Carrie Lam deserves credit for speeding up Hong Kong’s war on traffic congestion with tunnel toll reform

David Dodwell says among the many bold measures in the chief executive’s policy address, the move to revise cross-harbour tunnel tolls is a step in the right direction that should be followed by an electronic road-pricing scheme

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2018, 10:31pm

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor must be given credit for beginning to tackle in her policy address some hitherto “untouchable” issues that have sat for decades in her predecessors’ “too difficult” baskets.

Most obvious is, of course, housing, but surely maternity leave and tackling the Mandatory Provident Fund offsetting mechanism count as serious efforts to break seemingly perpetual consultation cycles that have persistently kicked the can down the road on all tough decisions. Next, she might even summon the courage to tackle health insurance, village housing and electronic road congestion charging.

But meanwhile, on the subject of traffic congestion, her proposals to juggle tunnel fees to reduce perennial snarls at the Cross-Harbour Tunnel in Causeway Bay are also a landmark.

As a reasonably militant non-car owner, who has for the past 25 years entrusted my commuting life to our world-beating public transport system, I confess a deep indifference to the angst of car owners who whinge about the peak-hour crawl to work or king’s ransom car-parking charges. I stand firmly with the 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s 16 million daily commuters who care much more keenly about the speed and efficiency of our MTR, the challenge of “bus jams” into Central and even modernisation of our trams.

But tackling the gridlock around the Cross-Harbour Tunnel is in all our interests and Lam must be commended for biting the bullet. Only time will tell whether the exact arithmetic of the new charges successfully realigns cross-harbour traffic flows, persuading car owners to use the underused Western Harbour Tunnel more often. But simply getting tunnel operators to agree to adjust charges is a significant achievement. Combine it with an electronic road pricing ring around Central, and we might at last make serious progress in reducing traffic congestion.

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To be fair, complain as we do about traffic congestion and soaring car ownership, Hong Kong’s traffic problems pale when compared to most of the world’s big cities. Our draconian pricing regime that has kept cars expensive, made petrol and diesel prices among the most costly in the world, and made the price of parking prohibitive, has powerfully restrained the growth in car ownership.

According to Transport Department figures, only 72.7 people out of every 1,000 in Hong Kong own a vehicle. Worryingly, the number has risen 40 per cent in the past decade, but compares well with most of the world. Meanwhile, in the UK there are 469 cars per 1,000 people, 555 in Germany and 774 in New Zealand. Of the 300 million motor vehicles on the road in mainland China, two-thirds are cars.

Hong Kong’s low car ownership has been possible because of the massive and timely investment in public transport, in particular the MTR, and the very smart policy of building our new towns around MTR stations. The rail network carries around 5.2 million commuters every day, public buses and minibuses carrying a further 5.8 million, and taxis 1 million.

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Problematic is that a significant number of these try to squeeze through the cross-harbour tunnels. Note that Hong Kong has, in total, 16 road tunnels, but most of our problems focus on the three that help us get to and from Hong Kong Island. Buses carry 71 per cent of the people who travel by road every day, but account for less than a quarter of the traffic, while cars carry 16 per cent of the road travellers while accounting for up to 70 per cent of the traffic volume.

Cars carry 16 per cent of the road travellers while accounting for up to 70 per cent of the traffic volume

I have always queried how strongly the different cross-harbour tunnel charges influence which tunnel a driver chooses. Around three-quarters of all vehicles using the tunnels are private cars, and since car owners pay average annual operating expenses of over HK$160,000 and most use a car out of choice not need, I am tempted to think they are more driven by convenience and speed than the tunnel fee.

But Transport Department studies have consistently shown that changing the tunnel fee does change behaviour, while improving peak-hour travel speeds through Central above the present average of 20km/h and reducing air pollution.

So let’s be optimistic and hope that Lam’s new tunnel fee regime does indeed persuade more drivers to use the Western Harbour Tunnel, and that the elimination of fees on buses will keep fares down and induce at least a few of car owners to take the bus. Combine this with the completion of the underground Central bypass, and eventual opening of the Sha Tin-Central MTR line, and we might for the first time in decades see congestion relief along the north of Hong Kong Island.

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The government must stand firm in its determination to keep car ownership prohibitively expensive. In many countries, car ownership is a need rather than a want, because of the awful inadequacy of public transport choices. Intelligent preemptive development of excellent public transport in Hong Kong has ensured car ownership is a status symbol and a largely self-indulgent want rather than a family need.

Long may this remain true. If tinkering with cross-harbour fees helps keep our buses moving through the tunnels more speedily and street-level pollution down, so much the better. Why we need to wait until January 2020 to see the changes introduced, I do not know. Surely the sooner the better.

Next, we need electronic congestion charging (the government estimates that 40 per cent of car trips in the morning peak may be diverted to public transport by congestion charging, with a further 10 per cent changing the time of travel), rules to stop trucks making deliveries during peak hours, and perhaps more park-and-ride hubs. But perhaps Lam can only be expected to tackle so many untouchable issues at any one time.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view