City Weekend

Hong Kong urged to follow South Korea with free public transport days to fight air pollution

Advocacy group Clean Air Network argues policy set to launch in Seoul could be ‘beneficial’ locally

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2017, 12:03am

Hong Kong commuters should be offered free bus and MTR journeys on days when air pollution is high in order to reduce road congestion and harmful conditions, an environmental advocacy group has said.

The Clean Air Network argued the city should follow the South Korean capital of Seoul’s lead by waiving public transport fares during rush hour on days when air pollutants reach dangerous levels.

From next month, Seoul will operate rush-hour trains and buses free of charge when the daily average density of ultra-fine dust in the capital reaches 50 micrograms, according to a recent report in The Korea Times.

Commenting on the policy, Clean Air Network campaign officer Winnie Tse Wing-lam said she would support its introduction in Hong Kong, but argued the initiative would need to be combined with more concerted government efforts.

“To have a day when transport is free to curb air pollution is a very good sign,” she said. “It is beneficial to the general public. But this policy alone is not enough. We also need specific limits on the numbers of cars being allowed in the city centre or congestion fee charges, as in London.”

Last month, air pollution in Hong Kong reached the city’s most serious category level at least three times, meaning children, the elderly and people with heart or respiratory issues were advised to stay indoors.

Nevertheless, a government report in May suggested Hong Kong was on track to hit international targets to cut air pollution by 2020.

The biggest progress, according to environment undersecretary Christine Loh Kung-wai, has been in reducing shipping emissions, largely thanks to legislation in 2015 requiring ships to switch to a cleaner fuel at berth.

But roadside air pollution continues to exceed the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended levels.

Tse called on officials to encourage a wider discussion of air pollution initiatives, as in Seoul, to help tackle the problem.

She claimed unnecessary bureaucracy in Hong Kong’s government departments meant it was difficult to see when greener transport policies would be introduced.

“I am not inside the minds of the government officials, so I cannot be sure of the possibility of this kind of initiative, but the problem is that this comes under the Transport and Housing Bureau, rather than the Environmental Protection Department, who have done a lot on this issue,” she said.

There’s no escape from Hong Kong’s choking air even in your home, study reveals

“We do not see them taking a proactive role to create a greener and more effective transport framework.”

She added that going outdoors in Hong Kong at any time of the year was “not a very healthy decision” and that air quality was “often below the WHO standards”.

An Environmental Protection Department spokesman said introducing a fare exemption for MTR and bus passengers would have a “minimal impact” on improving air quality because 90 per cent of daily commutes are made by public transport.