Missing the bus, and just about everything else

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 September, 2009, 12:00am

Hong Kong has wandered into several cul-de-sacs simultaneously. In so many areas we seem to have reached a point where we cannot make progress because of constitutional, institutional or intellectual sclerosis.

The current debate over the revision of our air quality objectives is a case in point. The revised objectives will set new benchmarks and drive policy for cleaning up our polluted air, and the public has very quickly grasped the essentials: air pollution, as it affects the man in the street, is primarily generated by traffic; buses account for 40 per cent of roadside emissions, so buses are a priority.

Reducing bus emissions through rationalisation of bus routes has limits. It is opposed by district councils, with good reason, because it reduces the convenience of public transport for the vast majority of citizens who use it. If further rationalisation of routes is not possible, then the only other solution lies in replacing the bus fleet with less polluting vehicles. This would require substantial capital investment and subsidies.

It is said that this would amount to 'nationalisation' of the bus fleet (though not of the bus operators). It is interesting that this mirrors the proposal that government should subsidise our rail network by financing and owning the track and rolling stock, which is then leased to the MTR Corporation and KCRC.

Mere mention of the word 'subsidy' makes officials recoil in horror. 'Nationalisation' is looked upon as anathema and as fatally undermining Hong Kong's credibility as a free-market economy in the eyes of the world. Spending any of our accumulated billions 'will affect Hong Kong's credit rating'. These knee-jerk responses have to be challenged.

Once in a while, a city needs to reinvent itself and its leaders must look beyond the horizon. In the 1950s, the government launched the world's most ambitious public housing programme, a vast social welfare project, responding to a clear public need: free market ideals were set aside, no one worried about our rating, and Hong Kong's reputation for fiscal responsibility was not unduly affected.

The chief executive, however, continues to be concerned about our credit rating even though the government issues hardly any debt. If our accumulated surpluses can never be spent, why are they generated in the first place? Now is the time to return them to the community that generated them, in the form of capital investments in environmental and quality-of-life improvements - investments necessary to reinvent Hong Kong as a world-leading, 21st-century city.

Hong Kong has a curiously parochial instinct when it comes to trying something new. While encouraging innovation in industry, the government eschews innovation in policy. Other world cities are experimenting with novel transport solutions: bicycle usage has surged in many European cities following introduction of bicycle-friendly policies. Paris pioneered a convenient short-term bicycle rental scheme, now much emulated. Berlin is experimenting with hydrogen-powered buses. Trams and trolley buses are making a comeback. Sophisticated road-pricing systems are now possible (for example, permitting commercial deliveries during off-peak hours only).

Ports such as Long Beach and Singapore are unilaterally introducing pollution-reducing measures for ships, requiring them to burn cleaner fuel, for example, or making onshore electrical power connections available to avoid the running of diesel generators on toxic bunker fuel.

By contrast, our Transport Department continues to view cycling as a recreational activity, not a fundamental part of the transport mix. Electric trolley buses are almost certainly the best option to dramatically improve air quality in dense, level, urban areas, but a feasibility study in 2001 ruled them out for several reasons, including 'they are too quiet and people will walk into them'.

How can we forge a future for ourselves with these attitudes?

Markus Shaw is a businessman and environmentalist