New route for mainland cars
When mainland and Hong Kong interests and systems intersect, it often entails risk and reward. But, in the case of the proposed self-drive tour scheme, many in Hong Kong see only huge risks and little reward. In fact, fear has gripped the city since the government announced its intent to launch the scheme in stages, starting in April. People have taken to the streets to voice their opposition.
Though there is qualified support for Hongkongers to drive on the mainland, few want that same privilege extended to mainlanders here. Some people have argued that the scheme must be balanced, or it would be meaningless. But Hong Kong couldn't cope with or tolerate so many vehicles.
The downside is indisputable: more traffic jams on our already congested roads, more vehicular pollution in a city already choking with roadside pollutants.
Besides, mainland drivers are accustomed to driving on the right; Hongkongers drive on the left, making an accident all the more likely. Mainland cars and drivers are about as welcome in Hong Kong as pregnant mainland women crowding out the city's maternity wards.
Many Hong Kong drivers have said they may not even want to exercise such a privilege, as they are wary of the driving conditions and habits across the border. The enforcement system is different, and so is the driving culture.
Even for a hardened mainland traveller like me, after having logged countless kilometres on mainland roads, I am never tempted to actually get behind the wheel. I leave that to someone who knows how to navigate the hazards. Danger lurks everywhere, from hit-and-run gangs ready to waylay and extort drivers, to threats of violence. The horror stories are well known to those who venture north in their own cars.
And there's a similar story for mainland drivers coming to Hong Kong. Just because they have a valid driver's licence doesn't mean they are qualified to negotiate the city's traffic spider's web. Even some local drivers find crossing the harbour unnerving. The Hong Kong road system does not follow a grid pattern; the streets snake all over the place and far too many are one way. Besides, the fact that drivers here always seem to be in a rush leaves little margin for error for the hesitant.
Thus, any talk of full reciprocity is foolish and unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people, myself included. But a one-way scheme in favour of Hong Kong is neither fair nor feasible. Instead, what we need is a viable conservative alternative: a park-and-ride scheme.
For this concept to work, the government must provide adequate parking for inbound vehicles near key entry points, with convenient access to our public transit systems. This is the international trend in controlling access to congested downtown areas. We could set aside the big parcel of land in the western border-crossing area in the New Territories for this purpose.
Another massive parking area should be set up near the Lantau Island exit of the bridge linking us to Macau and Zuhai. This arrangement could have significant secondary benefits, with the construction of hotels and shopping malls close to the park-and-ride facilities for mainland visitors.
This arrangement would have the advantage of reaping economic benefits without incurring the ill-effects of pollution and congestion. The hotel industry would certainly welcome the boost in capacity.
Some would question why people would wish to drive across the border only to be forced to park some considerable way from their final destination. But, there is much to be said for the convenience of going through customs and immigration in the comfort of your own car, without being laden down with luggage and shopping bags. In the long term, a controlled merging of traffic between the two areas is inevitable.
Besides, without this two-way traffic, the bridge to Macau and Zhuhai would be nothing more than a white elephant.
Those who oppose the self-drive tour scheme cite Macau's decision to bar mainland private vehicles altogether. But Macau is a fraction of the area of Hong Kong, and lacks an underground transit system. Its narrow streets are already clogged with traffic. Besides, given Macau's small size, there is no spare space to build a massive parking lot to accommodate mainland cars. Its tourist sites are not scattered, and are easily accessible by other means. The situation is not comparable. If Macau is taken out of the equation when it comes to traffic on the bridge, Hong Kong has no choice but to uphold its end of the bargain.
To allay any concerns about mainland cars heading into the city when they were not supposed to, a special lane could be reserved for their use between the border crossing and car park, from which there would be no exit to the city centre.
Across the border, getting to inland cities not covered by the mainland's rail networks can be a frustrating and time-consuming exercise, often involving inconvenient and indirect transfers between different modes of transport. Nothing beats getting there in your own car.
With thoughtful planning, a smooth merger of Hong Kong and mainland self-drive traffic can be achieved. Killing the idea or trying to confine it to a one-way scheme just won't wash.
Michael Tien Puk-sun is vice-chairman of the New People's Party and Hong Kong deputy of the National People's Congress