All too often we are reminded of worsening congestion or pollution on our roads. The latest example concerns both. The Transport Department says private car ownership in Hong Kong rose 25 per cent in a decade to 63.4 cars per 1,000 people last year, while the length of road per person rose by only 1.7 per cent in the same period. So we waste more time and suffer more stress getting anywhere while we breathe more polluted air.
The Central-Wan Chai bypass will not give each driver much more road on average. But the expected completion in 2016 seems the earliest we can expect an effective package of measures to discourage unnecessary car ownership and usage, and convince people they are better off using our fine bus and rail systems. Key among them is electronic road pricing, which has reduced traffic congestion and pollution in London and Singapore. Officials say it cannot be introduced for the most congested areas of Hong Kong Island until the bypass provides an alternative. That is debatable. As Undersecretary for the Environment Christine Loh Kung-wai told a recent air quality conference, Hong Kong was the first city in the world to study electronic road pricing, but more than 30 years later still had not reached a consensus about it.
Consensus means agreement with or acceptance of a point of view or course of action within a group, which taken literally is a recipe for inaction. Practical consensus sometimes calls for disregard for a rump of self-interested dissent that ill serves the majority or public interest. In this case public health is a good example of the latter.
Other measures to discourage ownership and use of private cars depend on enforcement. Electronic road pricing, which can be flexible according to peak and off-peak hours, gets round this problem and ensures that busy roads are used mainly by people who really need to. Combined with existing high fuel taxes and vehicle licensing fees it offers the most effective incentive to responsible car ownership and usage.