Restricting car usage is the only effective way to cut air pollution in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 3:02pm

On January 6, legislator Charles Mok raised a question during a Legislative Council meeting on the proposal of rezoning Des Voeux Road Central into a tram and pedestrian area. He asked if the government had assessed the proposal and if the air pollution problem in Central has been alleviated. In the written reply, the Secretary for Transport and Housing, Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, quoted figures from the Environmental Protection Department and claimed that significant improvement in roadside air quality was achieved.

I beg to differ. He said the data showed that between 2010 and 2015, the concentrations of different pollutants in Central decreased. However, studying the level of nitrogen dioxide, an important indicator of roadside air pollution, we found that 2013, 2011 and 2010 actually recorded the highest readings of nitrogen dioxide respectively since 1998. To take a 10-year review, we would see that in 2006, the annual average concentration of nitrogen dioxide in Central was 96µmicrograms per cubic metre; whereas in 2015, it was 93µmicrograms per cubic metre. Strictly speaking, there was little improvement for a whole decade.

A main factor contributing to the high level of nitrogen dioxide is traffic congestion. From 2003 to 2013, the number of vehicles increased by 30 per cent from 524,000 to 681,000. During the same period, the average car journey speed in urban areas dropped by about 11 per cent from 25.6km/h to 22.7km/h. In some road sections in Central during morning peak hours, the average car journey speeds even dropped to 12km/h! Although measures such as the replacement of old diesel vehicles and the retrofitting of selective catalytic converters for LPG vehicles helped alleviate the pollution problem, the uncurbed growth of private cars rendered attempts to clean up roadside air impossible.

Clean Air Network believes demand-led management of private cars is the only effective means to ease congestion and lower roadside air pollution in Hong Kong. We need to lower the road usage of cars and redevelop pedestrian networks. Putting people first has been the sustainability trend elsewhere in the world.

To quote the secretary’s speech at the Walk 21 Vienna 2015 International Conference: “We need a mindset change in the community, among different stakeholders, as much as a paradigm shift among policymakers and transport specialists to move away from an unduly vehicular-based or biased mobility perspective.”

We hope the authorities will not just talk the talk but, literally, walk the walk.

Kwong Sum Yin, chief executive officer, Clean Air Network