Taiwan is a relatively small, mountaineous island, but it can boast a surprisingly developed network of public transportation, both city and intercity. The transportation is convenient, comfortable and affordable. The following lines list various means of transportation with their pros and cons.
There is a network of airports covering all major cities as well as outlying islands. Given the small size of the island it may seem a bit of extravaganza to travel between what are basically adjacent cities on the western coast- especially when you count in the time you spend on the way from the airport to downtown. On the other hand, air travel saves quite a bit of time when travelling to other islands (such as Orchid Islands or Penghu) or to cities on the eastern coast where other means of transportation are slower due to geographical characteristics of the island. Air time generally does not exceed one hour.
There are regular services to major islands off Taiwan, mostly from Kaohxiung and Taidong (though there are numerous other cargo, fishing and international ports around the island such as Keelung and Taizhong). The trips take considerably longer than air flights while differences in fare are rather negligible. A trip to Orchid Island will cost you around NTD 1200 by plane (about 20 minutes) and NTD 1000 by boat (about 3 hours). Some cities such as Tamsui and Kaohxiung also have local ferries accross rivers and ports. Prices hover around NTD 15 (USD 0.50).
Taiwan High Speed Rail launched service in 2005. It combines European (rails) and Japanese (trains) technologies and presents a viable alternative to air travel. There is a single line in operation that runs along the western coast and services most major cities between Taipei and Kaohxiung. The trip between the two largest cities takes about 90 minutes. However, some stations are located far from city centers and use of local transportation is necessary. Furthermore, cities along the eastern coast are not serviced.
There are two major lines – one along the eastern and one along the western coast. Trains are generally clean, but booking a seat might be a challenge, in particular on weekends or public holidays. There are three different categories of trains, the fastest – and naturally also the most expensive – of them being Ziqiang (Express). Surprisingly, in some areas trains are the cheapest way of transportation, cheaper than buses, therefore it is adviseable to compare the two before purchasing a ticket.
There are numerous private companies operating luxurious long-distance coaches even though the focus of their operations is in the heavily populated western half of the island. Competition has pushed the prices really low, a trip from Taipei to Taizhong may cost as little as NTD 200 (USD 7). On the other hand, very few companies operate on the eastern coast and prices are consequently considerably higher. Guoguang is the state-run company with the longest tradition but not necessarily the best service and equipment.
All major cities have networks of city buses, which also serve adjacent towns and villages. The most extensive one can be found in the capital of Taipei, single fare is NTD 15 for adults and NTD 12 for students. When boarding the bus look for the sign indicating when passengers are supposed to pay the fare (when getting on or off the bus) and pay accordingly. On the longer lines the bus may cross a “section border” in which case you need to pay double fare.
In the mid-1990s Taipei opened its first underground line and new lines have been added. The system is reffered to as MRT – Mass Rapid Transport and it has considerably alleviated city’s traffic situation in peak hours. Minimum fare is NTD 20, but with a purchase of a “Youyou” card (which can also be used on other means of transportation) you can enjoy a 20% discount. Smoking, eating and drinking is forbidden within the premises with heavy fines for offenders. A similar system was inaugurated in Kaohxiung in 2010. Both underground networks are very clean, fast, convenient and affordable means of transportation within the two cities.
Public transportation in Taiwan is generally very convenient and affordable, even though certain areas along the eastern coast have worse service. The government keeps investing into the infrastructure as well as into its promotion therefore it seems reasonable to expect further improvements.