Government should stop coddling private road users
Philip Bowring says that a government flush with funds from land sales should nevertheless find better use for its billions than building roads that exacerbate jams and pollution
It has been said that the definition of a developed country is one where rich people take public transport. That certainly applies to most but the mega rich in places such as downtown Tokyo, New York and London. So those thinking about poverty issues in Hong Kong would do well to ask why so many people drive to work in this most dense of cities. That I am a car-driving beneficiary of the system here does not make me an admirer of it.
Top of the list of those who are only moderately well off but drive to free or low-cost parking spots near their work are civil servants. I do not have a count of the number of spaces available to them in prime locations but the assumption that driving to work is normal permeates many policies here, to the detriment of the vast majority who must use public transport.
Central is overprovided with parking spaces. Spaces there should be scarce and very expensive but they are not - in the Sydney central business district, cost averages HK$100 an hour and can go up to HK$150, compared with a maximum HK$30 here.
The colonial government's retreat from road pricing nearly 30 years ago in the face of taxi protests should have led to other means of limiting car usage. But, instead, the bureaucracy has pandered to minority interests by, for example, failing to raise the central Cross-Harbour Tunnel toll, thereby exacerbating congestion and pollution. Instead of discouraging car usage, it is now wasting HK$28 billion on the Wan Chai-Central bypass, a project whose logic can only be explained by reference to a bureaucracy that inhabits the numerous centrally located offices of the government and its offshoots.
Official attitudes of providing for the rich at the expense of the majority are further illustrated by the deliberate failure of the police to crack down on illegal parking of limousines in areas such as Central. How can the police make such a fuss about the possible Occupy Central movement when they have such contempt for the law they are supposed to enforce? How can Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying say he is focusing on poverty when the rich are given a free pass to park as they wish?
Instead of learning from these mistakes, or from cities in the van of urban planning, the government is now planning, and in some cases already building, a vast system of highways and spaghetti junctions for east Kowloon and the Kai Tak area as though it were trying to follow 1960s Los Angeles.
Road space is grossly underpriced in Hong Kong at a time when housing is grossly overpriced. There is a connection between such mispricing by a government which controls land supply. Proper road pricing would not only reduce the need for more new roads but would speed up the buses and mini-buses used by the majority.
Hong Kong generally has a very good public transport system, which is why more people should be required to use it by pricing private road use appropriately and not building unneeded roads with money extracted from land sales. Capital revenue can only be used for capital works. The higher the land price, the more the middle- and lower-income groups are squeezed and the more money the bureaucrats and their friends in the construction industry have to waste.
The government seems to prefer grandiose schemes of new roads to the minor improvements - a road or pedestrian overpass here, a bus bay there - that would improve traffic flow at a fraction of the cost.
As it is, the current expansion of MTR lines is long overdue while funds which might have gone on other new lines or on public housing sports and other facilities are being thrown down the drain of the high-speed rail to Shenzhen and the (motor traffic only) bridge to Zhuhai and Macau. Providing yet more space for vehicles is even more damaging to public health, given the miserable efforts to impose, let alone implement, meaningful emission controls for vehicles and local vessels.
The diversion of funds to unneeded projects in part explains why, after years of wringing its hands over cage homes and illegal and unsanitary subdivisions, huge numbers still live in these appalling conditions, unable to afford more, yet unable to get public housing. It explains why illegal subdivisions are tolerated - partly because they are owned by influential people and partly because the tenants have no alternative. No wonder slum landlordism is an attractive investment for civil servants.
Personally, I am not in favour of rent controls. But it should never be forgotten that Hong Kong had them for many years as the colonial government sought to respond to public outrage at landlord behaviour, at a time of immense housing shortages following the refugee influxes of the 1960s, by limiting annual increases. The controls were phased out in 1998.
The overall housing supply situation is now far from dire. However, diversion of Hong Kong's income from housing and public transport to wasteful infrastructure and fiscal reserves has contributed to the current housing problems and exacerbated inequality. Unfortunately, there is scant sign that blinkered, job-for-life civil servants recognise the issue.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator