Taipei Allows Expats Back Into Bike-Sharing Program After Uproar

(Bloomberg) -- The first time Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je heard foreign residents were to be excluded from Taipei’s much-loved bike-rental scheme was in the middle of an interview Tuesday afternoon. He turned his wrath on one of his aides, telling them to call the transport department.

“Tell them to fix the problem tonight,” he ordered, while simultaneously texting the head of the department himself. “They have to report to me tomorrow morning if they can’t fix it tonight.”

The YouBike issue, which triggered an online uproar from expats, highlighted the point Ko had made earlier in the interview with Bloomberg News: Taipei struggles to compete with the likes of Singapore and Hong Kong in attracting multinational companies and expatriates.

That may be changing, with the pro-democracy protests that have engulfed Hong Kong since June presenting an opportunity for Taipei to pitch itself as a good place to do business. The number of people moving from Hong Kong to Taiwan is set to reach its highest in at least four years in 2019, up 23% in the first 10 months of 2019 from a year earlier, according to the National Immigration Agency.

Taiwan’s more affordable housing and schools are among attractions. But while Ko has established a task force to attract businesses from Hong Kong, he conceded it had had little success so far.

“Taipei has to be more open, more multicultural.” he said. “In the end, foreign companies prefer Singapore.”

Presidential Ambitions

It’s that blunt style that has endeared the 60-year-old former surgeon to many residents of the city, leading to regular speculation he’ll one day seek Taiwan’s presidency. First elected as an political newcomer unattached to any party in 2014, Ko won a second term in a close-run election in November last year.

While he toyed with the idea of a run for the presidency in upcoming elections in January, he instead set up the Taiwan People’s Party, which will field 46 candidates in legislative elections running concurrently with the presidential vote.

He refused to confirm whether or not he will seek the presidency in the next election in 2024, but insisted he would prepare to do so.

“The future has too many unpredictable events. You should ask me in 2023,” he said, illustrating his thought processes with a scrawled series of formulas on scrap paper.

Angry Expats

Ko needed no time -- or calculations -- to make a decision on the YouBike issue.

That’s in part because Taipei is proud of its growing reputation among foreigners for quality of life and affordability. It’s been ranked the best city in the world for expats for two years running in a survey by InterNations, a network for people living abroad.

Ko touted his success in streamlining the application process for foreign businesses looking to invest in his city, with Taipei City’s approval of foreign investments climbed more than 50% to $8.8 billion in 2018.

“H&M were on the verge of giving up on opening a store in Taipei after spending months going from department to department getting all the right permits,” Ko said of Swedish clothing giant Hennes & Mauritz AB. “In the end I gave them the direct number to my office and told them if they have any more trouble to call me.”

H&M opened its first shop in Taipei in 2015. When asked if he hands his personal number out to every company looking to invest in Taipei, Ko said: “As long as you’re big or valuable enough.”

Frustrating Bureaucracy

Ko’s exasperation with slow and burdensome bureaucracy was evident in his response to the YouBike fiasco.

The 10-year-old bike-rental scheme is hugely popular among residents and a draw for visitors, with 26.6 million trips last year. Over the weekend, the company running the program informed frequent users that they would have to re-register. The wrinkle? Only ID numbers from citizens would be accepted, effectively shutting out Taiwan’s roughly 800,000 foreign residents.

When Bloomberg informed him of the issue, officials hastened to tell the mayor they were already working on a solution, saying it could be fixed by Christmas Eve. He demanded it be done immediately.

Within hours, the city said the issue was fixed, and foreign residents can now enjoy the orange and yellow bikes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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