Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Taipei Centralization

In simple terms, spatial models consider labor concentrations and markets to calculate the optimal location for new factories. These models use straight-line distances to make the calculations. There are many limitations with such models, perhaps the most glaring is that the models ignore the role human psychology plays in decision making. An example of this is in the attempt to model the decision people must make about where to live, factoring population density, rents, size of domicile available and commuting time. This paper will explore the decision that people make regarding where to live by examining the variables involved in the choice. Further, the paper will attempt to determine whether there is a cultural difference in the perception of how far from his place of employment a particular worker will choose to live. Finally, the paper will include a comparison of particular workers in Taipei, Taiwan, ROC and Dallas, Texas, USA.

Classic spatial development theory asserts that factories are built in areas to minimize transportation costs of raw materials and finished goods. Walter Christaller, German geographer in 1930’s argued that in the ideal situation, (something he called his Central Place Theory or CPT), which he defined as an even, undifferentiated plain with unlimited transportation choices in every direction, capital would chose to locate factories where the aggregate transportation costs are lowest. As a corollary to this, people who would work in the factories would move adjacent to these work centers to provide the necessary labor. (University of Georgia, 2002) Christaller called the phenomenon whereby capital and labor coalesce around a particularly useful point to both, centralization. Further, Christaller's also based his model on the premise that all goods and services are purchased by consumers from the nearest central place, that the demands placed on all central places are similar, and that none of the central places make any excessive profit.

Taipei exemplifies Christaller’s theory. The vast majority of residents live quite close to their place of employment. The average commuting time for Taipei resident is 24 minutes. (Asiaweek, 2000) At the average commuting speed of 16.6 kilometers per hour (10 miles per hour), the average Taipei resident lives 6.64 kilometers or about 4 miles from his place of business. (UITP, 2003) This is in contrast to the United States’ city with the closest approximate population to Taipei, Chicago, Illinois. The average commuting time for residents in Chicago is 28.8 minutes. Since the average commuting speed is approximately 30 miles an hour, the average commuter lives 15 miles from work. This means the average Chicagoan lives 4 times farther from his work than the average resident of Taipei. For someone commuting to work 24 kilometers from home to Taipei’s city center would mean that person is commuting from Taoyuan or Keelung. Remarking to someone who lives in Taipei that one commutes from Taoyuan or Keelung would leave the listener aghast. In the personal experience of the author, remarking to Taipei residents that I live in Muzha has brought similar expressions of sympathy for my long commute to Taipei city center.

Taipei is an extremely dense city with approximately 9600 people per square kilometer. (Taipei City Government, 2000) Chicago is approximately ½ as dense as Taipei, with a 4921 persons per square kilometer. (Demographia.com, 2000) Living close to work in a city like Taipei to enjoy the benefits of a hassle-free commute does require tradeoffs. In the city center of Taipei, residents must endure small residential quarters and high per ping costs for those small quarters. Additionally, in the eyes of Westerners, the quality of living is much lower in Taipei than in cities in the West primarily because of the relative and absolute high population density of Taipei. Westerners have a perception that a city is too crowded and uncomfortable when the population density reaches a certain level. Sociologists have not pinpointed the exact level of density that triggers this reaction in Americans, but two general assertions can be made. 1) Culturally, Chinese seem more tolerant of higher levels of population density than Americans. 2) The population density of Taipei is in excess of the level with which most Americans are comfortable.

Upon reflection, the tolerance that that ethnic Chinese or more specifically, Taipei residents, seem to display may be less a function of cultural preferences than of economic and geographic necessity. As the dominant city in Taiwan, Taipei has attracted the preponderance of capital and therefore the preponderance of labor. However, Taipei’s severely constrained geography has given the people who have migrated in from China and from the countryside of Taiwan nowhere to go, literally, but up into ever smaller apartments in ever higher apartment buildings. Also, Taiwan’s relative lack of affluence compared to America’s level of affluence delayed the onset of the “car culture” in Taiwan that predominates in America, and around which American cities have grown.

Because cars are so important to Americans for transportation and some would argue, American’s personal identities, cities were forced to accommodate automobiles in ways that Taipei has not. And because cities could accommodate automobiles, Americans had the luxury of living farther out from the location of their work in the city, which meant the average American worker had and still has access to larger domiciles. With such access, there is little demand for smaller apartments closer in to the city center, when the savings in time is relatively minor. The American mental calculation is now skewed firmly towards a preference for larger homes, with the cost being slightly longer commutes in both time and in absolute distance.

As mentioned earlier, Taiwan spatial development proceeded along different lines out of necessity, a necessity that has brought about a cultural preference for the type of city living that predominates in Taipei. Since most residents of Taipei lack cars, almost every block provides all the shopping necessities for those who live on the block. Stores and restaurants are small and generalist and must fulfill what Christaller calls the “central place functions.” (University of Georgia, 2003) Taipei residents have expectations that all their central place functions will be provided in walking distance from their home and that their workplaces will be not much farther afield. Hence, their perception of distance will be informed by these expectations.

Americans are more sanguine about traveling longer distances for their central place functions. The combination of cities built to accommodate cars and the near ubiquity of cars in American households means that Americans can tolerate moving longer distances and time compared to what Taiwanese can tolerate.

Capitalists use American tolerance of distance to locate factories in areas that would be considered too far a commute were the located an equal distance from Taipei’s city center. As a result, capitalists in America can seek lower rents farther from cities confident that the supply of American labor will follow the factory. This phenomenon proves the adage that America is a place where 100 years is a long time and 100 miles is a short distance.

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