Why electric cars aren’t the best route to truly sustainable transport in Hong Kong

Evan Auyang says a green transport policy must include steps to curb the huge growth in vehicle numbers, adopt more technology, and promote walking and cycling

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 4:57pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 May, 2016, 4:59pm

Hail the adoption of electric cars in Hong Kong! Already a bestseller in the city, electric car maker Tesla recently announced it will soon launch a more affordable model. Crowds lined up at Tesla’s three showrooms across Hong Kong, even though the car won’t be ready until 2017. “It is very important to accelerate the transition to sustainable transport,” declared Telsa’s chief executive officer Elon Musk.

Is Hong Kong finally moving towards a more sustainable transport system? The government is certainly doing its share to promote the adoption of electric vehicles, having built more than 1,000 charging points across the city and offering tax incentives for the purchase of the cars. Indeed, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah personally leads the Steering Committee on the Promotion of Electric Vehicles, which includes six other secretaries (or their representatives), including the environment, transport and development secretaries, as well as business leaders in the sector. This indicates the importance the government places on the issue.

Makers of electric cars to benefit from coming boom in global demand

And let’s not forget, Hong Kong is No 1 in the world in terms of adoption of public transport. Ninety per cent of motorised journeys are made on public transport such as railways, buses and minibuses. This, coupled with the continued building of railways and the introduction of electric buses, plus increasing adoption of private electric cars, must mean Hong Kong is heading towards having the most sustainable transport system in the world, right? Not quite.

Hong Kong lags significantly behind the rest of the world in at least three areas of sustainable transport policymaking: road space and congestion management; adoption of technology; and embracing cycling and walking as a popular means of longer-distance transport.

Hong Kong does not have a good vision of road space usage

First, Hong Kong does not have a good vision of road space usage. This is clear from the worsening congestion on our roads, which is spreading beyond the traditionally busy areas such as Central. Now, traffic jams are common in Kowloon East (supposedly the emerging second central business district), Sha Tin, Tseung Kwan O, Tuen Mun and even Yuen Long.

The cause is the unprecedented rise in the number of vehicles on the roads in recent years, particularly private cars. From 2006 to 2016, the number of private cars has increased by 46 per cent, from 390,000 to 570,000, while the population has risen by less than 7 per cent. This alone accounts for 95 per cent of the increase in the total number of vehicles over the past 10 years. Hong Kong’s road building averages less than 1 per cent (in kilometre terms) per year. This means the number of vehicles is growing much faster than our roads can accommodate.

The impact of uncontrolled vehicle growth cannot be underestimated. As congestion mounts, the road-based public transport system (that is, buses and minibuses), which carries 50 per cent of public transport users, deteriorates in performance. Indeed, average bus speeds have fallen significantly in recent years. Because railways cannot reach all areas of Hong Kong and are generally deemed uncomfortable during peak hours, this would spur the increasing adoption of private cars. A vicious cycle is then produced, of even more vehicles on the road and even more desire to own a car for comfort and convenience. In fact, this is precisely what has been happening in the past few years.

It will take more than electronic road pricing to ease traffic congestion in Hong Kong

Roads are like the blood vessels of a city – when they clog, economic activity slows. It’s possible to think of a handful of cities that have never lived up to their potential, such as Beijing, Bangkok and Mumbai, as the best international talent does not wish to live in severely congested cities.

Second, Hong Kong has been slow to adopt many sustainable transport and “smart city” practices. While it is truly world-class in its ability to build infrastructure, the city is not at the forefront in the adoption of IT-enabled demand-management tools. For example, many cities have heavily invested in smart information technology systems to control traffic flows, with major roads managed by sensors and cameras.

Illegally parked cars are ticketed from traffic control rooms rather than relying on physical enforcement. In Hong Kong, illegal parking takes up 60 per cent of traffic police time.

Driverless cars: time for Hong Kong to step on the gas and grasp the future

In congestion-conscious cities like London, smart systems have been implemented to automatically manage traffic flows along major corridors on a real-time basis. Where traffic flows are determined to be less than optimal, algorithms automatically adjust the phases of traffic signals.

Singapore has already established working groups to look into driverless vehicles. By utilising the research and development know-how of the private sector, it is on the cusp of launching a pilot driverless bus service as well as on-demand private driverless car services and shuttles. For Hong Kong to be a truly world-class city, we need to get to the cutting edge of technological adoption, and research and development.

Third, Hong Kong has yet to embrace the truly green options of walking and cycling. Globally, international cities have implemented new policies to promote these non-motorised forms of transport. Cities are now increasingly aware that walking is actually the most efficient and greenest way to travel short distances and, as a result, have invested heavily in widening pavements and closing off vehicle lanes to create green space.

Expanding pedestrian zones can solve Hong Kong’s congestion and air pollution problems

Pedestrianisation around New York’s Times Square has led to a dramatic fall in motorised traffic, while also cleaning up the air and allowing more tourists to take a pleasant stroll and shop in the area. Politically, this was very difficult initially, but citizens embraced the idea soon after it was implemented.

We must recognise that true sustainable transport goes well beyond just applauding the increased adoption of private electric vehicles and upgrading the city’s bus fleet and polluting diesel trucks. A more holistic approach is needed to imagine, then create, greener urban spaces for our future. It takes planning and execution. Moreover, it takes vision, knowledge and political courage to generate the right discussions to enable even small steps to be taken.

Evan Auyang is a board director of the independent think tank Civic Exchange