Feeling the Traffic

A long-time Japanese expatriate friend of mine once told me, when I first moved to Taiwan “the traffic culture is not like in Japan. You have to stay aware of your surroundings, otherwise you might get hit. But, after you get used to it, it’s kind of fun.”

I understand now. I started commuting by bicycle a few months ago. I live a 20-minute bike ride away from the office, and I have made my bike commutes more frequent.

When I first got to Taiwan, it seemed to me very dangerous. I saw people almost getting hit, and almost got hit myself.

I can attribute to both parties almost involved not paying attention, and the latter to my lack of understanding of the driving culture in Taiwan. But now, when I bike to work, I am both paying attention and also have a grasp of driving culture.

Gradually getting used to the environment and what to pay attention to, I no longer had any issues.

When riding in a taxi with a visitor from the States, he said to me “it’s scary how the scooters weave in and out of traffic suddenly.” I knew then than I was adapting, because it no longer seemed to me that they were so sudden. I could anticipate what they were trying to to, and their movements no longer seemed sudden, but seemed to flow.

Now, I flow. I know that the motorcyclists can’t hear me on my bicycle, so I yell if they get too close. I know that cars do not expect me to be riding so fast, so I am cautious when cars are about to turn in. Before I change my line, I look to see if there is someone approaching from behind, and often this action is enough to signal my intent, and the traffic opens for me. I use hand signals to point where I want to go, and traffic opens for me. I can accelerate out of a light faster than the motorcycles for a couple dozen meters, so that by the time the motorcyclists try to pass me, we are already going 20kph.

I avoid stupid stuff like competing for the inside line against a car that is about to make a right turn, or trying to take a curbside line against a bus that is ahead of me about to make a stop, though I often see motorcyclists taking these risks. In dense traffic, I can move faster than cars. In gridlocked traffic, I can slip into spaced that the motorcycles can’t. In Japan, they would call this 車の間を縫って行く, which is “sewing a line through traffic”

The road is so crowded, but there is plenty of space to move, just like fabric is solid, but there is plenty of room for the needle to pass through.

And sometimes, if I haven’t ridden my bike to the office, I’ll rent one of the bright yellow-orange uBikes that are maintained by the city, and take a leisurely ride home. The traffic expects be to be slow, so they give me wide berth when passing. I used to hate the traffic, but I’ve discovered a certain set of rules that make sense.

Road rage is so rare – I’ve only seen a man get out of his car once, and it was to say something, and he got back in. Somehow, people are generally interacting with each other as people even on the road, and generally driving with awareness.

I saw a man cross the street today, and a car slowed to make a right turn where he was crossing. Pedestrians don’t necessarily have right of way in this case. If the two had continued, they would have collided. The pedestrian stepped back. The car stopped. The pedestrian bent a little to look into the car, made eye contact with the driver, nodded thanks, and crossed the street.

Today, I was going against the traffic on a one-way road. A cyclist unlocked his bike, and was about to turn into traffic. I slowed in case he didn’t see me. Before turning into traffic, through, he did look my way and see me. He yielded. “Thanks!” I said. “But careful – your kickstand is down.” He looked. “Oh, thanks!” he said.

But, accidents are frequent. I saw a burned-out taxi at the intersection of Tunhua and Keelung not two months ago, and a week ago I saw a motorcyclist sitting on the curbside at the exit of a parking lot in Sikkho Technology Park with an ambulance close by. There is an ambiguous traffic light arrangement there, and I have seen a couple near-misses there. Traffic lights are for reference. They might be ignored or misinterpreted. One still has to be careful.

In Japan, the intersection would have been designed better, or someone would have reported the danger to the city, and it may have been fixed. But there are limits to making things safe. It is possible to make things too safe, such that people lose awareness of their surroundings and become more prone to certain accidents. For example, the sidewalks in Taiwan are uneven, but people adapt to walking on them. The sidewalks in Japan are very even, but people adapt to them, too. The wife of a friend (who is in her mid-eighties) was walking recently where she could not see well, there was an unevenness of pavement that in Taiwan people wouldn’t even notice. She mis-stepped and sprained her ankle.

The author 内田樹 in 修業論 describes the necessity for cleanliness in the dojo as a means for increasing one’s awareness of thing. There being reduced of stimulus in the environment, one can attuned more to fine variations in the stimulus that is present during practice. One can increase ones sensitivity. But, in a way, sensitivity is also fragility. By reducing variation in the environment, the people living in that environment become more prone to injury when there is a change in the environment. Whereas Taiwan, because of high variability, trains people to take uneven pavement into stride, both figuratively and actually so.

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