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Interview: MOTC Minister Mao Chi-kuo

Making the Station the Destination


As highway service areas offer the amenities of shopping malls and holidaymakers ride "cruise-style trains," transport services are no longer a means to get from point A to point B – they've become recreational draws in themselves.



Making the Station the Destination

By Yueh-lin Ma, Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 501 )

Once a week, Minister of Transportation and Communications Mao Chi-kuo and his entourage depart his home at 6:45 a.m. and board the 253 bus to head for the office; at quitting time, they return home via the 671 bus.

Over the years, Mao has found that while Taiwan's land, air and sea transport offerings are user-friendly and public usage is gradually increasing, only about 13 percent of the public regularly avail themselves of public transport services. He aims to make Taiwan's public transport more "competitive": more accessible, more substantive and more diverse.

His goal is to increase ridership on Taiwan's public transport to 30 percent by 2025. How does he intend to more than double ridership from 13 percent to 30 percent? Following are highlights from a CommonWealth Magazine interview with Minister Mao:

When we used to teach about transportation in school, the first thing that came up was this: Transportation is a sort of derivative demand; transport is a means to an end – for example, to get to work, get to school, take a trip, visit with friends and family, etc.

But what we've been doing over the past several years has been transforming the strictly utilitarian, derivative value of transport services into a more substantive value that allows people to actually enjoy this service. We've been taking the means-to-an-end and making it into the end-in-itself.

You could say this had been a "qualitative change."

To realize this sort of transformation, the service itself must be more meaningful and diverse if it is to achieve this kind of higher added-value.

For instance, service areas along the freeways were originally strictly utilitarian, for taking a break, using the rest rooms, but now there are many people that go there to spend the day, like a tourist destination.

Additionally, Taiwan’s railways have undergone many changes of late.

Train stations were once just places to catch a train, but now they’ve become destinations in their own right. They’ve become gathering points in city centers. We've made them thematic: they're marketing centers for local specialities, food and beverage centers, or shopping areas.

Many TRA services have also begun to diversify.

An example is the cruise-style trains. In the past people just waited for trains. Now the train takes you somewhere, you get off and enjoy yourself for a while and then get back on. The function and meaning of railroad transport has totally changed.

The easiest example of this is in Sanyi (in Miaoli County). Everybody's going there to ride the old trains. "Taking the train" itself has become the purpose of the journey.

And then there's the facelift we've given to the 29 stations along the Hualian-Taidong line, putting the unique characteristics of each into play. The stations are no longer merely train stations – they've become service areas for tourists.

Along the East Coast we've also launched services aimed at bicyclists, so stations along those lines have become a sort of relay station for bicyclists. For the future, we're even preparing to offer showering facilities.

Eschewing Driving Once a Month

Behind this push for "qualitative change" lies our primary intellectual consideration over the past several years: "saving energy and cutting emissions for a sustainable environment."

In a survey two years ago, we found that ridership levels of Taiwan's public transport – our market share, if you will – was just 13 percent, and that currently stands at only around 14 percent. Ridership is highest in Taipei and New Taipei cities, but even there it doesn't exceed 40 percent, and in many areas it's just five percent.

As a result, starting two years ago, we began to push for a "public transport reconstruction movement," seeking an annual budget of NT$5 billion from the Executive Yuan and slowly building from there.

We set to work from two angles:

The first is sort of metaphysical – a philosophical appeal, combined with real-world experience that would make a certain group of folks more self-aware. For example, at the Ministry of Transportation and Communications we began to promote the idea of not driving once a month. For me, it's once a week that I forgo the official car and take the bus.

The second method is more physical and tangible. Most people need to feel the convenience. There's an actual choice involved in whether to drive or take the bus. The public's decision about whether to take public transport is going to be based on whether they feel it's advantageous to do so.

It's here that a lot of improvement is needed. Are the bus routes extensive enough? How far is the walk to the nearest bus stop? And secondly, what about frequency? Do buses come often enough?

Then there's the issue of connections. Seamless connections in travel are very important. How far is it from the transfer station to the point of disembarkation? This is a question of spatial seamlessness. Then there's the issue of chronological seamlessness, whether each run links up smoothly with another. The timing of high-speed rail trains has to be synchronized with the arrival/departure of buses, and the timing also has to be adjusted to mesh with TRA trains. Over the past several years this has been largely accomplished.

We've also launched "universal" stored-value transit cards so that card reading machines are compatible system-wide. As a result, cards used in the south can also be used up north and vice-versa. Right now, about 10 percent of ridership in Taipei is done on cards from elsewhere.

Over the past two years, we've been working hard – by raising diversity, quality, convenience and added-value – to transform transportation services, which originally had only utilitarian value, and give them inherent value.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kenned