Hong Kong air pollution

Time to hit the brakes on Hong Kong’s runaway car numbers

Patrick Fung says if Hongkongers want to enjoy cleaner air and be free from crippling traffic congestion, the city must curb its vehicle growth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 February, 2017, 7:53pm

Hong Kong’s roadside air quality has continued to deteriorate despite the government’s strong efforts to control emissions. Blame it on the relentless growth in our road traffic.

Multiple factors lead to traffic congestion, of course, but a key factor – as identified by the Transport Advisory Committee – is the huge number of vehicles on our roads. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of licensed vehicles in Hong Kong increased by 35 per cent, compared with the growth rate of 16 per cent between 1996 and 2006. By the end of last year, the city had some 746,000 licensed vehicles. If the trend persists, Hong Kong will see a million vehicles by 2026.

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The movement of passengers and goods is important to an economy, but having more vehicles does not necessarily mean higher efficiency. Even worse, it imposes a hefty cost on everyone. To use a comparison, in the online world, we’re free to roam wherever we like, as long as our data plans allow for it. If too much traffic overloads a server, causing the website to shut down, we can always go to another website.

But, in the real world, congestion brings serious consequences for all. Being stuck in slow-moving vehicle queues wastes our time. More importantly, it affects our health. Clean Air Network recently analysed the patterns of our transport activities and air pollution, based on 2016 data, and arrived at two findings.

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First, traffic peak hours aligned with the pollution peak hours. The associated health risk escalated by as much as 2.6 times during peak hours, compared with quieter periods.

Second, areas with higher traffic volume also recorded higher air pollution. Nitrogen dioxide, odourless and colourless, is a key pollutant emitted mainly by road transport. Higher concentrations were found in the western parts of Hong Kong, compared with the east. Districts in New Territories West (Tuen Mun, Tsuen Wan and Kwai Chung) and Kowloon West (Sham Shui Po) recorded higher traffic volumes and higher levels of pollution.

Air pollution is not only an environmental issue, but also a threat to public health. Numerous findings have shown the short- and long-term physical and mental health effect of air pollution. The pollutants can linger, too, trapped by tall buildings and accumulating in the area, consequently affecting even more people. Traffic congestion exacerbates this problem.

Furthermore, not only pedestrians are affected, but drivers and passengers, too. A study conducted by an air quality expert at King’s College London showed that nitrogen dioxide levels are 2.5 times higher inside than outside the vehicle, due to the concentration effect of being in a confined space. Traffic congestion exacerbates this as well.

Since 2000, the government has invested some HK$14.3 billion to improve our air quality. While some improvements have been made to reduce particulate matter, roadside nitrogen dioxide levels remain unsafe, at present up to twice as high as the World Health Organisation standard. Our growing vehicle fleet is believed to be the culprit.

If nothing is done, it could get worse. With more cars, the demand will grow for more roads and parking spaces. Building more of these will attract more people to buy cars, thus creating a vicious cycle.

Hong Kong must target private cars to stop the city grinding to a halt

Several factors determine the number of vehicles on our roads. In Hong Kong, many people may have been persuaded to buy a car because of a growing (perceived) demand for mobility; it is relatively inexpensive to own and use a vehicle; and it is an attractive commuting option compared with other modes of transport. Of course, other considerations also come into play, such as personal preference, an individual’s or family’s overall economic situation, investment sentiments, and so on.

Though people are free to decide for themselves if they should buy a car, the transport system as a whole has to maintain a balance. When the uncontrolled growth of our vehicle fleet becomes a cause of congestion, it is a sign that our system has lost that balance – it is too heavily skewed towards catering for vehicles.

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The culture of “car is king” can be seen in different aspects of society, from the planning of our new development areas and infrastructure design, to the perception of the comfort and convenience of road vehicles. Had it not been so convenient to use a vehicle, the growth of our vehicle fleet would not have been so uncontrolled. Had our previous governments had the vision to learn from the examples of foreign cities that paid a heavy price for a car-dominated way of life, our city might have been built in a more sustainable way – one that accommodates biking and walking, and focuses on moving people, not cars.

This “car is king” culture cannot be changed overnight. However, a business-as-usual approach will only condemn Hong Kong people to persistent traffic congestion and, as a result, a lower standard of living. We need some intervention to right the balance of our transport system.

There are policy approaches and tools that have proven effective in controlling car numbers. For instance, Hong Kong could introduce various fiscal measures – such as higher first registration taxes, annual licence fees, and fuel levies – to curb the demand for and use of private cars.

The government should also implement a congestion charge. In that spirit, the proposed electronic road pricing pilot scheme in Central and neighbouring areas is a welcome change.

Other solutions have been made possible by technological advancement.The government could make better use of technology to provide timely information to commuters, improve traffic light coordination, and ensure strict enforce­ment against illegal parking.

Even with the implementation of all these measures, however, the core problem may still remain. As Hong Kong braces itself for a larger population in the years to come and more cross-border transport of people and goods, in addition to the high demand for mobility, we desperately need a visionary transport policy, other than the same old tune of “railways as the backbone of our public transport system”.

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In parallel, there are emerging opportunities in the technological breakthroughs and innovative ideas that many believe will soon be realised, such as driverless vehicles, shared mobility, connectivity and data-driven services, and so on.

Is our next chief executive and administration prepared to seize the opportunity to plan for a better transport system, for the sake of cleaner air?

Patrick Fung is chief executive officer of Clean Air Network