Kilometers before Taipei is reached, it will appear next to the road: the expressway, nibbling at the sky. While some cars move on the ground, others rush along on the elevated lane. And this is not only on the edge of the city, but in the center too, where up to four lanes positioned one above the other guide the traffic. Is this the future of our roads?
© Johanna Wittmaack
Taipei has a population of 2.6 million on an area of some 270 square kilometers; this means a density of almost 10,000 people per square kilometer. It is clear that a city like this needs an intricately branching and effective road network to prevent traffic from coming to a standstill. Those who visit the city for the first time may walk through the streets in amazement and be swallowed up by all the noise and bustle – and nevertheless immediately feel they have understood something of the city’s traffic system.
The highway leading into the city is accompanied by a second road, built approximately ten meters higher. On the main traffic arteries there are even up to four levels, layered one above the other. The sky-scraping expressways are especially impressive: they are fast routes leading through the city, but have only a few exits. If you miss an exit, you have to drive a long extra distance. In the middle there are main roads with somewhat more turn-offs; and at the bottom are the normal main roads, which branch out into a fine capillary system of side roads and tracks.
A sea of noise and tail lights
© Johanna Wittmaack
Even on the normal roads, however, not all traffic is equal. For example, in Taipei buses run on special lanes. But even in the general mayhem of the public traffic lanes there is a hierarchy: moped riders are permitted to drive up to a zone specially reserved for them at traffic lights. To an outsider, who perceives the trend to smaller and smaller cars in European cities, it looks as if an attractive way has been found of inducing people to use the smallest vehicles possible – a moped carrying one or two persons instead of an almost empty car.
However, in truth the background to this is completely different, as Jason Chang, professor at the National Taiwan University and an adviser to the Taipei City Government in questions of transport policy and development, explains: “In the 1970s there was a significantly high number of accidents in Taipei due to the large number of mopeds and the confusing traffic situation. As a research assistant I therefore worked with a research group that was developing means of prevention. The stopping spaces in front of traffic lights were part of this: although the moped riders have priority, they have to wait for a special green light, for example, in order to make a turn off. We presented the scheme in 1985 – but the rule did not come into force until 1995. And then only because the chief of the Taipei traffic police at that time had listened to the lecture and was enthusiastic about the idea even then!”
© Johanna Wittmaack
Now the streets of Taipei have become unthinkable without this system, which gives visitors an impressive experience: when the light changes from red to green, it seems as if all hell has broken loose. As if in unison, all the engines roar, the moped riders sprint off, and the cars zoom along behind. A sea of noise and tail lights.
Higher, faster, further?
Could it be that the expressways too were originally built for a completely different reason than to divide the traffic as effectively as possible? “The first expressway was built to connect the first Taiwanese freeway to the city,” says Jason Chang. “But they have not been a success. They do not reduce the traffic during peak times. Apart from that they cut through the city and raise high the completely wrong people: those who drive a car instead of using public transport!” For him the future of traffic is therefore close to the ground, in the buses – and the metro system, which is entirely people-centered. In recent years the government has terminated two projects of elevated expressways in the city while putting bus lane and HOV (high occupancy vehicle) facilities on an expressway connecting city center and residential area.
If you are out and about in Taipei, you hardly notice them, in fact, because drivers do indeed use the lowest, multi-lane road most of the time, even though this involves hold-ups. It is unusual to get a “green wave”, i.e. the chance to drive through several traffic lights one after the other on green. Even outside the rush hour, cars stand in lines in front of and behind you, while mopeds snake their way through the stationary traffic. You benefit from the expressways only on trips to neighboring cities. In view of this, events like New Year’s Eve 2013, when the Taipei metro carried 2.06 million passengers in a single night, make it clear that expressways cannot be the solution for inner-city mobility.
© Höweler+Yoon Architecture
In Berlin and New York, too, traffic moves on elevated routes – however, they have never been used by cars, but by rail traffic. This is precisely the principle to which the architects Höweler + Yoon had recourse when they developed their proposals for the Audi Urban Future Award 2012. Their visuals show, for example, suspended rail vehicles that move through the city and make their mark on its appearance. However, the architects did not merely to take up existing concepts – they aim to make them fit for future needs, as workshops in the course of this year demonstrate.
In contrast to the expressways, their routes high above people’s heads are not made for individual traffic: they link the transport of goods and passengers. Trains will depart from a hub in Newark, according to their vision. Along the way individual modules can split off and use a many-branched network, until finally each part of the train reaches its destination. However, people and goods share the route for as long as possible. This reduces the environmental impact – and the noise of thousands of engines is abolished. If the system is sufficiently differentiated, roads as we know them could become obsolete; Höweler + Yoon have for example proposed a surface that could be changed as required from a road to a lawn.
© Audi Urban Future Initiative
In Taipei, by the way, this has already happened – though once and for all. The metro stations have been designed to be as inviting as possible, and some of them have been greened. In contrast to the expressways they do not separate residents on the two sides of the street. They bring them together.