Taiwan: Scooters and Rescuing American Cities

This is the fifth installment in a series of essays by jet-setter Jordan Barber, who is currently studying Mandarin at Donghai University in Taichung, Taiwan. While scooters are seldom seen in the states, Jordan argues that adopting this efficient mode of transportation could help revitalize the current state of the American metropolis.

In preparation for midterms, I’ve kai yeche (a colloquialism translated as “to drive the night car,” like burning the midnight oil) all week. In Mandarin, there’s a four-character idiom for many situations. I recently learned jian si bu jiu, which means “to see someone in mortal danger and not do anything.” Apparently that happens enough to justify its own idiom.

Now that my work week is over, I’ve stopped driving my night car and taken to relaxing. While doing so, I’ve thought about things I do in Taiwan that I would never do in the U.S. At the top of my list: I would never buy motorcycle or scooter in the States, but in Taiwan, I would totally go for it. I even looked them up on Craigslist the other day. It has become a serious temptation.

Many factors play into the Asian scooter phenomenon. Most people live in cities, so scooters are more practical than cars because of their size. They’re also extraordinarily cheap here. I could buy a fine scooter for about $250 USD. Putting those factors together, scooters are by far the easiest way to get around places like Taiwan. While I’m sweating and walking with my backpack, there are scooters everywhere weaving in and out of traffic, sidewalks, and pedestrians.

I also thought about what it would be like to have a scooter in the U.S., or, further, what if everyone in the U.S. had a scooter. To put it modestly, I believe that it would revitalize America’s urban centers. Consider how it works in Taiwan. First, just about everyone in the city drives a scooter. There are lots of cars too, but since scooters are so cheap you can have both—one for short distances and one for longer trips. In addition, scooters take up one-fourth the space of a car; imagine that suddenly all parking lots had three more spaces for every one already in place. They’re also electric, reducing general air pollution and making urban centers far more livable. Finally, they allow for less congestion and faster traffic movement because they’re easier to guide through tight spaces. There can be several in one lane at a time. In Taiwan, only the cars stop because the scooters have superior maneuverability.

Suburbia doesn’t really exist here; people who live in a major city actually live in the urban center. If you work in Taichung, you don’t need to commute every morning from outside city limits. When the typical stress of navigating an urban center is removed, urban dwelling becomes more appealing. No parking hassles or fees, no stop-and-go traffic. It seems so easy.

Why doesn’t the scooter phenomenon exist in the U.S.? First, I would say that large scooter populations flourish in smaller, developed countries, like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. It might be that the American lifestyle simply doesn’t coexist well with scooters because we traditionally like our cars big and safe. Most of us also live in suburbs, with long commutes and highways.

But I don’t think that means scooters will never be an option. If more people preferred scooters, there would be less inclination for suburban sprawl, and cities would condense with an increasing demand for proximity.

Perhaps it’s the American concept of masculinity (a topic I’ll cover next week), or the American concept of safety, which are both fundamentally different than the East Asian ideals I’ve seen—although motorcycles are always an option in case any men feel a little awkward riding a scooter. In America where scooters are rare, they seem more conspicuous. I’ve gotten used to them in Taiwan, but I did give scooter-riders judgmental glares back in the States. Against the Hummers and Range Rovers, they’re a bit like toys. But in Taiwan, they’re so normal that I’ve actually started to think of them as cool. I mean, really cool. I also like the motorcycles here, the grungier, the better. I want the dirtiest smoke-speweing piece of junk in town, like a badass action movie anti-hero.

That sounds an awful lot like American machismo, doesn’t it? Then maybe this idea isn’t so ridiculous after all.

Read more from Taiwan.

Jordan Barber is proud that the internet allows him to criticize, admonish, and irritate people from his own living room. And though this immense power only comes to the few, he promises to wield his hammer of judgment with a standoffish, thoughtful outlook.