an area where you’re unaware of existing cameras, though, is driving among people knowledgable that big brother is watching and then squeeze the brakes with little warning in order to suddenly conform to the posted speed limit. If you’re not alert, you’ll ride right up the back of another bike.
Shade stops: Hey, the tropical sun is hot. To execute a proper shade stop, you must be approaching a red light or a light about to turn red and then, upon realizing that the area you would normally stop is in direct sunlight, pull over into the nearest patch of shadows along the curb until the light turns green. Fellow motorists who dread skin a shade beyond lily-white will join you until a large group of bikes blocks anyone getting past the shade of trees or buildings and through to the front of the pack.
Buses: Though they’re equipped with side lights to let you know they’ll be pulling over, it’s still anyone’s guess as to when a bus will cut full-speed into the next lane to make it over to the bus stop in time. Also, much as in China, the biggest vehicle in sight holds the trump card, purely thanks to its ability to muscle others out of the way. buses pretty much top the peck in border, which goes something like this in Taiwan: Bus > truck > gangster vehicle > taxi > police car > normal car > motorcycle > scooter > bicycle > pedestrian.
Taxis: Also worth a mention, as I’ve personally almost been taken out twice by these idiots. In fact, the only time I’ve ever seen a hint of road rage here is when one of my Taiwanese friends flipped the bird at a taxi driver who almost ran us up the curb while we were driving through Taipei on his scooter. And rightly so, because these guys will stop at nothing, including murder, to collect Ayi and her fare from the opposite side of the street.
Cyclists: I’ve been on this end quite often myself, so I know where these guys are coming from. I can attest that bicycle riders consider themselves more or less free from all rules of the road, and blow through intersections or veer into traffic from time to time. The thing about cyclists is that they move more slowly than scooter riders, and the latter need to be careful when overtaking a guy pedaling his way across town.
Pedestrians: On the road, you may ask? But a lot of Taiwan is tiny little back alleys that have no sidewalks. And a lot more of Taiwan is nice roads with sidewalks that double as car and scooter lots, and are jam-packed with street vendors and chess players and vegetable sellers and hell money fires and motorcycle mechanics, forcing pedestrians into the street. Scooterists also utilize sidewalks as righthand passing lanes, a driving technique that lends itself to high-speed window shopping and, taken a step further, to the possibility of nationwide drive-thru 7-11s.
Scooters: Size relegates them low on the totem pole, sure, but for the same reason, scooters are able to drive just about anywhere: between lanes of traffic going any speed, on the sidewalks, to the front of traffic jams, and around these many various obstacles. My fellow scooterists run the gamut from helmet-less youths with a death wish to moms with three kids piled on to grizzled grandpas able to lane-split with the best of them. I’ve learned a few hard and fast rules apply when you ride in this category.
-If you believe, you can achieve: When I got a Costco membership last year I quickly discovered that there is no limit to the amount of schtuff you can pile on a scooter and still make it down the road at a reasonable clip. I’ve seen families of four plus the dog and five bags of groceries on one bike; two construction workers each holding a canister of plaster with two roped on and back and one nestled in between the driver’s feet; any assortment of loose pets that may or may not jump off and run around at red lights; a guy with at least two hundred cabbages hanging in plastic bags off every side of his ride; people driving with one hand while balancing a bicycle on the back; and many more situations of clown car caliber.
-Red light? Proceed with caution, for unless you’re in a major city these are merely suggestions. Slow down, look eight ways, and proceed through the intersection once you’ve confirmed there is no cross traffic or any cameras (devilish laughter is optional). It’s also illegal to turn right on red, so be sure to slow down and check for cops before busting a right.
-Make gangster lefts: After eighteen months of careful observation, I realize I was played the fool when I got my first ticket for making a left turn. Scooters cannot legally hang a louie at major intersections, but instead must proceed to the marked scooter box which is in front of cross traffic stopped at the red light. Turns out there’s a much more effective and sneaky way to complete the maneuver, which can take an eternity should you approach at a red light, wait for it to change, and then have to wait in the box for the crosslight to change too. It’s much easier to morph into a cyclist for the time it takes you to zip over the crosswalk to your left and then wait for a break in traffic to u-turn.
-Dress to impress: Whether it’s a jacket worn unzipped and backward to ensure maximum wind flow or a fabric mask that covers your mouth, neck, and shoulders, you must be properly attired if you’re a true Taiwanese scooterist. It’s well worth your while to attach oven mitts to your handlebars to protect your hands from undesirable weather and to invest in long socks to cover your arms. Anything kitschy is appropriate, though I believe there are bonus points for Hello Kitty. The only contribution I’ve made toward looking stylish on my bike is a helmet, which happens to be required gear in my part of the country. Oh, and I also wear my old face mask from China when it’s cold… oh my word, I’m turning Taiwanese.
-Honk that horn: Horns are rarely honked maliciously or in retaliation. Rather, they’re tapped as a courtesy, just to let others know you’re blowing through an intersection five seconds after the light turned red or that you’re passing and nobody better get in the way. Doesn’t matter whether you’re huandao-ing Taiwan or riding two minutes down your block for dumpling; use your horn to announce your presence when turning corners, blowing through night markets, and passing through all yellow and red lights.
It didn’t take long for me to adjust my riding modus operandi to survive and thrive. My scooter is for me, as most people’s are to them, an essential part of daily life, and dodging kamikaze drivers and weaving around temples gods is all part of it. I ride a fine line between aggressive and defensive driving, and have mastered split-second reactions to all the vehicles and people and oddities I encounter in the hubbub of Taiwanese traffic.