One of the joys of moving to a new place is always getting accustomed to finding one’s way around new roads – well, “joy” is the optimistic spin that I put on it as I try to find adventures when I get lost instead of frustration. I simply try to allot a little extra time for wandering astray of my destination and hope to accidentally stumble upon interesting things.
My first few weeks in Tainan have indeed led to some interesting navigational adventures. While Taipei streets have a lot of chaos at the fine scale, there is a grid of perpendicular streets that are pretty reliable. (A friend pointed out to me they even have systematic names based on essential virtues). After I started biking in Taipei, I only got really turned-about-lost a couple times, and usually it was more because I thought my destination was in a different location than it actually was, and not because I couldn’t figure out how to get there. When you’re navigating in Taipei, stick to the major virtues and you’re all set.
Alas, the rounds of differing growth, governance and city planning that Tainan has undergone outnumber Taipei’s – not to mention continuously changing landforms due to the alterations in the harbor. The resulting layout is understandably organic feeling by comparison to Taipei’s grid. (Compare Boston to New York.) Tainan features several roundabouts, some regions of radial streets, some regions of orthogonal, and of course a harbor and train tracks to keep things interesting. I realized that my period of “allow time for getting lost” may in fact be longer than I was expecting, considering that I keep mixing up things such as which traffic circle has which roads converging, which roads end up at a canal, which roads lead to the harbor, and which roads cross the train tracks instead of ending abruptly and turning into an impassable alleyway.
Yet the true adventure has been getting accustomed to the attitude of the road traffic. Years ago, when I was in Beijing, I learned a phrase in Chinese class that I’m going to whip out once more here: 亂中有序 (translation: in randomness there is order). Let me apologize in advance for anyone who is going to interact with me on a road when I first get back to the US as I am pretty sure that I am going to need an adjustment period. In southern Taiwan, there is only one true traffic rule:
Do not hit anything.
Everything else is treated as a “good faith” guideline.
This was also the case in Taipei, but to a much lesser extent. In Tainan, mopeds and bikes rule the road, instead of the omnipresent Taipei buses (which go literally everywhere). There is something personal about the way traffic moves here – and it probably has to do with the fact that the majority of people on the road can either easily reach over to shake hands or whack each other a good one, as required. The One Big Rule stipulates that as long as you’re cautious not to hit anything, and you have good reasons (ie. getting where you want to go) then everyone else on the road is fairly understanding if you need to break traffic rules. Generally one obeys red lights. Unless there isn’t anyone coming from the direction that has the green – in which case it’s okay to go. Just as it’s generally okay to go through a green light – but again as The Only Traffic Rule dictates, you should be careful because someone might be running the red and you don’t want to hit them. Left turns on a moped or a bike can be executed in whichever way doesn’t cause you to get in the way of too many other people. Lanes are suggestions of where you should be. Etc, etc, etc.
Of course, the result is that people are usually driving pretty slowly, and they’re always paying attention to all the people around them. Because there are only general expectations of how others will behave, the only way to know what they’re up to is by watching. And despite the randomness – I have yet to see an accident here, while I did see at least one every couple weeks while in Taipei. (As for the number of road accidents I witness in the US, it’s hard to compare. Also I’m pretty sure that looking up “reported” accidents will not reflect anything truly meaningful as far as how many accidents and what types occur.)
Why doesn’t everyone just follow the rules – the way it works in other places? Personally, I think it’s partially due to the fact that there are always going to be people on the roads here that don’t know the rules because they used these roads long before these rules were invented. And there is no way to win an argument with “well, I hit your great grandfather as he was slowly and obliviously pedaling down the street on a bicycle older than I am because he wasn’t obeying the traffic rules.”
The moral of the story of traffic in Tainan as I have witnessed it: every street might have a shambling grandmother trying to cross – so go slow enough to keep an eye out for her. And while you’re at it, don’t hit the moped going the wrong way down the street.