Why Hong Kong needs fewer bridges to nowhere and more escalators, lifts and footbridges
- Richard Harris says the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge compares badly to smaller projects like the Mid-Levels escalator that has proved to be both cost-effective and useful
- The city is difficult to navigate and needs more infrastructure that will serve its ageing population
One day, they may call it the Marathon Bridge – its 42km-long expressway would be perfect for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Marathon in 2024.
The building of the magnificent Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge was marred by falsified safety tests and collapsing sea wall protection – and that’s what we know about. For all that, it is truly a spectacular engineering marvel to be proud of, an ambitious project almost entirely built across the sea. It should be – it cost enough.
The global media is quoting the cost of the bridge at US$20 billion (HK$160 billion) but we have no idea if this is accurate, as the Chinese government has not released the total cost. We do know that Hong Kong has put a whopping HK$120 billion into the project – eight times more than originally expected.
If Hong Kong’s share of the cost is 75 per cent, we have a right to be cross, for the bridge has little economic merit. It is impossible for a bridge to encourage development alongside, so it must develop the hinterlands at each end. This bridge serves three centres but two of them are already highly developed and too crowded to allow any more traffic. It will still be quicker to get from Sheung Wan to Macau by Jetfoil.
The Shenzhen-Zhongshan Bridge, due to open in 2024 further down the Pearl River, is much more cost-effective. It connects two large areas of rapid development at a quarter of the cost. When open, it will eat the lunch of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, making it redundant – except for regular marathons.
Watch: What you need to know about the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
If you are looking for a political statement in infrastructure, the over-budget express train route from Kowloon to Shenzhen and Guangzhou is a much better example. The new, over-budget Heung Yuen Wai border crossing to the mainland is another. Despite the cost overruns, these projects will add great value to the economies of both conurbations.
The proposed new town development off Lantau Island indicates that our wealthy government still hasn’t learned that good infrastructure must be cost-effective. Hong Kong does not need to invest in any more grandiose, chest-beating infrastructure projects but in cheap, local and highly cost-effective measures.
We need more footbridges, walkways, people movers, escalators, lifts, ramps, moving walkways, subways, flyovers above black spots, slip roads, MTR extensions and tunnels. These would all make the city an easier and more efficient place to get around.
Hong Kong’s pedestrian bridges are a winner – a global envy that allow people unimpeded, all-weather, sometimes air-conditioned access and an extra chance to shop in top-grade retail space. The Mid-Levels escalator is a huge success story and the catalyst for cool SoHo.
It cost as little as a sea-view duplex nearby but it is still only one-way. The Sai Ying Pun escalator cost the same as an average Robinson Road flat it serves. Man Yee Building, Hopewell Centre and the Centrium open up different levels with lifts and escalators. In Monaco, tunnels have been driven into the mountain with lifts that take the public to different points uphill. That would be perfect for Wyndham Street and Western. Improving accessibility is great for business.
Watch: Is Hong Kong barrier-free?
Even these projects will need to be designed better. In 10 years, many Hong Kong people will be close to pension age. The city is not easy to get around if you have mobility issues. Broken pavements, crooked kerbs, street barriers, steep flights of steps, six lanes of fast-moving traffic and weak disabled-access legislation make Hong Kong an obstacle course. Even on the mainland, flights of stairs in public areas in bigger cities are often accompanied by a ramp for luggage and wheelchairs.
In Hong Kong, lifts to overhead walkways or the MTR are sporadic and inaccessible if you are on the wrong side of the street. It is almost impossible to get to street level on the MTR without negotiating stairs – unlike in Beijing and Singapore – or even to walk to the Airport Express via the streets in Central. On some new stations on the Island line, it can take a 200-metre walk to get outside.
Making Hong Kong more accessible is the innovative answer to modern city living and would cost a fraction of the “bridge to nowhere”. Its next step should be to build local cost-effective improvements for the many, not monuments to the egos of the few.
Richard Harris is chief executive of Port Shelter Investment and a veteran investment manager, banker, writer and broadcaster, and financial expert witness