I was in Taipei the past few weeks working on a documentary with friends. Because of a busy schedule, it wasn't like my usual travels abroad for fun, it felt more like a work trip. Still, even if I'd been there purely for vacation, I would've wanted to try a different mode of travel, one less focused on eating at nice restaurants or visiting notable tourist destinations and ticking them off the list like some big game hunter hoping to stuff and mount my quarry on Instagram.
Instead, inspired by my last visit to Italy, in which I spent many weeks wandering cities with knowledgeable locals, listening to them discuss their views on the past, present, and future of their country, culture, and institutions, I've been contemplating how to evolve my travel approach to gather more than just photos and memories.
I didn't have time to really put this fully into practice this trip. However, insight comes in odd ways. While filming in a cram school district of Taipei, I posted this photo of an alley to Instagram, wondering in my caption why American alleys did not contain such a density of food stalls and stands and restaurants.
In the comments on my photo, a friend asked me where all the trash in Taipei went? Indeed, I didn't see trash piled up on the sidewalks, or anywhere in public. In fact, much of the trip I couldn't even find a public trash can in which to throw out empty boba tea cups or the plastic wrap around whatever snack from 7-11 I'd just inhaled during a break in shooting. Why were there so few trash cans, and where was all the trash? That mystery led me down a rabbit hole.
I happened to interview some government officials for the documentary, and after those would wind down, or during breaks, I asked some of them to talk about trash collection in Taipei. They gave me an overview, the details of which I filled in online.
Like New York City, Taiwan once had trash piled up on sidewalks awaiting collection. As anyone who's ever wandered through New York City in the summer, huge heaps of trash on sidewalks, baking in the humid summer heat, are one of the city's least attractive features. It's not just the stench or the reduced sidewalk surface for pedestrians but the occasional rat nearly scurrying over one's feet that can induce regular surges of revulsion and horror.
New York City doesn't have many alleys. In contrast, if you've ever been to Chicago, you'll encounter many alleys between city buildings, and rather than pile trash on sidewalks, residents and businesses stash it in trash bins sitting in those alleys.
According to Michael Martin, alley expert and professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, the “why alleys” question is easy to answer. You just have to go back to the late 1700s, decades before Chicago was founded. America was young, and had hardly touched any of its newest territories to the west.
“There's one thing you can do without having to explore all of it,” says Martin. “Lay a grid over that giant swath of land, and divide it up in ways that you can then take that land and you can sell it, you can deed it over to people.”
The federal government’s National Land Ordinance of 1785 imposed a massive grid over everything west of the Ohio River, dividing uncharted territory into square townships, each 36 square miles in size. Those townships were then sliced into progressively smaller sections, all the way down to the city block.
“As you think about finer and finer scales of design, what's happening is those squares are being infilled and infilled,” says Martin. “The big grid was always the framework within which people developed things, and that leads to towns having square blocks, and ultimately the alley inside of that block.”
Path dependence of development has a time dimension that impacts many aspects of the world, one of the things travel is good at teasing out. New York City was built earlier than Chicago. By the time it was time to develop Chicago, the grid design style had become prevalent.
The particulars came into play with the Illinois & Michigan Canal. In the 1820s, the U.S. Congress had granted the state of Illinois enough land to dig a canal to connect Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. The state planned to finance the construction by establishing towns along the canal and selling the land to developers.
The I&M Canal Commission hired surveyor James Thompson to lay out Chicago at the eastern end of the canal in 1830. To attract prospective land buyers, the General Assembly ordered that the new town of Chicago be “subdivided into town lots, streets, and alleys, as in their best judgment will best promote the interest of the said canal fund.”
In the American consciousness and pop culture, the alley is a place of danger and grime. It's where Bruce Wayne's parents were shot and Batman birthed, a place of drug deals, prostitution, gang fights, and dumpsters. This squalid reputation may trace back to the functional roots of the alley in America.
The city [Chicago] was a filthy, stinky, disease-ridden place in those days. Rear service lanes were essential for collecting trash, delivering coal, and stowing human waste — basically, keeping anything unpleasant away from living quarters.
“This was one of the reason why alleys have this dark and nasty reputation,” says Martin. “They were very much the grimy service part of daily life. It wasn't expected that this would be a well-maintained landscape; it was kind of a landscape of raw utility.”
Despite that, alleys do offer Chicago a place to stow trash that in NYC would pile up on sidewalks. However, Taipei has alleys that don't house trash dumpsters and are an improvement, to my mind, over Chicago alleys in their contribution to civic life. How does Taipei manage it?
Once, like New York City, Taipei had trash piled up in public, the stench of trash stewing in the tropical weather permeating the city and attracting rats. In an effort to remove this highly visible trapping of third world status, the government made a concerted effort starting in the mid-80's to overhaul their trash collection policies.
“Für Elise” is one of the world’s most widely-recognized pieces of music. The Beethoven melody has been played by pianists the world over, and its near-universal recognition has been used to attract customers for companies as big as McDonald’s and as small as your local ice-cream truck. But if you hear the song playing on the streets of Taiwan, accompanied by the low grumble of an engine, the only ice-cream you’ll find if you follow the tune will be the soupy remains of a neighbor’s Häagen-Dazs. In Taiwan, “Für Elise” means it is time to take out your trash. Directly out to the truck. Yourself.
In the capital city of Taipei, trucks play two different songs along their garbage-routes (the other one is “A Maiden’s Prayer” by composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska).
Five nights a week, Taipei residents head to out to designated street corners, where the yellow garbage trucks will stop for a few minutes (and turn off their music), so that people toss their bags of trash in themselves.
Having shot a documentary outdoors for almost two weeks in Taipei, I'm by now well-acquainted with these garbage trucks. It's a nightmare for sound recording as the musical chimes from the trucks makes it very difficult to edit around footage in post.
However, seeing citizens lining the sidewalks, official government required blue trash bags in hand, was a remarkable vision of civic cooperation. The idea that trash collection would occur multiple times a day, five or six times a week, is stunning to this American. In effect, Taiwan moved to a just-in-time trash collection system. As noted in this article:
This ‘trash-doesn’t-touch-the-ground’ system makes each person responsible for his or her personal consumption. Every plastic fork, every bottled beverage, and every food scrap needs to be accounted for by its consumer. The implementation of a few clever policies encourages this new relationship with trash.
It’s compulsory for the people of Taiwan to use a special blue ‘City of Taipei’ garbage bag to dispose of general waste. They’re available at most corner stores and come in different sizes, ranging from 3 to 120 liters. On the other hand, recycling is free and can be brought to the truck in any kind of bag.
This encourages people to recycle more and produce less trash.
What did this have to do with the paucity of public trash receptacles which also forced me to carry plastic wrappers and bottles in my pocket as we wandered around the city? City officials discovered that citizens had been skirting recycling mandates by dumping things in public trash bins. To increase recycling compliance, the government removed public trash receptacles, conducted occasional audits of trash and recycling when the trucks came by, and started posting videos of and fining violators.
All together, these policies have been remarkably effective.
[Taiwan was] producing 3,296 tonnes per day and recycling only 5% of it. Today, they have reduced that number by more than 2/3, of which they recycle an impressive 55%.
The difference in philosophy and ownership of trash collection between the United States and Taiwan is striking.
The difference between Taiwan and other nations is the way waste management sits in the public’s consciousness. In the US, waste management is run by private companies. Companies place the emphasis on quality of service, aiming to reduce the burden on the consumer.
People don’t have to think about the amount of trash they produce – once it’s in the can, it’s no longer their responsibility. Garbage trucks come in the dead hour of the night or during office hours, to be as inconspicuous as possible.
For some problems, achieving a breakthrough requires a holistic solution, with interlinked policies as Taiwan implemented to avoid any Cobra effects.
It depresses me to think of San Francisco's reactionary, incrementalist governance in comparison. The MTA recently voted unanimously to cap the number of total electric scooters in the city to 1,250 for the first year of testing. That's among five different rental companies.
I don't mind that government agencies implement codes and regulations; some policies save lives, like earthquake and fire building codes. But the incrementalist approach likely dooms the city to a series of local maximums at best, and at worst locks out all the dynamic improvements that characterize the most vibrant systems.
Electric scooters might be a wonderful addition to the city's transportation options, but it's something that needs to be tested at scale because it's a solution that depends on scale for a good customer experience. I've tried to take electric scooters a few times, and either the nearest one is too far away, or the one I walk up to has a dead battery. If you limit the number of scooters during a test you might as well just ban them.
A much more vibrant and livable San Francisco likely involves something like 25-50% fewer cars, sidewalks 50% wider, buildings 50% taller, twice the population density, and 25X the number of electric scooters, just to throw out some back of the envelope guesses of enough magnitude to alter one's conception of the city in a significant way. But no incrementalist approach will get the city there.