Transit notes from Taipei

The Taipei MRT. Photo by Jennifer, via Flickr creative commons.

A few readers have recently asked for more posts about transit in Asia, the home to some of the planet’s most used and advanced systems.

With that in mind, I wanted to share my experience with the Taipei Metro, also known as the MRT. I was raised in the ‘burbs of Southern California but also spent three years living in Taiwan. I now work at Metro and live in downtown Los Angeles — and still find myself nostalgic at times for certain aspects of Taipei’s MRT.

The Taipei MRT currently has about 65 miles of rail above and below ground and serves metropolitan Taipei, which has a population of about 6.9 million people. In comparison, Metro Rail has over 73 miles of track in L.A. County, which has a population of about 9.8 million. The Taipei MRT has about 1.6 million people taking its rail system on weekdays compared to the 300,000 or so who are estimated to take Metro Rail each day; Taipei is also much more densely populated than sprawling L.A. County.

A few comparisons between the MRT and our Metro:

EasyCard vs. TAP. In a word, the EasyCard is awesome. It’s essentially a travel debit card that you can load up at any station or many convenience stores, such as 7-11. It’s accepted on all MRT lines and all buses within Taipei County, and you can use it to pay for bike rentals and tickets to certain tourist attractions. When I left Taiwan, a few convenience stores were starting to accept EasyCard as a form of payment, and the list has since grown. If you buy an EasyCard, you also get a 20% discount on fares — a great incentive for getting an EasyCard. Hint, hint.

An RFID token. Photo by Mr. Wabu, via Flickr creative commons.

Radio Frequency Identification tokens vs. paper tickets. Why would I want a paper ticket when I can get a little blue poker chip? They’re only good for a single trip, so there’s no point in trying to steal them. Once you buy your chip, you wave it over the gate sensor to pass through the gates. At your destination, you drop the token into a slot at the gates to exit. I like this system much better than paper tickets because I don’t have to throw away little bits of paper after each trip (or worse, have them all pile up at the bottom of my bag). Even day passes aren’t sold as paper tickets in Taipei. Day passes are loaded onto smartcards printed with photos of iconic Taipei landmarks, so if you don’t feel like returning the card and getting the small deposit back, you can keep it as a souvenir.

Station Amenities. The Taipei rail system is relatively new — opening in 1996. Nearly all stations have restrooms, many have breastfeeding rooms and they’ve even designated special waiting zones for women who travel at night – these areas are under constant surveillance and have easily accessible emergency intercoms. Nothing makes a girl feel safer than having “big brother” on her side. While the logical part of me knows why we don’t have restrooms at L.A. Metro stops, I still wish we did every time I’m waiting for a train and nature calls. Quite a few stations are attached to malls or food courts, and most stations are also equipped with free WiFi. Plus, there are lights embedded into platforms that flash when trains are approaching, which is great for a zoned-out commuter.

A subway station on the Taipei MRT. Photo by David A. Villa, via Flickr creative commons.

Metro manners. Trains are super clean, thanks to the no open food/drink containers rule that is enforced the minute you enter a platform. I’ve even had a friend get reprimanded by a station attendant for chewing gum while waiting for a train (he had to spit it out at a nearby trash can). Now, L.A. stations are actually pretty good – I’ve heard horror stories about New York subways – but there just isn’t that overall sense of sparkle. Another big thing for me is the train boarding procedure: people on the trains get to exit before others get on. Busier stations even have designated lines to stand behind while waiting for passengers to get off the train. Of course, this isn’t something all train riders in Taiwan comply with, but it makes me happy that at least the ones who frequent the Taipei MRT have learned boarding etiquette.

Speed gates vs. turnstiles. Taipei has speed gates installed at all their MRT stations, and the little automatic doors slide open after scanning your EasyCard. In L.A., most Metro Rail stops have turnstile gates, and there’s no comparison: speed gates win hands down. I never have to worry about my shopping bags or luggage getting stuck in an errant turnstile spoke while I squeeze through, or detouring to the open ADA gate just so I don’t have to push a turnstile bar. (Never underestimate how lazy a human body can be.) Even though I’m glad Metro installed gates and has been testing locking them, I can’t help but wish that they had used speed gates instead.

The Taipei Metro map of rail stations. Click above for a larger image.

16 replies

  1. Thanks Anna!

    I’ll use this format to send Metro my observations of how public transit was in Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, and Tokyo.

  2. Please stop comparing County of Los Angeles as a city, there are 88 cities in the County so if you will do a comparison, compare City of Los Angeles to the City of Taipei.

  3. “While the logical part of me knows why we don’t have restrooms at L.A. Metro stops” – We Do! They are called ‘Elevators’ all the homeless already know about them!

  4. One thing that Anna forgot to mentioned was that as with most transit systems in Asia, the fares are distanced based so that short distance riders pays less and long distance riders pay more.

