Jake's View

Hong Kong’s Transport Department has its head poked deep into the sand

The department’s last big study on Hong Kong’s transport needs was published in 1999 and based on a population projection that has proved to be wide of the mark. Despite this, there is no word from the department on any revised plans

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 11:36pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 February, 2018, 11:36pm

Hong Kong saw the smallest population growth in nine years amid a surge in emigration and a persistently low birth rate, according to a government report released yesterday.

SCMP, February 14

What I see is an ostrich with its head poked so deep into the sand that it can neither see nor hear this highly unwelcome news. Stencilled across the body of this ostrich are the words Transport Department.

It is hardly an illusion. Ostriches would do well to take lessons from the department on how to ignore disconcerting facts. Our transport planners are past masters at it.

Take, for instance, their last big thoughts on our transports needs, Comprehensive Transport Study 3, published in 1999. I’ve looked and I’ve looked but I have seen no sign anywhere of a CTS4. CTS3 still governs our planning of transport infrastructure. And the key interesting thing about CTS3 is that it was based on a population projection of as many as 10.13 million people living in Hong Kong at the end of 2016.

There was also a low estimate, 8.18 million, but of course it would be imprudent to risk Hong Kong’s future by building transport infrastructure for the needs only of a low population estimate and so it was the high figure that went into the plans.

Money on Hong Kong’s high-speed rail can be better used elsewhere

Low figure indeed. Our population at the end of 2016 was 7.37 million and the gap between reality and even this low estimate is so wide that, in the demographic business, the CTS3 forecast counts as not even hitting the stands, let alone anywhere near the goal. As for that 10.13 million forecast, don’t burst your sides laughing.

Now I concede that forecasting is a difficult business and errors are to be expected. But what I then also expect is that forecasters will present themselves and say, “Ahem, got that call a little wrong. Give us a bit of time and we’ll see where we can straighten things out again.”

Thus I would have expected on this latest news of a nine-year low in population growth that the Transport Department would immediately have presented itself, made some apologetic noises about CTS3, formally withdrawn it and pledged to think again. But not a peep did I hear. It’s ostrich country out there, folks.

Of course, the Transport Department does not cook up its own population figures. It has to rely on the cooks in the Census and Statistics Department to help do this for it.

I use the terms “cooks” here because the census people also consistently overestimate population growth. The chart gives you an indication of how widely they have had it wrong in recent years. That top line in the chart, for instance, says that in 2010 they expected a population in 2038 of 8.9 million people.

Here’s why Hong Kong’s fare subsidy will hurt, instead of help

This was revised several times and by five years later the forecast for 2038 was down to 8.2 million. Well, at least they revise, which is more than the Transport Department is willing to do, but count on it that there will be yet further revisions and they will always be adjustments downwards.

Notice also from the chart that our statisticians now forecast that population growth will peak in the 2040s and decline from that point on.

Just what does this imply for our infrastructure needs?