• Tue
  • Jul 29, 2014
  • Updated: 8:13am
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 1:52am

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

BIO

Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.
 

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

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This article is now closed to comments

John Adams
Part of the traffic problem in Central and other illegal parking/ waiting black spots is that although there are a lot of car parks the tycoons' drivers don't use them !
It's much more convenient for them to hang around on the roadside (usually with their engines running) waiting for their lord's or lady's beck and call than to use a public car park .
And if they do pick up a couple of parking fine or two each month, what is 2 x $320 compared to the cost of several hours in car parks/ day for several days per month ?
.
The police and traffic wardens have an official policy of NOT booking illegal waiting, even if on double yellow lines so : cars are just politely moved on, meaning that they circle the block and come back again 10 minutes later when the police themselves have moved on.
This is absurd , not to mention unjust !
johnyuan
It is all true unfortunately. Frankly, Hong Kong is a mess and accumulatively becoming messier. This hardcore blindness against rational living may due to the fact that Hong Kong unlike any other cities is made up of refugees mostly. Refugees are mentally tough people which each individual’s achievement becomes a testimony of one’s survival skill. One needs to possess wealth in the new found place to prove your survival skill. Just escaping from mainland China proves nothing.
…..
I am afraid the colonial governing policies exploited such mentality without favoring consideration for common good. Fifteen years since hangover, the old habits have gotten even worst. The divided flats again standingby, without a devastating hill fire, to welcome not only the newly arrivals but locals as well. Because there is money to be had this time even for civil servants who are landlords too privately. What a shame.
caractacus
15 years after the change of sovereignty Hong Kong's administration is under Beijing now and it is the task of the present rulers, not the past, to solve the present problems. Blaming the British colonial system is a poor excuse and rather like Robert Mugabe blaming the former colonial power for the corruption and massacres he and his party goons have perpretrated. Get over it.
And, by the way, at least the HK British administration, whilst having its faults, was constrained from extreme excesses by being answerable to a democratically elected Parliament. Now our HK rulers are answerable to a dictatorship whose ideological thugs won't allow even a modest measure of real autonomy.
johnyuan
Hong Kong is small in land area but large in population. The combination of these two characteristics makes the people difficult to turn around physically even. Besides a hardwired extreme survival instinct, the colonial system good and bad all have made the last fifteen years a challenge to change for Hong Kong. But Hong Kong must face its pasts to meet the challenge for change. The first fifteen years of hangover only shows what Hong Kong has had been.

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