    According to Taipei’s Metro fare information http://english.trtc.com.tw/ct.asp?xItem=1056377&CtNode=49782&mp=122032

    A transit rider on the Number 1 line who got on at Liuzhangli and going to Songshan Airport pays:

    Single journey ticket: NT$ 25 (approx $0.82)
    EasyCard: discounted to NT$ 20 ($0.66); hence promoting more people to use the EasyCard
    Senior citizens/low income persons/children fares: NT$ 10 ($0.33)

    In contrast, a person travelling longer from Muzha station to Songshan Airport pays:

    Single journey ticket: NT$ 35 (approx $1.15)
    EasyCard: discounted to NT$ 28 ($0.93); hence promoting more people to use the EasyCard
    Senior citizens/low income persons/children fares: NT$ 14 ($0.46)

  5. Re: Ciacci @ 3:34 pm PST

    Actually the comparison of the city of Taipei to LA County is comparable. The City of Los Angeles has only about 4 million citizens, has other cities trapped inside its more populous sections (West Hollywood, East LA, Culver City… even Pasadena) but still functions as the non-suburban part of the perceived city.

    It’s comparable to Boston. The city of Boston is only 585 thousand people and stops right at the river that slices its most dense point of population. The “Boston” people live in includes Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Medford, Newton, Quincy… in fact about 75 towns within route 128, about 3 million people.

    A city is a question of density. The comparison in the article seems fair.

    Besides we all know Los Angeles, city or county or concept, needs more non-surface mass transit. Take a look at Santa Monica and Fairfax on a work day and tell me a subway line to Hollywood and Highland wouldn’t solve a lot of problems and blend right in.

  6. Two other things that are notable in Taipei that could be used here are the announcements in four different languages – although many announcements are bilingual in English and Spanish, all of them should be – and the use of security officers to blow whistles at people when the train is about to leave. This is definitely necessary at Union Station and Seventh Street during the rush hour, since people try to board trains when the doors are about to close.

  7. Let’s see…like L.A., Taipei has a red line, a blue line, a gold line, a green line, a pink stub (maybe that’s our purple line)…and then they added a brown loop line. If you flip their map over, contort it some and put it on top of a map of L.A. , the brown loop line would fit right over the area between the 10 and the Santa Monica mountains. I see a loop line going from downtown to Echo Park/Dodger Stadium, up to Silverlake, around to the Sunset Strip, down Fairfax by Farmer’s Market then down to the Expo line…and yes, I am very envious!

  8. Taiwan held its first “free and fair” elections in 1991.

    Imagine the system Los Angeles might have had by now if the various Robert Moses-disciples, and NIMBY and BANANA factions in the area had been held in check in the years between 1949 and 1990.

  9. @Erik G.

    The issue has nothing to do with politics in Taiwan and NIMBYism in LA.

    If anything, the current mess is LA’s own fault for being duped by GM and it’s front company, National City Lines for letting them buy out our LARy Yellow Cars and PE Red Cars and having them being replaced with “more efficient buses.”

    All LA had to do was what SF did: “just say no.”

  10. Let’s see more of these reports from Asian cities–we hear a lot about Europe (which is fine) but much less about far more populous Asia.

  11. Agreed. Reporting on public transit in Europe and other US cities is fine, but an equal focus on public transit in Asia is needed just like this article.

    Look at how much their fares make more sense then ours. We can learn a lot just from Taiwan alone. Imagine what we can learn from other cities across Asia.

  12. “If you buy an EasyCard, you also get a 20% discount on fares — a great incentive for getting an EasyCard. Hint, hint.“

    “A transit rider on the Number 1 line who got on at Liuzhangli and going to Songshan Airport pays:
    Single journey ticket: NT$ 25 (approx $0.82)
    EasyCard: discounted to NT$ 20 ($0.66); hence promoting more people to use the EasyCard
    Senior citizens/low income persons/children fares: NT$ 10 ($0.33)

    In contrast, a person travelling longer from Muzha station to Songshan Airport pays:
    Single journey ticket: NT$ 35 (approx $1.15)
    EasyCard: discounted to NT$ 28 ($0.93); hence promoting more people to use the EasyCard
    Senior citizens/low income persons/children fares: NT$ 14 ($0.46)”

    LA Metro, PLEASE adopt a similar fare system! You’ll get more people to convert to TAP if you provide incentives like these!

  13. Taipei started construction on the MRT system in 1989… About the same time we started digging the red/purple line. The only difference is they never stopped digging.

  14. Definitely agree with discounts for TAP. Boston has been discounting smart-card fares since 2007, and nearly all regular users have one. They make transfers only available on the cards and not on paper tickets. The only people that still pay with paper tickets or cash tend to be tourists, suburbanites, or commuter-rail pass holders (they get access to all transit with their pass but they are not issued on smart-cards yet). The time you save when boarding passengers is enormous.

    Plus, they GIVE away the cards for free. I think that helps tremendously, too!