Taipei is almost flat. At least the parts in which most people live, work and play.
Furthermore, many major thoroughfares have designated bicycle lanes separating them from motorized vehicles, while minor roads offer quiet, sometimes leafy alternatives. There are also over 200km of riverside bike paths connecting the downtown with places as distant as Tamsui, Keelung, Muzha, Xindian, Yingge and Bali.
Less than five percent of all journeys in the capital are undertaken by bicycle, however.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
“And this proportion is falling,” says Chan Kai-sheng (詹凱盛), founder of the non-profit Taiwan Urban Bicycle Alliance (台灣城市單車聯盟; TUBA).
Chan thinks this may be due to stagnation in developing cycling infrastructure over recent years, since cycle use tends to increase whenever more bike paths are built and YouBike stations are opened, before falling off again.
Chan founded TUBA in 2016 with fellow bike enthusiast Chen Pu (陳濮). Both men had newborn children, and Chen had quit his job to become a stay-at-home dad.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
“Helping improve the urban environment for my son to grow up in seemed essential,” Chan says.
Wanting to influence fellow citizens to make more journeys by bicycle yet knowing constructing bike paths was beyond their ability, they hit on offering free coffee to commuters who used bikes. In the spring of 2016 they set up a roadside stall in Neihu District (內湖) and distributed hot beverages once a month.
Other cycling friends volunteered their time, and by September of the same year they had stalls in six locations, Chan says, each giving out about 60 to 80 cups.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
This attracted the attention of the Taipei City Government, and TUBA was invited to tender a bid for financial support. Thus Cycle Commuting Day (單車通勤日) was launched in November 2016 with the English slogan “Bike Friday — Free Coffee — Free Yourself.” Now with a budget of over NT$2 million, it has spread to 15 sites across the city and has became a weekly event.
“Friends have also taken the concept to Kaohsiung and Nantou,” says Chan, albeit only with one stall in each city at present.
“The city government insisted we stop supplying paper cups though,” says Chen, admitting that this made environmental sense.
TUBA’s volunteers are also asked to carry out a survey of both customers and other passing cyclists, which is fed into the administration’s transportation statistics.
So now, anyone turning up on a bike and bringing their own receptacle can get a free cup of coffee between 7:30am and 9:30am every Friday from Gongguan in the southeast to Beitou in the north.
“So long as they’re early enough,” says Chuang Hao (莊祥浩), a volunteer at the intersection of Taipei’s Fuxing (復興) and Xinyi (信義) roads. “We’ve become so popular that the coffee often runs out by 8:30am.”
“We’ll still issue stamps,” adds Srisakul Chaichuum, a Bio-engineering PhD student from Bangkok who co-runs the stall, referring to the repeat-use cards that can be exchanged for branded caps and badges.
She says she likes cycling up hills — or did so until breaking her collarbone descending from Yangmingshan two months ago; Chuang’s hobby is off-road biking, most often on forest trails in Yilan County.
Like most TUBA volunteers, both have strong social media followings, which they use to promote the event. Naturally, all volunteers are keen cyclists, and several work in the bicycle trade. They are a good source of information about routes, products and sales, therefore.
Tsai Bing-heng (蔡秉衡) from the stall at Songjiang-Nanjing, for example, works for Woho, a manufacturer of panniers and other bike-packing systems. This dovetails nicely with his passion for cycle touring.
Similarly, Cao Yao-wen (曹耀文) at Nanjing-Fuxing works in sales for high-end brands. He takes two or three months off each year to undertake long tours. Most memorable, he says, was setting off from China’s Xiamen, riding around that country, Mongolia, Laos and eventually down to Singapore.
Hsu Chia-ping (徐佳平), a cabin attendant for EVA Air, prefers commuting around Taipei by bike. With this year’s pandemic, however, she has more time to explore further afield.
If riding 960km around Taiwan’s coastline in two-and-a-bit days is on your bucket list, you could do worse than fall into conversation with Yu Wei-hsuan (余緯軒), who hands out coffees behind Taipei World Trade Center.
Or for a discussion of single-speed bikes and all things cool, get a coffee from Patty Chien (錢嘉芃) at the Renai-Yanji intersection. She and Lin Yu-sheng (林祐聖) both work at the nearby Rapha store, selling jerseys and other apparel to sartorial-minded cyclists.
Location of the stalls varies a little from month to month. For an up-to-date list, check out www.facebook.com/Grebic5 (Chinese only). This is also a good place to find TUBA’s other activities.
“Around 60 percent of our budget goes on Friday coffees,” says Chen.
The rest is spent organizing a variety of other events, such as bicycle flea markets in the spring and summer, parent-and-child cycling classes, a silent ride every May to remember cyclists killed on the roads. There was also a one-off day of criterium races in Dajia Riverside Park in 2018.
“We’d love to do that again, but cannot afford to,” says Chan, who races occasionally as well as doing touring, mountain biking and, pretty much every kind of cycling.
TUBA’s next event, beginning on Tuesday, is the Neihu Cyclist Passport. In an attempt to get more tech workers to commute by bike, a number of stores, restaurants and cafes in the district are offering discounts to cyclists for two weeks.
They also regularly sit down with officials from the city government, Chen says, to offer street-level suggestions to the high and mighty.
Speaking on Sunday at the 2020 Criteriums Taipei bike races held to inaugurate the new NT$18 million velodrome in the city’s Guanshan Riverside Park, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) pledged to make further developments of the cycling network the “last mile of the public transportation system.”
This will involve two major cycling projects over the next decade, he said: tripling the number of YouBike rental stations from 400 to 1,200, and constructing cycle paths on every road measuring 30m or more wide.
So maybe TUBA’s clarion call is being heard over at City Hall.
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