When will Hong Kong tackle the health menace of congested roads?
Barry Wilson says the government is aware of the ills of roadside pollution and even the ways to reduce it, but seems unable to summon the will and courage needed to implement the solutions
There is a new realisation that air quality inside buildings can significantly affect health, productivity and happiness. The same is, of course, true for outside air quality, where one in nine deaths globally results from air pollution and the high costs of remedial health care far outweigh the preventive costs.
Awareness of the health issues from emissions should be of particular concern in Hong Kong, where congested streets are common, not to mention the psychological stress resulting from noise and safety issues.
Emissions include particulates from diesel engines, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and benzene. The 2014 Hong Kong Emission Inventory Report indicates that the road transport sector is the largest local air pollution source: 60 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions come from transport.
It’s not just exhaust fumes that are hurting us; brake dust, tyre fragments and even tiny bits of road can get into the air and these make up a similar proportion of the airborne particulate matter resulting from vehicle use as exhaust emissions. This problem won’t be solved by a switch to plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. In a study published recently in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the researchers described how vehicle-emitted metals such as copper, iron and manganese interact with acidic sulphate-rich particles already in the air to produce a toxic aerosol.
We need to start paying far more attention to air pollution caused by tyre, brake and road wear. Brake pad dust may come to be reduced through electric vehicle adoption because such vehicles mostly use regenerative braking, which usually needs no brake pads, but tyre and road dust will remain a problem.
Several countries and regions are in the process of implementing programmes to improve tyre efficiency and safety. Rating and labelling programmes along with compliance standards are important first steps. The installation of tyre pressure monitoring systems should become an effective strategy in reducing wear.
Maintaining a steady travel speed is a key factor in reducing pollutant emissions. Lower speeds require less intense wear on brakes. As well, driver behaviour in minimising unnecessary braking and avoiding excessively rapid acceleration becomes a key environmental issue. As such, traffic management features such as “stop lights and speed bumps” can adversely affect air quality. The use of traffic signal systems to improve air quality requires visionary design and committed institutional coordination that appears beyond most governments at present.
In trying to tackle vehicle emission pollution, there is really only one simple solution, and that is to reduce the number of vehicle journeys, particularly in densely populated areas. The Hong Kong Transport Department recognises this and lists a “reduction in vehicular traffic” as its primary “environmental objective”. It targets rationalising public transport services to reduce vehicular traffic and mitigate air pollution.
All well and good. However, the 10 years between 2003 and 2013 saw the overall number of road vehicles in Hong Kong increase by 30 per cent, from 524,000 to 681,000. The Transport Bureau has a responsibility to effectively manage road use, reduce congestion, promote safety and support environmental improvement measures, but unfortunately, it puts traffic efficiency over pollution as a priority. This must change.
During the above period, the average car journey speed in urban areas in fact dropped by about 11 per cent from 25.6km/h in 2003 to 22.7km/h in 2013, so it is getting nothing right.
Pedestrianisation of city centres gained popularity in Europe about 40 years ago, and is now a feature of most developed city-centre plans. The measures used include shade for paths, adopting attractive materials that dissipate heat, greening, integration with public transport and better pedestrian corridor links.
By contrast, pedestrians in Hong Kong, similar to those in developing countries, are generally poorly served. Pavements are often too narrow, inaccessible and behind barriers, in a poor state of repair or taken over by traders and parked vehicles. The consequence is that pedestrians are often forced to walk on the road. This is not only unsafe but increases proximity to exhaust emissions while contributing to impaired traffic flow, which in turn increases emissions.
The provision of adequate pedestrian facilities improves air quality by keeping traffic away from high-exposure locations and by encouraging walking as the preferred mode for short trips. Evidence shows that the integrated planning of urban land use, urban public transport and traffic management is the best basis for improving air quality in the most dense locations.
It seems the government is well aware of all the issues and potential solutions, and yet has no stomach for the fight. The 2014 report from the Transport Advisory Committee on congestion in Hong Kong highlighted that “traffic congestion will continue to erode the environment, sustainability, quality of life and competitiveness of the city and that immediate action is warranted”. That was more than three years ago, and simply led to the third resurrection of the electronic road pricing (ERP) pilot scheme for discussion, a congestion charging proposal first floated almost 30 years ago.
With limited land available in Hong Kong, the primary vision should be to reduce road capacity in the urban centres and enhance the pedestrian environment, connectivity and urban air quality as a direct means to enhancing public health and well-being. An immediate multifaceted approach which could be easily implemented at limited cost to the public is required. It could include ERP but must also focus on a clear programme of street rationalisation and pedestrianisation; the removal of on-street parking; a reduction of parking meters, along with significant and deterrent increases in meter charges; an increased level of traffic penalties; and, increased resources for enforcement.
Such measures require little capital cost, can be immediately and flexibly applied, and may have a significant impact on urban air quality and public health.
The provision of parking generates vehicle journeys. On-street parking is hostile to pedestrians and is provided at the expense of other, more productive investments in space. Where urban density is high, such as in Central District, parking is extremely capital-intensive, making its cost substantial. Most of all, the provision of parking tacitly subsidises car ownership since the vehicles are parked most of the time and ownership is easier if a car can be cheaply and reliably stored when it is not being driven. Removal of on-street parking and idling should be a simple and low-cost first step to reduce congestion.
The fight against public cigarette smoking was a long, drawn-out battle against common sense. Today, there has been an incredible shift in the social norm towards smoke-free environments; indoor workplaces and most public places, including restaurants, are now healthy places. Today, smoking is barely raised as an issue.
The battleground has now moved from indoors to out and needs similar decisive action from the government. As the youth of today like to say, “Just do it already”.
Barry Wilson is an urbanist, lecturer and professional consultant. www.initiatives.com.hk