The Mass Transit system here in Taipei is a wonder to behold, especially the trains, Taipei has a wonderful network of connected monorails and subways which can get you about this city with amazing speed and efficiency. Clean, modern, and well maintained, I have nothing but praise for the MRT (subway/monorail) system of Taipei and suggest that anyone who visits this city make a point of trying it out.

That said, a few weeks ago I commented to Connie that if anything were to put me in the hospital in Taipei it wouldn’t be the incredibly aggressive cab drivers or the kamikaze scooter riders who all think they’re Kamen Rider. No, it would be a bus accident that would be the cause of Rob’s pain, but not being hit by a bus, oh no, being ON a bus.

You see, Taipei has what seems to me to be a rather unique bus system, and I have to say a generally clever one on the part of the Taipei city government. Basically, their whole bus system is privatized (or semi-privatized), with the city government creating the bus routes and providing the electronic pay-system that both the busses and the MRT use. (They use a cash-card system here for mass transit, a rather impressive one that doesn’t even require swiping your card, only holding it up to a sensor for a moment. ) So, the city controls the otherwise private bus companies through the pre-established routes and the fact that the city is still the one paying the bus companies to do what they do. Technically, any company can get in on the game, they just have to conform to the city standards and join the program, although primarily it seems to me that one company has most of the business based on what I’ve seen. The companies take care of their own gas, maintenance and staff, and the city just acts as a network controller directing things.

But, because of this system several quirks have popped up.

One of these quirks is that there are no bus schedules that I have seen, and this is because more than one company is providing service on the same route. These companies don’t co-ordinate with each other, and in fact seem to be in direct competition with each other a lot of the time. This leads to another major quirk of Taipei’s bus system, which is that unlike Canadian bus drivers who leisurely make their way around their routes, Taipei drivers RACE around their routes as fast as their bus will carry them. (If anyone has been on the bus of a driver in Canada finishing his shift for the day, you will have some idea of what this is like.) In fact, even though you are standing at a bus stop, unless a) you wave the driver down, b) someone on the bus wants to stop there or c) the bus is empty and he’s trying to attract people, the bus WILL NOT STOP FOR YOU. Sometimes this is a good thing, since if there’s nobody who wants to get on your bus can get you to your destination very quickly. But, sometimes the driver doesn’t notice you, at which point you get to watch your bus vanish in the distance and wait and pray for another one to come along who will notice you. (In all fairness, they do almost always notice you if there’s not another bus blocking their view.)

This has led to some of the bumpiest and most wild bus rides I have ever had in my life, and that’s just getting home from work. You never know when the bus will accelerate or slam on the breaks, and more than a few times I have been hurled forward if I didn’t have a tight enough grip when there wasn’t a seat. (And only “high risk” seats get seatbelts.)

Lest you think that only city drivers are that way, last weekend I had my first country bus ride as Connie, her mother and I went to the mountain city of Jiu Fen. (A former mining city literally sitting on top of a mountain that’s turned into a tourist town with quite the spectacular view.) We took a train there, and then a bus back, and I have to say it was quite the bus ride. Imagine doing 90kph down narrow mountain roads that are only 1.5 lanes wide and then dropping into even tighter village streets where are pedestrians, cars and animals everywhere without slowing down and you will have some idea of what I’m talking about. I can only compare it to the trench run from the first Star Wars movie (to be released) except replace the X-Wing with a Greyhound bus.

All said, however, I have to say that I have never seen any of these bus drivers get into an accident and they’ve got to be some of the most skilled bus drivers in the world. Just remember if you ever come here and ride the bus, you’ll need crash pads and a helmet.