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Kaohsiung MRT needs a re-think

Take a ride on the Kaohsiung MRT and you'll likely be impressed with how modern, clean and generally efficient the system seems. Another thing you might notice is the lack of passengers. During the original bidding process for MRT construction projects back in 1999, the Kaohsiung City government estimated that by the end of 2010, the daily transport volume would reach 560,000 riders. The reality however has been much different. Now well past the first half of 2010, only 124,000 people are using the subway daily. Unless something is done to significantly boost the daily transportation volume, the Kaohsiung MRT system will continue to hemorrhage money. Currently the Kaohsiung MRT is close to NT$6 billion the red, and a recent report authored by members of the Control Yuan predicted that number will soon hit NT$7 billion.

Some have blamed corruption or mismanagement for the Kaohsiung MRT system's woes, but let's look beyond that for a moment. Despite whatever mismanagement may have occurred there's no getting around the lack of riders. The Kaohsiung MRT currently has only two lines, meaning much of the city is not located near an MRT station. But, if ridership figures on the first two lines can't be improved, budget issues might stymie efforts to continue construction with other planned lines.

To be an attractive option, it must be easier and cheaper to take public transportation than it is to drive a vehicle. This is not the case in Kaohsiung. Due to decades of almost non-existent public transport options, much of central and southern Taiwan developed a car and motorcycle culture. Kaohsiung City is not as large as Taipei but areas are also not as concentrated and distances between points of interest can be quite far. Kaohsiung — except for a few central downtown spots — still has plenty of space to accommodate parked cars and motorcycles. If people can literally park their cars 10 feet from their desired destination without too much hassle, there really isn't much motivation to take the subway. Motorcycles and scooters are an attractive option in southern Taiwan as the weather is generally dry, they are cheap to operate and illegal parking is often tolerated.

Of course Taipei City shared this culture before the completion of its MRT system, but a crackdown on motorcycle parking in particular greatly contributed to its change. In many areas of Taipei, finding a spot to park a scooter is very difficult. Legal parking requires a fee and illegally parked motorbikes are quickly snatched up by tow trucks. All this adds up to a single point: It's a hassle to drive your car or motorcycle in Taipei City. The desire to avoid hassle is a great motivator. It's hard to see how the Kaohsiung MRT system plans to double or triple its passenger volume when it's easier to ride a scooter or drive a car.

Kaohsiung City authorities need to re-think their strategy. Offering group discounts, special offers for tourists or other promotions might lead to a small uptick in ridership, but for the Kaohsiung MRT system to become successful, a citywide "cultural" change is required. The city may have to consider building parking areas near certain MRT stations to encourage people to "park and ride," as well as limiting parking availability at some busier locations while clamping down on illegally parked motorcycles and scooters. Another element is education. Campaigns touting the efficiency, affordability, environmental-friendliness and speed of public transportation need to be mounted to educate the general public.

These campaigns should be specifically crafted to appeal to young people. By focusing on the next generation, Kaohsiung may be able to change the mindset of its residents and help usher in a new era of confidence in public transportation.

1 Comment
September 23, 2010    dtayl@
Currently the public is paying to subsidize private transportation, creating the false economy that makes driving appear cheaper than public transportation:

- There's no such thing as "free" parking. Parking uses public real estate. It's particularly wasteful when the city constructs fashionable pedestrian arteries, then allows them to be rapidly disintegrated by motorcycle traffic. The Transportation Bureau claims "restricting motorcycle parking areas and strengthening violation enforcement" as part of its strategy to encourage motorcyclists to switch to the public transportation system. Yet it is difficult to find evidence on the streets to support that claim.

- When the state-owned petrol companies slightly hiked fuel prices in August, they admitted "domestic fuel prices were still the lowest among the nation’s neighboring countries". That means the Taiwan public is burdened by the region's heaviest fuel subsidy, a severe drain on the budget. OCBC Bank reports that Taiwan subsidies are estimated to be around 0.4 per cent of GDP. It is largely a public subsidy of the wealthy, as they are the biggest fuel users. And cheap gas encourages wasteful consumption.

- And in a land with public health insurance, let's not forget to factor in the public health costs of vehicle emissions and traffic accidents.

When all these subsidies are reduced or scrapped, and drivers start paying the actual cost of their transportation, the economic change will induce the cultural change far faster than any educational campaign. Such measures undoubtedly require the political will for actions that will be unpopular with the majority. But given Kaohsiung's clash between its vision of a modern green city and its reality as a regional nadir of wild unruly traffic, time may be running out.
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