Erenlai - Taipei’s Civility Engineering Project

Taipei’s Civility Engineering Project

by on Friday, 31 August 2012 Comments

Riding Taipei’s subway home from the recent Radiohead gig, I was struck by what should be a peculiar sight.

It was close to 11pm and the carriage had many more passengers than there were seats, yet no one was availing themselves of the dark blue Priority Seats reserved for elderly, frail and pregnant passengers, or those travelling with children. By the time I alighted the MRT eight stops later, not one passenger had taken a Priority Seat even though many remained standing.

The seats appeared to be saved for people who were not likely to board the train. Not many obasans ride in to Taipei Main Station at that late hour. Those passengers who were not elderly, frail or pregnant appeared unwilling to offend those that might sit in those seats, even though no such person was there. Perhaps though, the intended or possible presence of an obasan was enough to shape such cautionary behaviour. Such is the civil code of the MRT.

Officially labelled the Mass Rapid Transit, the MRT is an essential feature of daily life for those Taipei citizens without private transport. Only 15 years old and with new lines appearing every couple of years, the network is slowly diffusing throughout the bowels of the city. On an average June 2012 day, 1,588,700 people took advantage of the MRT’s punctual, clean and orderly service to travel around the system’s 101 stations .

More than just an ongoing civil engineering project, Taipei’s MRT is a civility engineering project.

It could be chaotic but it is not. Somehow the authorities have managed to instil a sense of cooperation into the riding public. Platform queues are orderly. Seats are yielded to those in need. Food and beverages are not consumed. Phone conversations are generally kept to a minimum.

For foreign visitors to Taipei, especially those unfamiliar with the Chinese language, the MRT is the easiest way to traverse the city. Were one to stay underground in the MRT system, one would think Taipei to be clean and cool; regimented and reliable. Such conceptions would be obliterated upon stepping up from the MRT station and into the frazzling pedestrian traffic and frying heat of the street. In that sense the train system underground serves as a panacea to the often frantic life above ground.

One part of the government’s project to train MRT passengers is an extensive set of posters hung in both trains and stations. These posters encourage proper behaviour both IN and OUT of the MRT.

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Passengers are exposed to a range of advertisements that seek to influence their behaviour. Having control over the walls of the stations and trains gives the government the opportunity to monopolise the advertising medium. Of course much space is given over to commercial advertising, whose valuable remittances help keep the MRT system afloat. But the endless entreaties to behave better are what really created an impression on me. The captive audience of the MRT is ideal for the government to impress upon its ideals of how to create a better city.

Do people live together in the MRT? Yes, they do. An unspoken code of behaviour exists. This is not without contradictions. Someone could bring on a box of freshly fried stinky tofu, and while the odor might be a bit much for some, as long as the offending passenger does not eat any then this is OK. However, if someone is feeling in need of a drink, which is common in the summertime heat island of downtown Taipei, then he would be advised not to sip from his water bottle, lest he incur a sharp look of disapproval from the nearest righteous passenger.

Such a stringent code of behaviour is not without failing though. The Priority Seats can be contentious, especially if you are sitting in one and do not look old or injured, or are not wearing the appropriate sticker. Of course, many injuries or illnesses are not perceptible from the outside. If you are sick or sore but do not look it, then your fellow passengers might take umbrage at your bold occupation of a Priority Seat. I once saw a lady vehemently defend her right to sit in the Priority Seat, even though there was an older (and at least visibly, more frail passenger) standing nearby. Confrontations of this sort are uncomfortable for those nearby but, at least to my knowledge, rare.

In a city where almost every available inch of space is utilised and contested, the MRT exists as a zone of relative harmony and compromise. It is not only citizens who take the MRT, but the city of Taipei also rides it on the way to a more civilised society.

 

 

Paul Farrelly (范寶文)

Paul is a PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra. His primary research interests are new religious movements and religious innovation in China and Taiwan.

Website: twitter.com/paul_farrelly
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