Congestion fee best way to clear roads

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2012, 12:00am


Drivers expect traffic to flow smoothly, but are unenthusiastic when it is suggested that they be charged to use roads to ease gridlock and reduce air pollution. A recent announcement by Shenzhen authorities that a congestion fee will be introduced in 2016 was, unsurprisingly, met with displeasure. It is why Hong Kong baulks at the idea, despite our streets being perhaps more jammed per kilometre than any others in the world. As Singapore, London and a handful of other large cities have shown, though, it is the best way to ensure timely and frustration-free travel.

Shenzhen's problem, like that of many cities across the mainland, is an explosion in private car ownership. With two million registered vehicles, only Beijing has more. Like the capital, it is struggling to deal with the influx, its road-building and public transport infrastructure efforts always far behind the surging volume. Hitting owners with high taxes and licence fees, as Hong Kong has done, is not good for the car industry, and with the rapid expansion of cities many people need their own means to get to work from far-flung suburbs; other ways to ease congestion have to be found.

Fast-tracking rail and bus systems is not wholly the answer - private vehicle ownership can also be about status. Requiring drivers to leave cars at home on certain days, restricting the use of those that are older or more polluting and offering incentives to use public transport, also proposed by Shenzhen, have been tried and tested elsewhere with limited effect. All require enforcement, a matter that the mainland, with corruption so rife, is not good at. Electronic road pricing largely gets around those hurdles by ensuring that roads are only used by people who really need to take to them.

It is a model Hong Kong's government refuses to implement despite serious congestion on access roads leading to the Cross Harbour Tunnel and deteriorating conditions across the city. Shenzhen has 300 vehicles per kilometre of road, but we have even more. The average traffic speed on Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon in 2010 dropped 5.1 per cent from two years earlier to 22.2km/h and the number of registered vehicles has since risen by about 22,500. Licensing charges have been increased, but making ownership exorbitant obviously still does not outweigh the cachet or convince drivers that they are better off using our fine rail and bus systems.

Building more roads is not tenable when land is so limited. Roadside air pollution is getting worse and the increased traffic volume is to blame. A scheme permitting vehicles from the mainland here and the bridge linking Hong Kong, Zhuhai and Macau will boost numbers. Taking the route planned by Shenzhen and already implemented so successfully by London is the most viable solution.