Disruption to motorists should be minimised

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 June, 2005, 12:00am

Traffic congestion has become part and parcel of everyday life in Hong Kong. But it is now more often referred to in terms of 'chaos'.

A virtual gridlock was predicted as a result of last month's toll rises at the Eastern Harbour Tunnel. This has not happened yet. But the threat remains. Chaos on the roads came, instead, from an unexpected source. Traffic was brought to a standstill when a strong storm swept through the city on May 9. An official probe into the problems that arose is now under way.

We can expect yet more disruption in the heart of the city tomorrow. This time, it is down to a decision made by the government. And the congestion could last for at least two years.

The Highways Department suddenly announced on Wednesday that a single-lane flyover at Victoria Park is to be demolished and a new one constructed. This is a big project that will not be completed until 2007. This work will result in vehicles travelling along several of the busiest routes in Hong Kong having to be diverted. Cross-harbour traffic will be affected. Chaos is being predicted.

It is difficult to understand why Hong Kong's road users have been given only three days to prepare for this major reworking of traffic flow arrangements. The announcement came out of the blue.

Efforts are now being made to publicise the new routes and to warn motorists of the likely congestion. Countdown signs are being placed along the roads concerned. But there is very little time left in which to get the message across.

This hurried approach contrasts with the six weeks of warnings to motorists that preceded the tunnel toll rise - and helped ease congestion.

The reasons put forward for building a new flyover may be sound. The single-lane bridge becomes heavily congested and the traffic spills over to hold up the flow in Victoria Park Road. The project will improve the situation - but we have to endure two years of disruption in order to achieve this. It is a high price to pay.

Sadly, this is the sort of daily annoyance to which the community has become accustomed. Much of the tourist centre in Tsim Sha Tsui suffered from traffic congestion and building works for two years while work was conducted on railway projects. Shops and hotels in the area suffered as a result. There were more than 100 claims for compensation.

Hong Kong often appears to be in a permanent state of construction. A walk through the city can often involve dodging sparks, getting covered in dust or having our ears assaulted by the noise of jackhammers. This is, to a certain extent, to be expected in a densely populated urban environment where buildings are constantly being knocked down and new ones built. Construction work will, in such a busy city as ours, always cause some disturbance.

But it is important to minimise the inconvenience. The digging up of roads, maintenance work by utility companies, and other infrastructure projects require careful monitoring. They should be carried out quickly and not be allowed to drag on for a day longer than necessary. Surely it is possible to come up with a scheme for the Causeway Bay flyover which does not take two years.

The traffic congestion in the centre of town, whether the result of toll rises, storms or infrastructure projects will, no doubt, be used by the government as evidence of the need for a bypass.

Planning chief Michael Suen Ming-yeung has suggested that the public has a straight choice between congestion and a new road in Wan Chai. But other ways of easing the problems have still not been fully explored. An electronic road pricing scheme should be given a try.

Motorists will, it is hoped, exercise common sense tomorrow, just as they did when the tunnel tolls increased. This will help limit the congestion.

But more warning of the flyover project was needed and - like so many works in our city - it should not cause disruption for so long.