Why the MTR is to blame for Hongkongers’ impatience

  • Peter Kammerer says Hongkongers are so used to the MTR running on time that when delays occur, on the subway or elsewhere, they have little patience with any inefficiency they encounter
PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 8:00pm

Patience is a virtue, so they say. But I have trouble getting a handle on that concept in Hong Kong, which surely is among the most impatient places on Earth. When a bus is a few minutes late or a shop door doesn’t open at an advertised hour and minute, there is foot-tapping and complaining. And, too often, the rush to an alternative can mean lost time and opportunities. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the MTR’s fault. Yes, the MTR subway system, the same network that so spectacularly fell apart recently, throwing Hong Kong’s morning commuting into chaos. The problem is that the MTR has a reputation for being on time, every time. Hongkongers praise it as a shining example of their city’s efficiency and even ability, and compare all other services against it.

Naturally, when there’s a glitch and the promised train doesn’t materialise every two minutes during peak times, commuters are flummoxed. When one doesn’t come in five minutes and an announcement warns that services could be delayed by up to 10 minutes or more because of signal problems, there’s panic.

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People with lots to do and not enough time tend to be impatient. But I wonder just how many of those would-be MTR passengers who hastily switched to above-ground transport that day really had that much to do.

Many found their decision to be costly; roads were immediately clogged and trips went from being an inconvenience to a nightmare. If they had cooled their heels and taken a deep breath instead of constantly watching the clock, they more than likely would have got where they were going hours earlier. My trip on the Island Line that day turned out to be smoother than usual. I arrived at my station at 10.30am just as the service was almost back to normal. The platform was nearly empty, as was the train when I boarded. I got to work five minutes earlier than usual.

But I was lucky that day. Had I had an appointment during the peak of the crisis, I too would have joined the rush for a bus, taxi or tram. Living in Hong Kong breeds impatience, as well as the agitation, aggression and snap decisions that often accompany it.

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I have these Hong Kong moments myself too frequently. I get in a supermarket line, think it’s moving too slow and switch to the next queue, only to notice the woman who was behind me has now paid, bagged her things and left, while I’m still stuck in the line for the cashier who has been counting out vouchers for a customer. Other times, I seethe as someone in front of me in the checkout line fumbles with their payment app or rummages in their wallet or pocket for change.

But impatience is also a by-product of the ever-growing complexity of modern life. The more technology we take on board, the more moving parts and complications we have to deal with. As schedules and social commitments expand, so does the risk of the various parts of our lives colliding. It is easier to lose control, and lose our cool.

Of course, the virtue of patience might be overstated; patience can hardly be a virtue if an important appointment or a good business deal is allowed to slip away, or when there is a far better use of time and energy than standing and waiting.

Still, the next time the MTR announces a delay, there a few things we could do instead of instantly going into impatience mode. First, take a deep breath. Then, assess just how important it is to get where we’re going on time. If the decision is to settle in and wait, there’s any number of entertainment options on our smartphone to keep us amused until services return to normal. The morning will pass more pleasantly, and the city will be better for it.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post