This spring, Taiwan became the first in Asia to start a bike-sharing program in its two major cities, Taipei and Kaohsiung. Looking to spin the lush island's yin for cycling into a way to reduce pollution, the Taiwanese government launched the service hoping commuters will ditch their cars and start using the thousands of rental bikes it has stationed around the two urban centers to get to work. "Cycling is a great way to unwind after work," says Horace Lee, a corporate planning associate at the Taipei Stock Exchange. "I cycle around the neighborhood just for fun before I hop on the metro."
The green bikes project is one of several green initiatives that Taipei has started in recent years in an effort to reign in the island's enduring emissions problem. Kaohsiung, an industrial port city with some of the worst air in Asia, unveiled its program on March 1 with an initial trial of 4500 bikes at 20 different stations. The government ultimately hopes to install 120 stations around the city. In crowded Taipei, notorious for its streets clogged with aggressive drivers, bike rentals have been limited to its newest and safest business district, Hsinyi, where 500 bikes were stationed during a recent six-week trial period. During that time, 20,000 users in the zone rode for free. (See the top 10 green stories of 2008.)
Though one of the more environmentally pro-active places in Asia Taipei has reduced air pollutants over 30% in the last decade the island still has a long way to go. Taiwan's per capita carbon dioxide emissions are three times the global average, and they're growing faster than any country in the world. President Ma Ying-jeou set an ambitious goal to decrease emissions to half of 2000 levels by 2050, but critics say his goal of maintaining 2008 levels is a bit flimsy, and programs like bike sharing are more style than substance. "In Taiwan, the economy is still first," says Liu Chung-ming, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences at National Taiwan University. "The [Environmental Protection Administration] has done a lot of promotion, but when it comes to real emission reduction, it's a total failure." (See a graphic of the effects of climate change on the world by 2020.)
Still, Taiwan's past efforts to clean up its act have not been unsuccessful. As the mayor of Taipei, Ma introduced a recycling program in 2000 which has helped the city has reduce its trash output by 55%. With a little monetary incentive people get fined $145 for not complying and the required bags for non-recyclable trash cost more than for recyclables residents of the capital have become efficient organizers of their trash. In 2006, Taiwan was also one of the first countries to stop giving away plastic bags. Stores charge a dime or more for one, a policy which is credited with saving 2 billion plastic bags a year.
Last semester, 45 elementary and junior high schools across Taiwan also promoted walking to school as a way to improve the environment and personal health. Taipei's Xinglong Elementary School had remarkable results: 87% of its 1000 students and 60 teachers now walk to school, and as a side benefit, many have lost weight. The faculty lost a total of 220 pounds (100 kgs), and overweight students lost an average of 0.4 BMI in just three months. "Now I walk everywhere," says Shih Chen-ming, a school superintendant who lost 44 pounds (20 kgs) in six months. "I'm happier, more relaxed, and enjoy the extra time to think." And since most parents stopped giving their kids a ride, motorcycle traffic has been reduced to a fourth its prior rate.
So far, Ma's attempt to turn Taiwan into a "Cycling Paradise" has also proven to be a popular gimmick. How much staying power bike riding and walking to work and school will have in the long-term if the island's pollution continues to get worse remains to be seen. That may be the problem that Ma will need put some real muscle into.