Just building more roads and rail lines won't ease Hong Kong's congestion

Evan Auyang says to ease congestion, the government can learn from successes elsewhere to encourage more people to switch to public transport and better manage traffic movements

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 March, 2014, 12:40am

Hong Kong prides itself on running a world-class public transport system, but recently there has been much discussion about worsening congestion and roadside pollution. This is counter-intuitive, given the slight population increase averaging only 0.65 per cent per year during the past decade, while at the same time our railway system has dramatically increased its capacity to carry almost 50 per cent more passengers.

The crux of the problem lies in the city's over-reliance on "supply-side" solutions, where the focus has been on building more railways and roads, without fully exploring "demand-side" solutions that many global cities are now adopting.

This is best explained by the increase in the number of vehicles on Hong Kong's roads, from 524,249 in 2003 to 680,914 in 2013, with private cars accounting for most of this rise, with an increase from 338,930 to 475,752 vehicles. To put this imbalance in perspective, the number of private cars increased by 40 per cent while the population grew by only 6.7 per cent.

As a result of worsening congestion, journey times on KMB's services, for example, have increased on average by over 16 per cent in the past five years alone. Some routes are now forced to operate at average speeds far below acceptable international standards. In particular, the average speed on urban routes in Kowloon has dropped from 15.3km/h to 12.9km/h, while for some routes it has dropped to as low as 8km/h during peak hours - not much faster than walking.

Assuming that KMB's average 16 per cent increase of journey time applies to all franchised bus operators and public light buses, we estimate that the worsening congestion over the past five years has cost Hong Kong over HK$4 billion per year.

Worsening congestion is not unique to Hong Kong. While the city is a recognised leader in applying supply-side solutions, other comparable cities have implemented extensive demand-side traffic management practices that we can learn from.

First, we could prioritise mass transport while containing vehicle growth. Several cities, such as London and Singapore, have introduced congestion charging/electronic road pricing to discourage the use of private cars in the busiest areas and during peak periods. This is coupled with measures to make public transport, especially the high-capacity railways and buses, the preferred option.

Although this is not dissimilar to Hong Kong's approach, these cities have recently invested heavily to ensure buses are working more efficiently to complement the railways. Measures introduced include bus priority signals and dedicated bus lanes, to ensure average bus speeds improve year after year.

Such action was taken in recognition that if average bus speeds keep falling, it will ultimately result in more railway crowding and higher use of private cars. While Hong Kong's commuters do heavily utilise buses and public light buses, the declining efficiency of these transport modes is leading to more dissatisfaction, a loss of passengers and worsening congestion.

Second, we could employ smart technologies. Seoul has invested heavily in smart IT systems to manage traffic flows, with more than 95 per cent of the Korean capital's major roads being monitored by cameras. Illegally parked vehicles are ticketed via traffic control rooms rather than relying on police enforcement on the streets (illegal parking is said to take up 60 per cent of traffic police time in Hong Kong).

London has built a world-class IT- enabled traffic management system. The city's entire transport system - from railways to buses to private cars - is monitored centrally. Traffic flows at major junctions are automatically detected on a real-time basis, and if they are determined to be abnormal or suboptimal, algorithms automatically adjust the phasing of traffic signals. In addition, a traffic police unit assigned to the control room is able to co-ordinate intervention as and when necessary. Smart technology, plus inter-departmental co-operation, results in more effective intervention and fewer resources spent on traffic enforcement.

Third, improving junctions and pedestrian space could help. Take New York. Extensive work has been done to make the city more pedestrian-friendly. Walking is an important and efficient form of transport for short distances, and many cities have begun extensive programmes to improve things.

Under London mayor Boris Johnson's "Road Task Force", the city has launched a multi-year programme to improve road junctions and prioritise pedestrians over vehicles. This work entails studying the existing bottlenecks, expanding the road network's capacity, redesigning turns and improving safety.

Many cities are also promoting cycling as a major form of transport.

Fourth, given that congestion is at its worst during peak hours, many cities are implementing policies to keep traffic away during peak periods. For example, London provides incentives for non-time sensitive pick-ups and deliveries to take place outside peak hours. As city governments understand that not all transport movements are essential during peak hours, they have begun to introduce policies to shape behaviour that benefits everyone.

While recognising that these international best practices cannot simply be "imported" into Hong Kong without tailoring them to the city's environment and needs, we need to acknowledge that the population densities of the cities mentioned in this article are similar to Hong Kong's, and that a high population density alone is no barrier to introducing innovative demand-side traffic management practices.

There are clearly some "low hanging fruits" that Hong Kong can explore immediately, and the prize is large if we get this right; not only will we spend less time stuck in traffic, but the city will also be more efficient and less polluted.

Evan Auyang is deputy managing director of The Kowloon Motor Bus Company