Don't let road congestion choke Hong Kong's development

Richard Vuylsteke says HK needs a better integrated transport policy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2013, 2:34am

The quality and efficiency of Hong Kong's MTR receive rave reviews from residents and visitors alike. It's a world-class system for Asia's "world city". Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the city's road transport.

Hong Kong's "above-ground" transport is running into major challenges. The key issues are: increasing traffic congestion, decreasing convenience, and worsening roadside air pollution. Each of these issues must be resolved for Hong Kong to maintain its competitiveness.

Traffic conditions on major roads are noticeably worsening. According to government data, average vehicle speed on Lung Cheung Road (an expressway) has declined by 40 per cent from 2005 to 2010, and on Waterloo Road (a commuter artery) by 22 per cent.

Bus journey times have increased; data from KMB shows 99 per cent of its routes experiencing increased journey times, with the rise an average of 16 per cent. Worsening congestion means more delays for commuters and a higher toll on the environment.

The delays and variability of road transport naturally push commuters to use the subways, which is environmentally friendly. But railway crowding and the rising wealth of the middle class are pushing people back to road transport - this time in the form of private cars.

Indeed, over the past five years, 97 per cent of the growth in passenger vehicles has come from private cars. To meet the public's increasing point-to-point transport needs, Hong Kong needs a faster and more efficient bus system to complement the railways.

But within today's bus network, there are many routes that have become redundant, slow and circuitous. Worse yet, numerous routes with empty buses are not permitted to be efficiently restructured. This has to change.

Many would agree that the polluted air of Hong Kong is not what should be expected from Asia's world city.

While the debate on solving the roadside air pollution problem has primarily focused on upgrading vehicles (which is highly costly), Hong Kong has not adequately explored how employing better traffic management practices and better traffic enforcement - genuine low-cost solutions - could help the problem.

Motorists constantly complain about how a few illegally parked vehicles on certain busy roads cause incessant congestion problems. Technology-based traffic management practices, as well as the setting up of congestion zones limiting vehicles in certain areas at certain times, are well worth exploring.

Hong Kong's success has been predicated on a "can do" attitude. Indeed, tackling these problems should not be so difficult if backed by sufficient will. Hong Kong has been trying to solve its transport issues predominantly through "supply side policies" such as building more railways and roads, and assisting in technology upgrades.

There has been inadequate focus on "demand side management", which is already employed by comparable cities such as London and Singapore.

This includes tackling traffic problems via better traffic enforcement, enhancing technology-enabled traffic management (for example, smart signalling, traffic diversion systems, and parking information systems), and, perhaps most importantly, creating a coherent and integrated public transport policy that helps the different public transport modes complement each other.

Having an efficient public transport system goes beyond an excellent railway system - all mass transport modes need to work together in order to achieve the highest possible efficiency and the best possible service for the people of Hong Kong .

Richard R. Vuylsteke is president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong