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.